Evergreen Cemetery Honors Chicago Gatekeepers, Re-Welcomes Black Community

Dignity Memorial at Evergreen Cemetery and Kenny Brothers Funeral Home will honor seven civic and religious leaders with their Gatekeepers Memorial Garden this autumn.

What began as plans for a memorial garden for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. evolved into a dedication to living legends and an invitation to the African-American community back into an Evergreen Park company. Dignity Memorial at and identified seven religious and civic leaders of mixed denominations who have each changed their communities in some way throughout their lifetime, and will officially honor them with a dedication and monument in the Gatekeepers Garden at Evergreen Cemetery, 3401 W. 87th St. this autumn.

“We want to have living legends,” said legendary priest George Clements, who is among the seven inaugural Dignity Memorial Gatekeepers. “We want to have people around who [youngsters] can really look up to, identify with and can look and say well maybe I can do some of the same things these people have done.”

This sentiment is exactly what Evergreen Cemetery general manager David Michaels envisioned when he dreamt out loud about his gatekeepers.

“All of these seven individuals have in one way or another, through what they’ve done in their lives, changed the world and helped make it a better place,” said Michaels. “When everybody comes out and sees the monument and the gatekeepers who are there and we’re able to really have a positive look at what community really is, we can keep having that year after year.”

“I have always felt that we need to honor people while they’re alive and not wait until they have gone on,” said Clements. “We are immediately reaching out to try to do something for people who are still around us, especially our young people,” he said.

Clements will join the ranks of several civil and religious leaders in Chicago: Rev. Dr. Clay Evans, founder of the Fellowship Baptist Church and civil rights leader; Apostle R.D. Henton, founder of the Monument of Faith Church and CEO of Breakthrough Ministries; Rev. Dr. Mildred Harris, founder pastor and CEO of God First Church and Ministries, and commissioner of the Chicago Housing Authorities; Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr., minister and civil and human rights activist; Rev. Willie T. Barrow, minister and civil rights leader; and Bishop Cody Marshall, founder and pastor of Freedom Temple Church of God in Christ.

Each year, Michaels says the seven will choose a new religious leade—preferably a younger pastor —to add to the monument, but not as a Gatekeeper. “These Gatekeepers are now passing the torch to this new pastor saying ‘because you are being recognized with us, we have an expectation of you,’” said Michaels.

“As the seven have demonstrated in the way they have lived their lives and the things that they’ve done, it’s a good way to connect what has been done and who’s laid the course to be what it is today, with those that are presently doing that as well.”

Additionally, the Gatekeepers Initiative presents the seven Gatekeepers as the “representation of what we intend to create for positive change in the future,” explained Michaels. The initiative will use the religious leaders’ existing resources to “help continue and grow the support of the community and seek other avenues of gaining support whether it’s federal funding or charitable donations,” said Michaels. Also, making it so that “you really don’t have to be a member of a church to be able to benefit from what the churches are giving to the community.”

As the company honors several community leaders, Michaels says he’d like to take the opportunity to re-welcome the African American community back to Evergreen Cemetery.

While working at Evergreen Cemetery for several years as a grounds superintendent, Michaels said he encountered several families who didn’t know African Americans were buried there. “All the time, I would hear the same thing,” said Michaels, who moved to the South side from Humboldt Park. “I would hear African American families saying, ‘they bury black people here?’”

Michaels says that, “I figured out that as much as we had come forward, there were certain areas that had not changed. So when they promoted me to the general manager, I said, ‘well if that is the prevalent thought that exists in the African American community, I need to change that.’”

So Michaels decided to dedicate a garden to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “because there’s nowhere in the city is there a cemetery doing something like that, for African Americans to say ‘that place that used to not be for us is now for us.’”

Michaels, however, did not receive approval from the King family to proceed, but a new idea was on the horizon.

In his day-to-day work with different churches, he asked Chicago-based Monument of Faith founder and pastor Apostle R.D. Hinton for advice. “Talking with him, he said ‘well there’s lots of people who you can honor who are still living.’” Hinton became Michaels’ first Gatekeeper. Noted founder of the Chicago-based Fellowship Baptist Church and Breakthrough Ministries Rev. Dr. Clay Evans was his second.

“What could be more fulfillment on some level of Dr. King’s dream, that 40 some odd years later, a non African-American walks into the home of Rev. Clay Evans and says, ‘I want to honor you?’ It’s dream fulfilled on a small, small level,” said Michaels.

“God took me down this path. I could have never done this on my own,” he said with gratitude and excitement.

Michaels said his experience working with his first group of Gatekeepers has been life-changing. “I couldn’t have gotten a better blessing in life than to get to know them,” said Michaels, “but then now to be able to showcase them to the world, honor them on a monument and create an initiative that will help give back to the community,” he said, is priceless.

Tomorrow on Patch, get to know George Clements, one of the newly honored Gatekeepers.

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