Throughout Rev. Alan Taylor’s 18-year tenure as the senior minister at Unity Temple, he was engaged with what was going down in the neighborhoods east of Austin Boulevard as well as in Oak Park.
A year and a half after stepping down from that position in 2021, Taylor became the donor organizer for an organization called Live Free Illinois(LFI), which was founded by Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain in 2017.
Taylor had worked with a nonprofit called United Power for Action and Justice for most of his almost two-decade-long ministry at Unity Temple and respected the work they were doing. “Live Free,” he explained, “uses a similar model to organizing as United Power, an approach which is based on Saul Alinsky’s methods to build power through expanding networks.
“I would characterize the approach Live Free Illinois uses,” he added, “as Alinsky with love.”
Live Free’s website declares that the Black community is facing an “urgent crisis.” “In Chicago and Illinois, two core issues have an outsized impact on Black communities: public safety and criminal justice. … Too often, the response from our local and state governments is insufficient and downright harmful.”
Live Free Illinois presented its vision for change to the Community of Congregations May 30 meeting at Oak Park Temple. Artinese Myrick, LFI’s lead organizer and one of the speakers at the meeting, described Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South sides as suffering from a power vacuum.
Power, she said, is not necessarily a bad thing. I was impacted by the carceral system, and wanted to become a solutionist to the troubles I saw my family go through. Due to this I went to school for social work and tried to make a mark the best way I could.
When people organize, she added, they acquire power for change in a good sense, power to “create the kind of community we want to be.”
According to the LFI website, “Live Free Illinois is a state chapter of Live Free USA that works to end this moral crisis by mobilizing Black churches — the most powerful organizing institution within our communities — to improve public safety and transform our criminal justice system.”
They are unapologetically religious in their approach to transforming society. “As a faith-based organizing force, Live Free Illinois seeks to grow the chorus of voices advocating for policies that transform Black communities, save lives, and actualize God’s grace in our justice system.”
Myrick clarified that Live Free is not about providing social services and advocacy itself but in recruiting and training others to do it.
“We center the identification and development of leaders within communities who can strengthen their congregations/neighborhoods and move them to address racism and poverty and to mobilize them to dismantle practices and policies that are destructive to people of color. We provide trainings to help assist individuals with learning the fundamentals of organizing as well as teach-ins to educate communities on the issues that are relevant in their neighborhoods.”
David McCall is LFI’s systems-impact leader. His job is “to build relations with our communities and educate them on public safety. It is getting our faith-based leaders to advocate for change in the criminal justice system.”
His story illustrates both the meaning of “restorative justice” and how the current justice system needs to be transformed. He seemed to have everything going for him — football scholarships to several universities, minister of music at his church, a good job — until he made a mistake, got arrested and was incarcerated.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself or wallowing in anger, he took advantage of almost every opportunity to advance that the prison system offered. When he got out of prison, he volunteered with Bridge to Freedom, got a job as a dispatch manager at a moving company and eventually started his own business, Mac Movers Inc.
A friend introduced McCall to Live Free and the rest is history. He now feels called to “ensure that our voices are not only being heard but that policies that will change the narrative of returning citizens are accelerated, too.”
Several people in the audience responded positively to what they heard from the LFI presenters. Cynthia Breunlin, for example, is part of a working group called Congregations Networking for Social Justice (CNSJ). Following the meeting she said, “CNSJ is pleased to feature Live Free in our summer newsletter. Several congregations are considering how to support them and become more involved.”
Bishop Reginald Saffo, chair of the Proviso Township Ministerial Association Network, said he was “intrigued.”
“I am hopeful,” he added, “to get them to share at one of our PTMAN meetings.”