Young People at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, Illinois, Honor Tradition and Victims of Violence

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At New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, worshippers will assemble Saturday — as many black church congregations do on New Year’s Eve — to commemorate the promise of a new year.

Called Watch Night, the New Year’s Eve tradition dates to Dec. 31, 1862, when slaves gathered to celebrate, at the stroke of midnight, the freedom granted by the Emancipation Proclamation. But more than 150 years later, the beginning of the new year takes on a particular solemnity at New Mount Pilgrim, in the heart of the police district with the city’s highest homicide rate.

For the first time, the church’s youth have planned the New Year’s Eve observance. Instead of a formal service with time-honored hymns and sermons by seasoned preachers, the teens will play tunes by Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. There will be a dance contest, open mic and karaoke. After the countdown to midnight, the congregation will kneel and pray for children’s safety in the coming year.

“We’re trying to retain the traditions that have ethnic and religious significance, but we’re going into a new year where there is an expectation and uncertainty,” said Marshall Hatch Jr., 28, the son of the church’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr.

Though Watch Night is typically a grown-up affair, Hatch Jr., a former high school guidance counselor and the church’s youth minister, has helped the church’s teens plan this year’s event as a safe haven in a police district where there has been nearly 100 homicides since last New Year’s Eve. The West Garfield Park neighborhood alone has had 31 slayings so far this year.

The church ceremony gives the teens a stage to unveil a new project this year — replacing an empty rose window on the west side of the worship space to honor young African-Americans whose deaths have changed the course of history. Its top four panes will feature the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. The other panes will include young victims of Chicago’s violence.

Sadly, Hatch Jr. says, there have been so many victims that a choice must be made. If the church tries to memorialize all of the lives lost, the window will no longer conjure hope, he said, but instead be a graveyard of glass. That’s been a hard reality for the youth to grasp, especially after losing one of their own.

“I’m still (thinking) we should include most if not all (young homicide victims),” said Kenneth Ayers, 17, a junior at Providence St. Mel High School who attends New Mount Pilgrim. “Everybody has a story and every story should be told, and no story is more important than the other.”

The stained glass project is part of a greater mission to transform the aesthetic of what once was an Irish Catholic parish, St. Mel-Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church, to reflect the legacy of today’s African-American Baptist occupants. In 1993, the north-facing rose window became an homage to the Great Migration, when many African-Americans came to Chicago from the rural South.

In 2000, the eastern window became a portrayal of the trans-Atlantic slave trade with a ship personified as Christ rising above the Atlantic, his shackled arms outstretched. The congregation calls it the Maafa window, a Swahili term meaning “unspeakable horror.”

The youth’s window, which is expected to cost about $100,000, will complete the trilogy. It has been dubbed the Sankofa Peace window after a term in the Twi language of Ghana that refers to reclaiming the past in order to move forward. At its center, it will portray Christ, the “Prince of Peace,” accompanying a group of young homicide victims.

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Source: Chicago Tribune | Manya Brachear Pashman