MLK Day 2018 Speech — Alia J. Bilal

Delivered by Alia J. Bilal, IMAN’s Director of Community Relations to the congregation at Beverly Unitarian Church on January 14, 2018

I greet you all in the way of my tradition: Assalamu Alaikum, Peace Be Upon You All and good morning.

On August 5, 1966, a rabbi by the name of Robert J. Marx wrote a letter to his fellow Chicagoland rabbis, admitting to them that he was scared. That afternoon, he would be joining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement for a demonstration against housing segregation in Marquette Park, on the city’s Southwest Side. The letter wasn’t asking for permission from his colleagues, rather it was stating that despite his fear, and despite the fierce opposition that he knew his actions would illicit from many of his colleagues, his Jewish faith compelled him to be with the marchers that day.

He says in the letter: “Why don’t I spend more time on Judaism? Why do I dissipate so much of my energy on a cause that is not ours? I am aware of these criticisms, and I am pained by them: for you see, I feel that freedom is Judaism, that Passover is not 3,000 years old – that it is today, and that we are part of it.

And of course, that day Rabbi Marx would join Dr. King and 700 other marchers into the park, and they would be met in turn by 5,000 angry protestors—men, women, and children, yelling, holding nasty signs, and throwing bricks and bottles at the demonstrators. Dr. King would go on to say that though he had faced the racism of the south, he had never seen mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as he had that day in Chicago.

Rabbi Marx had founded the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs two years earlier and continues to this day to do incredible work that advances justice for marginalized people. As many times as I’ve read this letter, I’m struck every time by the profundity of Rabbi Marx’s statements: that at the core of his argument to his co-religionists is a plea to make their faith relevant to the issues people were facing at the time. And I guess I’m struck by that because in some ways, it’s the same struggle all religious communities have gone through and continue to go through throughout time, the struggle to make faith more than just ritual and dogma and rhetorical posturing. More than going to church on Sunday, or temple on Saturday, or to the Mosque on Friday.

I was raised as a proud Southsider with two parents who had converted to Islam in the 70s, and I attended a full-time Islamic school in the southwest suburbs for 15 years before heading to college. And in those 15 years and in all the years since, I’ve witnessed that same struggle—my co-religionists, young and old, trying to grapple with how to marry all of the lofty ideals and higher purpose of our faith with the hard reality of our devastatingly flawed society and our own very human selves.

Now, every year around Martin Luther King Day, I have to admit, I get a little agitated, and I know I’m not alone. I’m glad to see people and institutions commemorating King. I’m glad that his legacy is honored nationally; I’m glad that speeches and articles and news segments are done about him. But I wish that I saw as many people and institutions making plans to address the issues Dr. King made it his life’s mission to address. I wish I saw as many legislative advocacy days planned for that day—“Write Your Legislator” events or the like. As many Day of Service invitations as I receive, I wish I received as many Day of Action notices. Because as many speeches as King gave and as much service as I’m sure he encouraged, he wasn’t after handouts. He was after justice and as he reminded people over and over again, justice doesn’t come with time, justice comes when you demand it.

One of the things that MLK Day brings with it for me is the opportunity to revisit some of the pivotal moments in King’s life and, I think, more importantly, the lessons that I can draw from his life. This year, there are three lessons I’m focusing on:

The first is that we could ill afford fifty years ago, and we cannot afford now, for good people to remain silent on issues of injustice. I think we know what’s at stake now given all of the interesting times we’ve had over the last 14 months.

There’s a prophetic statement in the Muslim tradition that says that if you see an injustice, you should change it with your hand. And if you can’t change it with your hand, then change it with your tongue. And if you can’t change it with your tongue, then hate it in your heart, and that is the lowest of faith. There’s another prophetic statement that urges Muslims to “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or is being oppressed”. When the companions of the Prophet Muhammad heard him say this, they responded, “Oh Prophet of God, we understand how to help one who is oppressed, but how do we help an oppressor?” The Prophet responded, “By preventing him from oppressing people.”

I believe that we’ve moved beyond a time where we can simply hate an injustice in our hearts or make excuses for oppressors. We can no longer just shake our heads at the television screen when we hear that 200,000 Salvadorans that are in this country legally will be deported, or that children across the country will no longer have access to health insurance, or that all of a low-income neighborhood’s public high schools will be shut down, or that yet another unarmed black man or woman was shot and killed by someone that was supposed to protect them. We can’t afford to be the silent majority.

