On Sunday afternoon in the glorious sanctuary of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side, a racially and religiously diverse group of maybe 150 souls gathered to remember, to honor, and to act on behalf of the nine African Americans murdered last Wednesday during Bible study in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The rhetoric offered by the succession of ministers was somber and soaring, soothing, scathing, demanding and in no way defeated. And it was delivered by a gathering of ministers mainly from Austin, West Garfield and Oak Park who do not share a common experience but clearly felt a powerful connection on issues of racism and our profound social injustices.
Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of New Mount Pilgrim and a notable West Side activist, was listing the speakers to follow him and noted Rev. Sally Iberg of Oak Park’s Pilgrim Congregational, saying many is the time he has driven past the church on Lake Street and thought, “Our cousins.” But it seemed clear he has not visited the church and perhaps did not know that Iberg doubles as president of the Community of Congregations, the Oak Park and River Forest group that seeks to foster interdenominational connections and which has focused for the past two years on finding common ground with the West Side.
Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple, stood before the group and said, “I am ashamed that I have never been in this house of God.”
He’s not alone. I have been the publisher of a newspaper in Austin for 20 years, a fan and an acquaintance of Rev. Hatch for much of that time, and I had never been in his church either.
Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, and one of the organizers of The Leaders Network, which mobilized Sunday’s gathering, had billed the event as a “coalition of interfaith and interracial leaders and laity.” Still, he seemed surprised and moved as he looked on those assembled, a majority of them white Oak Parkers but also black, Asian, Christians, Muslims, Jews.
The hour-long service was healing even as it was raw and challenging to each of us. There was a reference that perhaps the milestone reached on Sunday afternoon, the carryover, could be the natural alliance between activist ministers on both sides of the artificial divide of Austin Boulevard. The alliance is natural — matters of faith, anger over the legion of inequities, are shared. But as in any alliance across race, it may be natural, but it won’t be entirely comfortable, at least at the start. There are fears and biases, history and perceptions, on all sides, that must be acknowledged and breached if the hard work is to be done.
White folks need to get comfortable walking down Washington Boulevard and into graceful old churches. They need to be welcomed, as they were generously on Sunday. Black ministers need to see white pastors bring a room to its feet with condemnations of the Confederate flag flying in South Carolina. They need to hear a white preacher, again Rev. Iberg, turn to them and offer thanks that this church was open on this Sunday and that they trusted that none of the white visitors had brought a gun.
The plan, enunciated at the start by Rev. Hatch, was to close the service with the entire congregation gathering at the altar to sing the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
But before we turned to that song, he circled back to the game effort early in the service by Rev. Alan Taylor of Unity Temple who sang the old traditional hymn, “I’m Gonna Do What the Spirit Says Do,” and soldiered on until the hand clapping began.
“I thought we were the only ones who sang that song,” said Rev. Hatch with a smile.
We’ve all got a lot to learn about each other.