Bethel Mennonite Community Church serves a neighborhood with the deceptively quaint name of University Village/Columbus Circle, but outside its doors at Laflin and 14th Street lie the ABLA Homes, the sprawling and decrepit public-housing project. The 11 AM Sunday service is about to begin, but only 17 worshippers are scattered among the 80 metal chairs, and the guest of honor, Fred Hampton Jr., hasn't arrived.
Hampton has been invited to attend as part of a weekend of activities celebrating his parole from prison after serving eight years of an 18-year term for aggravated arson. The previous Friday, he spoke at a rally at Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies, and the next day he and his supporters took a bus tour of sites relevant to the history of the Black Panthers' Chicago chapter, which his father led. The tour began at 2337 W. Monroe, the party headquarters back in December 1969, when Chicago police stormed the building and gunned down Fred Hampton Sr. and Mark Clark. Fred Hampton Jr. was born less than four weeks later.
In May 1993, Hampton was convicted of throwing Molotov cocktails into two Korean-owned shops near 63rd and Halsted. In a Reader cover story published three years ago he and his mother, Akua Njeri, claimed that law enforcement officials had persecuted him because of his father. Njeri recently returned to Bethel Mennonite, which she'd attended 20 years earlier, and last April, Pastor Tony Bianchi accompanied her to her son's clemency hearing, held before a crowd of supporters at the James R. Thompson Center.
Wearing a yarmulke and a purple dashiki, Bianchi kneels in front of a poster showing a white dove against a blue background. Near the end of a lengthy prayer he says, "We also pray for the Hampton family." The readings include Luke 16:19-31, the story of the miserable beggar Lazarus, who sits ignored at the gate of a rich man. After both men die, Lazarus ascends into heaven while the rich man descends into hell, and when the rich man appeals to Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water, Abraham refuses: "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented."
Zenobia Sowell Bianchi, the pastor's wife, sings a cappella: "I've been changed since the Lord has lifted me / I want to be ready when Jesus comes." Ushers take a collection for the church's youth day, and one man, noting that he sees eight children, chips in a dollar for each of them. As the two-hour service progresses, more people drift in, and eventually the church is half full.
Pastor Bianchi's sermon focuses on the reading from Luke. "There is going to be a reversal of fortune," he predicts. "When you see that man at the gate and when that man is falsely put away, you speak up in faith against it."
At 20 minutes to one, Fred Hampton Jr. arrives, wearing a black leather jacket, a green sweatshirt, and green pants. Accompanying him are his attorney, Carlos Weeden, supervisor of the University of Wisconsin Legal Defense Program, and Donna Hunt, a law student at Florida A&M University. Bianchi calls Hampton to the front, and Hampton takes the microphone. He's passionate and articulate, arguing that the criminal justice system is stacked against African-Americans.
"They killed my father, in a way, to terrify the masses," he says. Hampton was moved from one prison to another throughout his incarceration, and he claims he saw abuses at several of them, including Stateville Correctional Center, from which he was just released. "We call it Deathville," he says. "Just two months ago there were four unexplained deaths there." He says that guards at Menard spit on inmates' food. During visitation at Shawnee, he says, he saw an inmate ask a guard for permission to speak to his wife and daughter even though they were sitting right next to him. "We have to expose this," Hampton says. "There is no war on drugs and gangs. It is a war on us."
"All right," says one person in the audience. Another claps.
"Thank you all for your support," Hampton says. "Without you, I could not have made it." He closes with an old expression his father once used: "Power to the people."