The second lesson I draw from King is that justice can’t wait. There will never be a convenient time to allow people their human rights, not when that allowance would disrupt the status quo and stop the flow of dollars into the hands of people who benefit from it. King talked about the ‘fierce urgency of Now’ and now 50 years later, I think in some ways the urgency today is even fiercer, as we see civil protections and social advancements that were made after King’s time rolled back in order to Make America Bleak Again for so many millions of people who had begun to hope that maybe there was a way they could get by.

I think there were many of us here who witnessed a dark year in 2017. But even in the darkness, there was light, which brings me to the last lesson I’m focusing on this year. That lesson is one about the balance between hope and despair. Remember that in Rabbi Marx’s letter, he told his fellow rabbis that he was afraid. He had been a conscientious observer at one of King’s earlier marches and he had seen grandmothers and grandchildren ready to kill the marchers out of rage. He was afraid, and yet he joined them. In an interview that Dr. King gave the year before he was assassinated, he admitted that the dream he had preached so passionately about four years earlier had turned into a nightmare. He realized that, as he says, “some of the old optimism was a little superficial.” But through the soul-searching and the agonizing he said he did over the actions he and his organization were pursuing, he still had hope.

Now, please indulge me as I go on a slight tangent. When I was preparing for this talk, I looked at the Beverly Unitarian Church website and I came across a beautiful note from your minister and in it I read that this congregation is made up of a wonderful collection of people, some who believe in God all of the time, some who believe in God some of the time, and some, none of the time. Well, I’m one of those who believes in God all of the time but I want to share a confession with you. I had the opportunity to attend a powerful retreat a few months ago and there was this remarkable woman there who was a master of several Islamic sciences, had memorized the entire Qur’an in Arabic, and was a celebrated medical doctor to boot (talk about life goals). Her name was Dr. Nadia Katranji and she was doing a workshop on digging into the actual language of the Qur’an in the original Arabic in order to make the text have deeper meaning to our lives.

In Islam, we talk about “belief” a lot. It’s riddled throughout all of our texts, throughout the Qur’an and throughout the vast collection of prophetic traditions we have. “Oh you who believe…do good so you may prosper.” “Oh you who believe, be conscious of God.” “None of you truly believes until you want for your brother what you want for yourself.” We really like the idea of belief. But at this retreat, Dr. Nadia, gave us something really groundbreaking to think about. She said that though the word in Arabic—aamana—was commonly translated as “to believe”, at its root, the word really means “to trust”. When she said that, it was like a whole world opened up to me; I experienced this expansion that I can only describe as feeling like a mountain was lifted off of my shoulders.

Because belief is a tall order. To believe in someone or something that you can’t see, to believe in the notion that someday, somehow justice will prevail, to believe that people will ultimately rise above their greedy, complacent egos and consent to agreeing to change that may make them uncomfortable. Belief is scary.

But trust, to me, is somehow so much more achievable. I can’t prove to myself or to anyone that a loving and just Creator exists. I can only trust that He does and that’s He’s got a better plan than mine. I can’t say for certain that if my great-grandchildren still look the way I do and pray the way I pray that the world is going to be any kinder to them than it is to me. I can’t say without a shadow of a doubt that in 50 years time, we won’t still be marching for and preaching about the same human rights that King journeyed for all those years ago. But I can trust in my fellow human beings, in people of faith, in people of consciousness, I can trust that together those people will not stand idly by and allow oppression to take place on their watch.

In Arabic, one of the names for Satan is Iblis, and that name Iblis comes from the root word “balasa”, which means to despair. So if we’re to understand that the core of Satan’s mission is to get human beings to despair of the mercy of their Lord and the mercy of their fellow human beings, then what of hope?

We reflected on the march that Dr. King and Rabbi Marx and the Chicago Freedom movement made into Marquette Park on August 5, 1966. We talked about the 5,000 protestors that gathered to stop them. What we didn’t talk about was that the fact that on August 5, 2016, about a year and a half ago, IMAN, the organization I work for, and hundreds of people from dozens of other local organizations and institutions, cut the ribbon on the city’s very first permanent memorial commemorating Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom movement in Marquette Park. What we didn’t talk about was the fact that the very next day, 1400 people from all walks of life, from all ethnicities, from all over the city and the country gathered to retrace the march that Dr. King led into the park all those years ago, and this time, did so triumphantly, proclaiming our commitment to transforming our communities for the better, proclaiming our commitment to holding one another up as family, and recognizing the power that a little hope can have.

