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Update March 21, 2023: This morning, faith leaders including Bishop Eric Thomas, Pastor Earl Grandberry, Pastor Ira Acree, Reverend Steven Thurston II, Reverend Janette Wilson, Pastor Robert Belfort, Pastor Jonny Miller, Pastor Michael Eaddy and Bishop Booker endorsed Brandon Johnson at Greater Harvest Baptist Church.

ORIGINAL STORY — Right after Sunday worship at Providence Missionary Baptist Church on March 19, Pastor William H. Foster Jr. introduced “the visionary Dr. Willie Wilson” to the sanctuary. The 74-year-old businessman entered the pulpit to applause, with a gleeful Paul Vallas and dozens of Black clergy and leaders in tow.

Wilson assembled the group to encourage Black churchgoers to throw their support behind Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO who is running for mayor against Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. 

“I am a free man, financially and spiritually,” Wilson said. “I don’t have to want or need. Can’t nobody do nothing for me but pray for me. Paul Vallas values the same things that I value. I take him at his word, and so should you.” Wilson ran in the first round of the initial nine-person mayoral race, garnering just 9.1 percent of the vote. 

“I’m going to continue to look to you, but especially to my good friend and long friend Dr. Wilson, for not only your guidance and wisdom, but your critique,” Vallas said. “I also need all of your prayers. I figure at the end of the day with the power of all of your prayers collectively, my election will be guaranteed.” 

Wilson’s campaign spokesperson, former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (who lost his seat to Johnson in 2018), claimed more than 150 pastors were in attendance, but could not provide a list of attendees when asked on March 20. “We did not do a sign in sheet,” Boykin told The TRiiBE

Wilson’s cadre of Black leaders also included anti-violence activist Andrew Holmes, former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) operations manager Reverend William H. Foster Jr. and Vallas’ inter-faith partnership lead Reverend J.D. Anderson.

Other Black faith leaders who voiced support for Vallas at Providence Missionary included Reverend Dr. Eleanor Miller-Stewart of Sure-Way Missionary Baptist Church and Reverend Stephen J. Thurston Sr. of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. All of the Black clergy who spoke at the press conference began their remarks by reiterating their reverence for Wilson. Some, including Stewart, didn’t shy away from the fact that Vallas was their second choice for mayor, after Wilson. 

Johnson’s campaign has accused Vallas of racism, citing media reports that Vallas’s social media accounts liked and commented on racist posts, and a 2021 Wirepoints podcast interview in which Vallas characterized the teaching of Critical Race Theory and Black history as “dangerous” to white families. 

Vallas’s platform is laser-focused on public safety and promises to hire more police officers, institute a community policing plan and establish an Independent Community Development Authority. Johnson, whose public safety platform includes investing in communities, promoting 200 new detectives and establishing a Mayor’s Office of Community Safety, has been attacked by Vallas as wanting to “defund” the police. 

“When people are talking about defunding the police, that’s a problem for me,” said Foster Jr., who worked with Vallas in the 1990s as a CPS operations manager. “And then economically, Paul has a vision to put more economics into the church.” 

One prominent Wilson supporter who wasn’t in attendance was Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church on the South Side. Although Trotter endorsed Wilson in the Feb. 28 election, he split with him for the runoff, endorsing Johnson over Vallas.

“Everybody has some baggage or some stuff you may not want to agree with. They’re trying to say that our candidate [Johnson] is going to defund the police, this, that and the other. All of that is through conversation,” Trotter said in an interview with the TRiiBE. “But when a Black man is prepared, and has made it that far, I don’t see why we have to wait on making that decision. Because at the end of the day, all of us have Black sons and daughters. What message do we send to them?” 

Trotter also expressed dissatisfaction with Wilson’s hasty decision to endorse Vallas. According to the Chicago Crusader, Wilson had a meeting with dozens of pastors on March 4 at Trotter’s church. The majority of the room raised their hands in support of endorsing Johnson over Vallas. Trotter, who called Wilson his friend, said Wilson told people he would make his endorsement decision by March 15. Wilson also told them that he was going to bring in Vallas and Johnson so they could meet them, and that he’d have several town halls to discuss the matter. 

Wilson instead announced his endorsement of Vallas on March 8. Trotter found out about the endorsement from the media.

“I wanted Dr. Wilson to know when he decided to go with Paul Vallas that we still had the right to do what we wanted to do; that he couldn’t just carry the pastors over with him,” Trotter said. “Some of the pastors felt a sense of betrayal, because the news media pushed [the endorsement] as if Dr. Wilson could influence the whole group and that’s not so.” 

Wilson did not reply to questions specifically about the meeting Trotter referenced.

In the 2023 mayoral race, with its hot-button issues such as the future of public education and public safety, an apparent split is emerging within the Black church. The fracture reflects a deeper fracture in the Black community’s interests. The Black church, long the political as much as the spiritual home of the community’s collective values and hopes, finds itself in the middle. 

Historically, the Black church has been a sacred meeting place for Black liberation movements. In the mid-19th century, Quinn Chapel AME, Chicago’s oldest Black congregation, was a station on the underground railroad. In 1869, Olivet Baptist church organized Illinois’ first “Colored Convention” to fight for civil rights. In the 20th century, Black Chicago churches organized in support of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, Stone Temple Baptist Church held a political rally in response to the murder of Emmett Till. And when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose Chicago to launch his northern campaign in 1966, he preached at Stone Temple.

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The Black church wasn’t in lockstep then, either. While King’s 1966 crusade for better housing conditions in Chicago was supported by some Black clergy, many others sided with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1995, the Tribune reported how Pastor Waller of Mercy Seat Missionary Baptist on Chicago’s South Side pointed his cane at the elder Daley’s son, then-mayor Richard M. Daley, and declared, “I know we got the best mayor outside of his daddy that we’ve ever had.”  Pastor Waller and many other Black Baptist church ministers made up an ecosystem of Black ecumenical support that Richard M. Daley garnered via donations and the masterful work of his intercessor to the Black church, Chuck Bowen. In his last reelection in 2007, Daley wrangled over 200 endorsements from ministers of Black churches.

“There’s always been what Senator Raphael Warnock calls the ‘divided mind’ of the Black church—always been a kind of bipolarity,” said Marshall Hatch Jr., whose father is the pastor of New Mount Pilgrim MB Church on the West Side. He supports Johnson for mayor. “There have been some Black churches that stress political transformation, even revolution, and on the flipside there are conservative churches. You see that playing out in who’s endorsing who in this race.”

Pastor Hatch Sr. is among a group of faith leaders who are backing Johnson for mayor, including Trotter, David Cherry of the West Side-based Leaders Network, Maple Park United Methodist Church Reverend Janette C. Wilson, and Greater St. John Bible Church Reverend Ira Acree.

Hatch Sr. alluded to church leaders’ influence waning amid a chaotic political climate. 

“I don’t know that the leaders are leading anybody anywhere. I think that the people are telling us what to do. That’s certainly what I’m doing. That’s how I ended up so definitive with Brandon [Johnson],” he said. “The people in my community, my congregation—they’re already there.”

Following the Feb. 28 election, in which seven Black candidates were running, Trotter said he felt it was important to make his endorsement of Johnson known before Wilson announced his pick. 

“People want to make their own decisions and they’re going to rely on people they trust,” Trotter said. “We endorsed [Wilson]. He didn’t make it. So we can endorse who we want. And I think that’s where the people are in our churches. They don’t owe anything to either candidate, but I think they want to see some diversity and some youth in these positions.”

is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She recently covered housing as a 2020 City Bureau fellow.