Father Larry is a leader at St. Agatha’s Church in the North Lawndale community, in Chicago, Illinois. Father Larry is passionate about the programs the church is able to offer the community. These services include the restorative justice program that is designed to enforce a mentality that the penal system needs to be reformed into a rehabilitative system, instead of a punitive one.

St. Agatha’s Church runs and directs services, two food pantries, and a monthly community dinner. They also offer free legal services once a month with five lawyers on hand to assist.

St. Anthony’s Hospital, has opened a counseling office in the rectory of St. Agatha’s Church in a collaborative effort for the residents of North Lawndale. The restorative justice outreach is run by coordinators Derek Brown and Fred Cooper. These men offer parenting classes, life skills, and other curriculums they create and manage. They also focus on parenting classes for parents who have kids in juvenile detention, which is integral to the restorative justice they preach.

Restorative Justice in the classroom

Talking circles are implemented once a week at Collins Academy High School to help in mitigating any conflicts between students. The church hopes to expand this into other schools interested in embracing restorative justice throughout the school, holding to the idea that the culture within the school system supports it for resolving issues among students.

In the last three months, the restorative justice program started a parent-to-parent support and empowerment group, as Father Larry calls it, training parents to reach out to other parents. There are monthly support meetings and they also host events for them, and mental health information sessions along with other things as well.

The Music Inc. Program

St. Agatha’s Church partnered with the Music Inc. program. The leaders of the program reached out to Father Larry four years ago. The Music Inc. educators teach violin, cello, and wind instruments to grade school children.

Another program designed to help young people is Tech Girls. This program focuses on teaching young women how to utilize technology and other tech-based skills in the computer lab, which is also used by The News School. Tech Girls is held every Saturday. There are classes for the elderly offered as well, and the tech lab is open to the community.

The READI Program

St. Agatha’s Church established a partnership with the READI program, providing a space they lease to allow them to conduct the work they do with the young adults enrolled in the program. The program is focused on professional development, job training, and mentoring along with therapy sessions, which is in tune with the church’s efforts in restorative justice.

Father Larry speaks with Jose Wilson, a director in the READI program, quite often about what they can provide for the participants as a church support. The men’s group at St. Agatha’s Church will be hosting a couple of events this summer, inviting them without any predetermined motive. The church wants to know them in a recreational context and build relationships with them.

Other Programs That Serve North Lawndale

The church serves about 300 residents in North Lawndale through the Christmas community outreach. The church and the community spend a whole morning discussing parenting and talking circles, and then the families get to sign up for the Christmas outreach. They list three needs for each family member for Christmas.

The News School began after DiMarkco Chandler connected with a friend of Father Larry’s, named James Cannon. They proposed to Father Larry a program for citizen journalism and social media marketing. Father Larry is a writer himself, with a few of his works being published. It is seen as a great source of contribution to the community, providing an outlet for creativity and a learning experience for all, regardless of age.

A general issue prevalent for all this is the argument that not enough funding is available to the West Side compared to the South Side. Father Larry begs to differ, mentioning that it is not being used as effectively. Another challenge has been making sure community members are aware of the resources available to them, particularly the restorative justice focused curriculums.

The church is working on better strategies to keep the residents well informed of the services that organizations provide. Father Larry believes that engaging with the youth is great, but abandoning the parents at home does not help the process. It is a two-fold conflict if restorative justice is to be accomplished in the community. It is all fruitless if the kids return home to an environment where the parents are adamant about what their children are involved in. It is difficult to hold the parents responsible, but not impossible, and Father Larry utilizes what the church has to offer as a way to interact with the families.

Derek Brown, for example, holds a talking circle with his wife and seven kids every week. He asks them to share their thoughts about what is going on with their lives, in and out of school and home. This is similar to the peace circles he holds with at-risk youth involved with the restorative justice initiatives.

The church has held talking circles with the parenting groups and the kids. Everyone has the opportunity to speak, even the children. On one occasion, when the talking piece was handed to a child, who was next to speak, the parent took it instead. Father Larry stopped her commenting, “everyone has a voice.” Then, he asked the child if he had something to say, surprising his parent with the desire to speak.

St. Agatha’s Church aspires to push the envelope with its community works and social initiatives, in hopes it will speak volumes as to how beneficial restorative justice can be if correctly implemented.

Written By Juan Ayala

Edited By Jeanette Smith & Kimberley Spinney

Featured Image Courtesy of bloomsberries’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Top Image Courtesy of x1klima’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License