Rachelle Zola, 72, went on a hunger strike to support the federal bill H.R. 40. (Photo provided)

A woman who completed a hunger strike to help mobilize attention on reparations now has her sights set on the American South. 

Rachelle Zola, 72, started her hunger strike on May 16 to raise awareness about and support for H.R. 40, a federal bill that’s been languishing in Congress for decades. The bill, if it became law, would establish a commission to study reparations for Blacks. 

Zola set up inside of Cosmopolitan United Church in Melrose Park for the duration of her fast, but she had spiritual and emotional support from many institutions in Oak Park and River Forest, including Dominican University.

In May, Amy Omi, the university minister for Liturgy and the Arts at Dominican, said Zola was “committed to the hunger strike for as long as her body can sustain it.” 

Zola’s strike lasted 40 days. 

“My liquid diet was water, about 40 to 50 ounces a day; a liter’s worth of Pedialyte; and bone broth,” Zola said. “I lost 23 pounds in 40 days, which was a lot less than I was expecting to lose.” 

She could have gone longer but said she made a conscious decision to end at 40 days in recognition of H.R. 40. 

“I have this slogan: ‘Our mission is the commission,’” Zola said. “I want the commission established because I want one history and it needs to be told in its totality. That’s my main focus as a white person. I want to give a national platform to African Americans, so they can share their full story. 

“As far as reparations go, whatever they tell us, I’ll support,” she said. “African Americans know what they need — I don’t.” 

Juan Pablo Herrara, the pastor of Cosmopolitan United Church, said he hopes Zola’s efforts lead to more understanding of reparations. 

“What I’m hearing from people is they don’t understand what reparations mean,” he said. “They think it’s free handouts; it’s not. It’s talking about taking a look at America’s sin. We haven’t asked for forgiveness.” 

Zola said she has now set her sights on traveling to Georgia and Alabama this month in order to learn about the experiences of white Evangelicals. 

“I know I’m supposed to go there for the same reason I was supposed to come here,” said Zola, a native of New York who moved to Chicago in 2019. 

“I want to hear their stories because I want to know what it will take for them to embrace reparations for African Americans and what that will look like for them. I’ll probably be there for a couple of months. I want to go to churches to listen because there are a lot of churches grappling with this. They enslaved people and spread white supremacy and they are coming to terms with that.” 

To her critics, particularly those who may have questioned her hunger strike, Zola said the mission is larger than her. 

“People would tell me I’m crazy, but the world is crazy, I’m not,” she said. “I’m not the first one to do it and I won’t be the last.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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