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King's dream lives on at North Lawndale food pantry

Two church communities – one black, the other white – are working together to help families in need at the Harmony Community Church food pantry on Chicago's West Side.

Together, they hope to serve and effect positive change in North Lawndale, a neighborhood with a complex racial history that has suffered for years from disinvestment and population loss. In 1966 – less than one mile from where the Harmony Community pantry is located – Martin Luther King, Jr. moved his family into a third-floor apartment to draw national attention to the racism and poverty in the community.
After King was assassinated in 1968, riots and fires devastated businesses throughout North Lawndale. Population plummeted in the years that followed. The community's revitalization remains a work in progress.
Harmony Community's unique partnership with Grace Lutheran Church in suburban River Forest is a continuation of King’s work in breaking down racial and socioeconomic barriers, said the Rev. James Brooks, pastor at Harmony Community. “Here we have a community here that, through service, we’re breaking down those walls that King fought so hard against,” said Brooks, 45. “With the help of Grace Lutheran and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, we’re making a big difference in our community.”

A volunteer serves a client at the Harmony Community food pantry.

The Harmony Community food pantry, part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of agencies and programs, serves about 250 people a week in North Lawndale. Each week, volunteers from both churches work side by side. Together, they have plans to do even more, including expanding into food delivery for older adults in the community. The partnership began in 2011, when Brooks, who is black, invited Diane Carioscio, a white volunteer at Grace Lutheran, to come see the food pantry. The two had formed a close friendship during Brooks’ previous stint as the youth ministry director at Grace Lutheran. “I came down here and others have followed,” said Carioscio, 62, who now serves as the pantry’s coordinator. “It’s been an amazing faith journey down here – how close it is and how different it is from where we are in River Forest.”

Diane Carioscio, pantry coordinator for Harmon Community, talks to a fellow volunteer.

It all started with an invitation. “‘Come see it,’” Brooks recalled saying to Carioscio. “I believe it makes a difference when folks are proximate to the pain. Actual people are hurting. If you have a heart, you want to help.” A persistent need Every Wednesday for two hours, a certain kind of magic occurs in the Harmony Community pantry. In need of assistance, a steady stream of men and women file into the Harmony Community Church food pantry, one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s partner agencies. They leave with armloads of food – fresh produce, milk, eggs, meat, shelf-stable items and more – to sustain them. And if just for a short while, woes and hardships are transformed into something warmer and brighter. “I never let anyone go home without telling them to stay blessed, be blessed and God bless,” said Denese Penner-Smith, a regular volunteer who beams a radiant smile at guests from behind a table of food.

Volunteer Denese Penner-Smith brightens the day for pantry guests.

In North Lawndale, 65 percent of the population lives below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, a threshold commonly used to determine need for social services, according to Census data tracked by the Food Depository. The child poverty rate is more than double the rate for the city of Chicago as a whole. The veteran poverty rate is nearly double Chicago’s rate, as well. The stories of those who walked through the doors of Harmony Community are varied and complex. Take Willie Artis, for example, a proud former U.S. Marine whose troubles began about three years ago when he was struck by a car while riding a bike. He sustained back and leg injuries, in addition to a ruptured spleen, he said. Artis, who had been employed at a suburban warehouse and distribution company, had to stop working, leaving his wife as the sole provider for his household. “When you need help, a closed mouth doesn’t help you out,” said Artis, 56. “These little things here, I won’t have to buy. It doesn’t put more pressure on my wife.”

Willie Artis turned to the Harmony Community food pantry after suffering injuries in an accident.

Maryjane Harris works at a local warehouse, but still struggles to afford food for herself, her four kids, and her grandmother. Due to respiratory issues, Harris’s grandmother lives with her and requires regular assistance. Harris, 27, kept a smile and a positive demeanor as she made her way through the pantry line to receive food. “As long as I’m doing the right things in God’s eyes, making sure my kids are straight and my grandma is straight and making sure I’m straight, I can’t lose,” Harris said.

MaryJane Harris maintains her smile amid her personal challenges.

Elayne Brost, 76, and her husband have struggled financially since he fell and sustained injuries. For a while, he was bedridden and largely confined to a wheelchair. The costs of her husband’s medications recently skyrocketed, forcing them to cut other expenses, said Brost, a retired administrative worker.

Elayne Brost, at right, turned to the food pantry after financial difficulties.

“Thank goodness for the people here,” Brost said of the pantry’s volunteers. “It helps keep the food bill down quite a bit.” A legacy of service Pastor Brooks has a unique perspective on the struggles – and opportunity – in North Lawndale. “Lawndale’s been part of my life since I was born,” said Brooks, who also works as vice president of mission and community engagement at the Lawndale Christian Health Center.

Rev. James Brooks at the Lawndale Christian Health Center. (Food Depository photo)

His father, the Rev. James Brooks, Sr., was a founding pastor of the same church. The elder Brooks, who died in 2017, started the food pantry some 12 years ago after seeing a man dig through the trash, his son recalled. His grandfather, the Rev. James H. Brooks, was a pastor at Livestone M.B. Church, just across the street from Harmony Community.

The Revs. James H. Brooks and James Brooks, Sr. (Family photo)

Brooks hopes to build upon their legacies and, in doing so, contribute to North Lawndale’s continued resurgence. The neighborhood’s struggles have been well-documented. In the early 20th century, Lawndale was a predominately Jewish community. But the demographics began to change as black families moved up from the South in the 1950s and 1960s. They were confronted with predatory lending agreements and "redlining," the systemically racist practice in which banks refused services to residents of predominately black neighborhoods. These combined forces fueled poverty and “white flight,” the movement of white residents toward other parts of the city and suburbs. Considering that context, Brooks said, it’s meaningful that black and white volunteers are working together, side by side, at Harmony Community to help those in need. And they’re friends now, forging bonds that extend beyond the work.

Two churches, one community at the Harmony Community food pantry.

Next, Harmony Community plans to partner with the neighborhood block club to begin delivering boxes of food to older adults who may have trouble accessing the pantry. Brooks is also working on a partnership between the food pantry and the Lawndale Christian Health Center to connect the pantry’s clients to needed medical treatment. “It’s our responsibility to listen and to respond to the pain in the community,” Brooks said. “We want to be responders.”

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