Mayor Brandon Johnson, faith leaders, community members and new arrivals gathered on the South Side Dec. 9 for the first in a series of mayoral solidarity breakfasts that will be hosted citywide. Johnson also shared his administration’s intention to work alongside faith leaders and community organizations to foster ongoing conversations with long-time city residents and new Chicagoans to find common ground and build unity between each group. 

Thousands of migrants have arrived in Chicago from Ukraine, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East since 2022. However, the influx of more than 20,000 Venezuelan migrants since August 2022 has unearthed pre-existing tensions between Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities

Some Black residents feel purposefully left out of the city’s decision-making process when it was decided to place temporary shelters for migrants in predominately Black neighborhoods, such as South Shore and Woodlawn, parts of Chicago that experienced decades of neglect and disinvestment. 

“I’ve been saying this from the very beginning: investing in the people and communities of Chicago while also responding to the needs of the new arrivals is not an either-or situation,” Johnson said. “It’s  both, and we take care of our communities while also taking care of those who are seeking asylum.” 

The Johnson administration’s newest initiative comes on the heels of two decisions: One, to axe a plan to build migrant tent camps in Brighton Park and Morgan Park; and two, creating plus the Unity Initiative, a network of churches and faith-based organizations that will work in tandem to shelter migrants sleeping at Chicago police stations and O’Hare International Airport. 

Johnson, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward), faith leaders, community stakeholders, migrants and volunteers convened at Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn for the event. In addition to breaking bread, attendees participated in hour-long racial healing circles facilitated by peace circle practitioners from Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT). The circles are designed to unify participants across race, gender and socioeconomic status. Spanish translators were also present to guide migrants through the morning.

 

Peace circle practitioners and participants used musical instruments, such as hand drums and maracas, to ground the conversation before diving into a series of prompts designed to facilitate meaningful discussions between participants.

A racial healing circle is a convening of souls who come together and actually take time to our commonality to see our humaneness to see ourselves in one another,” said Pilar Audain, associate director at TRHT. 

TRHT is a community organization that centers on planning for and bringing about transformational and sustainable change and addressing the historic and contemporary effects of racism. 

Before splitting into groups for racial healing circles, attendees were introduced to Audain and a team of young people who prayed, honored the ancestors and offered words of encouragement to the room. They heard remarks from Johnson, Rev. Dr. Kenneth Phelps, senior pastor at Concord MB Church, TRHT director Josè Rico, Daniel Ash, president of the Field Foundation and Andrea Sáenz, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. 

“We want to serve as an example or a model for other churches and pastors. I think this is what all churches and pastors should be doing,” Phelps said. “If every church and every pastor did that, we wouldn’t be as divided on this issue. I think that there’s enough wealth, love and compassion to not only welcome the migrants but also better serve the African-American community.”

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For nearly a year, Concord MB Church has welcomed migrants in Woodlawn by connecting them to housing, English language classes, immigration and work permits, Phelps told The TRiiBE. The congregation also hosts bilingual Sunday services. In February, the City moved to relocate about 250 asylum seekers to Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn, which was shuttered by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in 2013. Wadsworth is housing more than 600 migrants, and there are 25 city-run shelters, according to city data

“I can be pro-Black and pro-migrant at the same time; I don’t have to choose, and I refuse to choose, and I encourage other people to do the same,” Phelps added. 

The conversations “break down barriers and help us to see more or less our commonalities and our core values, and how much we have in common as opposed to our differences,” Audain explained. 

The healing circles served as a reminder to Woodlawn resident and Concord MB member Juanita Craig not to let outside forces color the way she treats and interacts with new arrivals in the neighborhood.

During the breakout session, Craig shared a story about one of her early interactions with migrants in Woodlawn. The neighborhood laundromat that Craig typically frequents wasn’t available, so she traveled to another one in East Woodlawn, where she spotted a number of new arrivals that were also there. 

“I immediately became upset,” Craig said. “There were many [migrants] that were there with their families working to finish their laundry. I’m sure my facial expression wasn’t kind to them.” Craig said she immediately felt convicted by God about her misplaced anger. 

“No one said anything wrong to me and no one looked at me differently,” she explained. They spoke and I can’t even recall me even speaking back.” 

Now that she’s been able to further reflect on that experience she hopes that other community members recognize the harm in responding to the influx of migrants negatively. She left the event feeling understood. 

“We can be a better community. I’m hoping that we’ll gather more together in these peace circles so that we can get a much better understanding of each other. It’s all one racist system,” Craig said. 

Most migrants in Chicago are from Venezuela and are fleeing political repression and violence and to seek work and better living conditions. Lorenzo Romero and Mabel Ruiz left their home country in Peru because they lacked the resources needed to thrive. 

A family of three who fled Peru at Concord Missionary Baptist Church.
Lorenzo Romero and Mabel Ruiz left Peru in 2022 for better living conditions. The young couple participated in the healing circles on Dec. 9 at Concord Missionary Baptist Church. They are pictured here with their baby boy, who was born in June 2023. Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiiBE®

They traveled by foot for a week from Peru to Colombia to Panama and crossed into Texas before settling in Chicago in February 2022. Since arriving, they’ve received assistance from Phelps and his congregation at Concord MB Church,” they told The TRiiBE through a translator. The couple welcomed a baby boy in June 2023 and live in Woodlawn. 

“​​We believe that Christianity is a welcoming religion, and we protect and welcome our visitors. So that’s what we do and that’s what we will continue to do,” Phelps said. 

The next solidarity breakfast event will be youth-led and will take place on Jan. 15 for  Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It will feature organizers from GoodKids MadCity, the Mayor’s Youth Commission and more. Further details for the event have not yet been publicly released. 

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.