As I wrap up, I’ll say this. I work for an organization, IMAN, that has been attempting to foster health, wellness, and healing in the inner-city for 20 years. We do that through community organizing, we do that through an affordable health clinic, through providing housing and job training to young people and to men coming home from prison, to drafting and passing legislation around criminal justice reform, and through cultivating art and creative expression.

Tomorrow, our community organizers and leaders will be continuing our door-knocking campaign, deepening our relationships with 200 of our closest neighbors, handing out bus cards and warm blankets, and reminding them that we are there when they’re ready to get out on the streets and organize with us. Last year at this time, we urged our community to make three commitments on MLK Day and I’ll encourage everyone here to do the same.

1.) On the community level: In the next month, commit to doing 3 relational meetings with someone from a completely different walk of life than you. Maybe they’re sitting in this congregation with you, maybe they’re a neighbor or someone you see on your daily train ride. Have a conversation with someone about what moves them, about how they see the world.
2.) On the family level: Schedule one family dinner, inviting others from another community to your kitchen table so that your home can become a site of genuine engagement with our diverse lived experiences.
3.) On the individual level: Commit to at least one individual act of solidarity, standing with or for those outside of your immediate community: organizing a prayer at a detention center, attending a public hearing on solitary confinement, participating in a rally, or any other action that amplifies our voices and uplifts the dignity of people in other communities. Choose something and make your presence known.

You get bonus points if you can do one of those things tomorrow, on actual MLK Day. Also, if you’ve got some time tomorrow or in the week, I would encourage you to visit the MLK Living Memorial at 67th and Kedzie. It’ll be a cold one tomorrow but it’s a beautiful place for contemplation about the commitments you’re making today and…Dr. King went through worse.
In closing, Rabbi Marx goes on to say in his letter to Chicago rabbis:

I feel even more deeply that unless Jews—Jews who are devoted to their faith and their synagogues as I am devoted to my faith and my synagogue—unless all of us are involved in the crucial issues of the world, Judaism will not exist in future generations for our children and our children’s children. And perhaps it ought not to exist.

Rabbi Marx clearly found a role for his faith to play in this world and I believe—I trust—that all of our faiths, philosophies, and our inclinations toward goodness, have a role to play too.
Thank you so much and Assalamu Alaikum/peace be upon you all.

Green ReEntry Expands Outreach with New Staff

After years of helping returning citizens successfully reacclimate to their communities, the Green ReEntry program is poised to significantly deepen its impact. In partnership with the Emerson Collective, Green ReEntry has expanded the size of its cohorts from a handful of brothers to a dynamic, intergenerational group of over 30 men.

To facilitate the continued success of Green ReEntry participants, IMAN has hired three highly skilled full-time staff: Case Manager Billy Moore, and Case Workers Ali Kanoya and Gemali Ibrahim. We sat down with the new team to learn more about their stories and their vision for Green ReEntry’s future growth.

What does the Green ReEntry program have to offer?

Billy: We’re working with men who are really facing significant challenges to their wellbeing, so it’s imperative that our work has a positive impact. Our goal is to shift the way that these guys think about themselves and their communities, and we’ve developed a curriculum to achieve that by instilling values of brotherhood, professionalism and conflict resolution.

Ali: Life skills training is another key component. We speak a language the participants understand, and we grew up in similar communities to theirs. Our job is to be a guide and mentor to young brothers who haven’t had that luxury thus far in their lives.

What inspires you to get involved in this work? It’s far from easy.

Gemali: I feel the most spiritually attuned in those moments when I’m recognizing the interconnectedness of the human family. One of the ways God has shown me that He is real has been through brotherhood. Helping my fellow community members is a practice that’s been a part of my life since childhood. It’s in my DNA at this point, and I consider IMAN and the surrounding area to be my community.

Billy: Returning citizens looking to get back on track, avoid re-offending, and contribute positively to their communities must do so with extremely limited resources. This opportunity to serve others is a blessing, because I know all too well what it feels like to sit on the other side of the desk and need help successfully reintegrating into society. IMAN has been in the trenches for years now doing the work, directing significant resources to those who need them in a way that’s relevant and compassionate.

