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‘Hood’ and ‘holy’ minister: Not alone ‘even when you make bad choices’

Rev. Marilyn Pagan-Banks wants to “reconnect” people, including those in gangs, “back to their core goodness. I tell the guys, ‘If you can hustle and stand on that corner 4, 5 o’clock in the morning every day, you have work ethic.’ . . . We just need to transfer that into something positive, right?” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Marilyn Pagan-Banks, United Church of Christ minister, born in Chicago, raised in Cleveland, pastor in Humboldt Park, activist in Rogers Park, runs anti-hunger group, counsels gang members, believes “it’s not too late for anybody.”

Director of A Just Harvest in Rogers Park, which started as soup kitchen, now also works to eliminate causes of hunger, poverty.

Pastor of San Lucas United Church of Christ in Humboldt Park.

Developing new social service and ministry effort in Portage Park.

All three places aspire to be a “sanctuary in terms of having folks feel like they belong, like they can . . . exhale from the things that they’re dealing with in the world . . . trying to overcome lives of poverty . . . criminal activity . . . addiction, those kinds of hard things in life.”


Of Puerto Rican heritage, “I was raised with my father and a stepmother. My father decided he wanted to take me away from my mom and raise me in Cleveland . . . Really, I was kidnapped as a child. I laugh when I say that ’cause people think I’m joking, but I’m not.”

“It was a good thing, though. My brothers grew up in Humboldt Park and ended up in a lot of gang activity . . . So I think, the bigger picture of things, it was better that I was raised with my dad in Ohio, even though I missed my mom.”

Ran away as a teen, ended up in a group home where the adults were “very affirming” and “trusting.”

She made a promise to herself: “When I grow up, I want to help kids like they helped me. That kind of led me into ministry.”


As a single mom, sent her kids to day care at a United Church of Christ church in Cleveland. Ended up active there — in bible study, choir.

Having been raised Catholic, “I had no idea what it meant to be a Protestant.”

After a couple of years, the pastor told her, “You know you’re a member of this church, right?”

He suggested that Pagan-Banks — who’s now 50, with three children and seven grandchildren — become a minister.

Initially, she wasn’t sure, thinking, “Hell, no, God is not calling me.”

But she went to seminary in Hyde Park, was ordained in 1999 and stuck around Chicago.


“As a child, I had a recurring dream that I was following Jesus through this wooded kind of forest, very pretty, but a lot of trees, and never quite catching up. But He would always check to make sure I was still there.”


Believes it’s important to “walk” with others, “not wronging them or shaming them . . . being with them and letting them know that, hey, even when you make bad choices, you’re not alone, you still matter.”


“God knows your whole story . . . God will never stop loving you.”

How love is “expressed through works of justice and being open and affirming people’s humanity and gifts and possibility — that’s what draws me to the UCC.

“Love shows up. It’s not just how you feel, but it’s action, right?”


“I woke up to the sounds of gunfire last night.”

Two young men were once shot in front of her nonprofit in Rogers Park, near Howard Street. The window was shot out. It was fixed, but her group left the bullet holes in the blinds as a reminder.

Wants to “reconnect” people, including those in gangs, “back to their core goodness.”

“I tell the guys, ‘If you can hustle and stand on that corner 4, 5 o’clock in the morning every day, you have work ethic.’ . . . We just need to transfer that into something positive, right?”


“There’s a lot of assumptions that these are coldhearted, reckless, non-caring people. But that’s not true. They hurt, and they cry . . . like everybody else.” There’s also “a remorse . . . kind of weight of the things that they’ve done to cause harm.”


“We cannot ever give up on anybody. We come from a tradition of redemption.”


“I do believe that God has a preferential option for the poor.”


In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was “kickass, and he was an agitator.”


“I still like to have fun. I think it’s OK to have tattoos.

“I have this tattoo that says ‘Hood’ and ‘Holy.’ ”

A pastor saw it and said, “You’re trying to go from one to the other?”

She says: “I’m still both . . . I want to be grounded . . . but that we are called to a sort of higher purpose.”

Rev. Marilyn Pagan-Banks: “I have this tattoo that says ‘Hood’ and ‘Holy.’ I’m still both.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

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