Marshall Hatch is not only trying to change the lives of the young men he works with through the MAAFA Redemption Project, but his community as a whole.
MAAFA, a Swahili word for calamity or disaster, is trying to combat exactly that — the calamity of drugs and violence on the West Side of Chicago and its effect on the surrounding community. West Garfield Park, where MAAFA is based, has the lowest life expectancy of any Chicago neighborhood and ranks first, Hatch said, in potential life loss, a metric for premature death.
“What gun violence really is is a fracture in community relationships,” he explained. “You might have two factions that live on the same block at war with each other. There’s a breach of trust with members of power — police officers, public officials — but there’s a deeper breach of trust within the community and that’s what we’re trying to combat.”
The project, a ministry of Hatch’s New Mount Pilgrim Church, is a nine-month, residential-based program for at-risk young men that Hatch said focuses on the primal needs — housing, employment, job skills and training — so that they can in turn focus on self-actualization and character development. Those within the project’s cohort-based model live on campus at residences owned by the church and have apprenticeships with local businesses while learning job skills in the process. They have access to online education where they can get they high school diplomas and even continue on for their Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degrees, as well as leadership development and wrap-around social services customized to each individual.
“Young men, 18-30, are most vulnerable to the traps of the neighborhood — drugs, guns. We wanted to create an oasis of opportunity, give them a leg up,” Hatch said. “The work is about reimagining and rebuilding communities from within. It’s direct service and community development and our philosophy is you can’t have one without the other if you want to have individual and community transformation.”
In only it’s fourth year, the MAAFA Redemption Project has been able to draw on the years of work members of the church have done within the community to springboard its success. Hatch said that years earlier Deacons at the church, many formerly incarcerated themselves, began hosting pick-up basketball games on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
“We would open the gym and have a brief meditation with the guys that we invited from the neighborhood and then it was pick-up basketball,” he said. “That allowed us to develop relationships with the guys in the neighborhood.”
By the time MAAFA formally started in 2017, the first cohort consisted largely of guys from those pick-up games. From there, the first group spread the word to their peers who were ready for change and the second group did the same in recruiting the third. Hatch said they have relationships with police officers, parole officers and even local hospitals that help identify young men who could be a fit for the program. Concerned mothers, he said, call him often looking to get their sons involved.
The journey is not immediate. Each cohort goes through interviews and a three month orientation process before move-in to help weed out who is really motivated for change and who isn’t. Those who aren’t are referred to partner organizations who can help them start the process before taking the big step.
“It’s a big ask to have someone live with us here on this campus … What we’re asking of these young men is incredibly hard,” he said. “They have to really reach down in themselves and ask the question, ‘When I grow up, what do I want to be’ and a lot of the routines that they come to us with are self-destructive routines, but they are routines nonetheless. This is about human development and human development is not linear. It’s one step forward, sometimes three and four steps back. It’s that inner fight. It’s really what it means to be human. I see it on full display every day.”
But Hatch is encouraged by the respect his program has garnered within the community.
“I’ve seen neighbors around Washington Blvd. drop off clothes because they heard a young man has an interview the next day. I’ve seen police officers drive by and wave in support of what we’re trying to do. It’s really special the community that we create with these guys … that re-imagination of community inspires other community members.”