Ali: I will never forget a realization that I had during my final days of incarceration. I remember seeing intelligent, strong-willed, physically fit, and brave brothers all around me. It hurt to see the beauty of our community locked up like that. I wanted to see that beauty flourish back at home, doing something positive in the streets. I still want that, and Green ReEntry is the best outlet I’ve seen to accomplish that goal.

At this current moment in Chicago, why is the Green ReEntry program so necessary?

Ali: Chicago has been associated with gangs and violence for generations, but what can’t be forgotten is the fact that those traditions also included real valor and codes of ethics that people lived by. That legacy has worn away, and we see the youth in chaos on many levels as a result. All of these young guys aren’t monsters. That’s an artificial message that’s being promoted in the culture, but that’s not who these guys really are at their core. We need to reach back and encourage young men to develop a sense of accountability, perseverance and dignity. God willing, we can shift that culture.

Gemali: I remember meeting a brother at Ramadan Reflections. He said he refused to bring his children because he wasn’t sure about “what kind of neighborhood IMAN is in.” He lives maybe 30 minutes from the office. That affected me, because of how much I love this city and the relationships that I’ve built here. But, if you turn on the TV, you understand how he can feel that fear. I am inspired by the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as he first entered the city of Medina. He instructed the people to spread peace, feed the hungry, and spend time at night in prayer. We need to reflect more deeply on the fact that he said “spread peace” first.

Billy: Chicago is a world-class city, there’s no denying that. But, what is becoming clearer even in mainstream media is that the story of Chicago, in reality, is a tale of two cities. The wellbeing of our part of the city isn’t prioritized. You hear about the violence and the homicides, the 40% unemployment among young men in Englewood, the 54 closed schools, and the underrepresentation of Black-owned businesses. Legislators and other officials play a role, but programs like Green ReEntry are what really empower individuals and families to take control over their lives in a meaningful way.

Fresh Beats & Eats Enlivens Southwest Side Streets

For the third consecutive summer, IMAN’s Fresh Beats & Eats Farmers Market has enlivened West 63rd Street with vibrant tables of fresh organic produce, various vendors offering homemade treats, and exciting artistic expression. This year’s market season kicked off with a special musical guest all the way from New Orleans: Amir Gray & The Tubatones.

Amir and his band not only rocked the Fresh Beats & Eats stage, they also gave local residents a taste of Louisiana with a walking procession throughout the neighborhood. Children along California Avenue followed behind the “second line” and drivers honked along with the beat. This performance was the first of many efforts at “creative place-making” by IMAN’s Arts & Culture department, bringing new artistic experiences (quite literally) to the front doors of residents and connecting them to things happening in their community. IMAN leaders handed out Fresh Beats & Eats flyers behind the procession and encouraged community members to visit the market to purchase their weekly produce.

The farmers market will be held every Friday through the month of October. This initiative is a crucial component of IMAN’s mission of inner-city health, wellness and healing; each individual and family who visits the produce stand and pulls up a chair to enjoy the music serves as a proof of concept, and a small but impactful building block along the path to more dignified and healthy community life.

Interested in volunteering or vending at Fresh Beats & Eats? Email us at farmersmarket@imancentral.org to join the team!

IMAN Awarded Healthy Chicago 2.0 Grant

IMAN’s Corner Store Campaign was awarded a Healthy Chicago 2.0 Seed Grant by the City of Chicago for its innovative approach toward “promoting heath in a community including access to social services and healthy food, safe public spaces, social cohesion and collaboration.” This grant will fund the launch of the new produce distribution system providing local corner stores with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Building healthy communities requires holistic support, and the Corner Store Campaign’s produce distribution system is designed to address that need in an innovative, sustainable way. IMAN Health Clinic patients will be offered coupons redeemable at local corner stores, as well as at IMAN’s weekly Fresh Beats & Eats Farmers Market. This produce distribution model—now possible with the Healthy Chicago funding—facilitates mutual, community-wide benefits: corner stores are incentivized to increase fresh produce sales, while residents enjoy easier access to fruits and vegetables.

Individuals and families deserve access to healthy food options, no matter the zip code in which they reside. IMAN’s Corner Store Campaign works to bring this basic right into reality through initiatives like the produce distribution system. For more information about the Corner Store Campaign, or to join this dynamic team of community organizers and leaders, email Campaign Manager Sara Hamdan at sara@imancentral.org.