One of the first things you encounter when walking up to the Lake Street entrance of Pilgrim Congregational Church is the “Black Lives Matter” sign displayed prominently on the door. There’s also one on the church’s marquee.
“There was one on the lawn, but it got ripped off,” said the church’s lively pastor, Rev. Sally Iberg. The church’s few hundred parishioners, although predominantly white, include many people who belong to mixed-race families and varying cultures. The United Church of Christ denomination has a history steeped in social justice advocacy and cultural diversity.
“In some congregations,” Iberg noted, “people would say, ‘Well wait, all lives matter.’ Well, yes, but right now we’re focused on Black Lives Matter, because we’ve got a lot to make up.”
Iberg, along with Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple and Rev. Alan Taylor of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, are part of a tripartite alliance of Oak Park clergy whose lives changed back in June, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people because they were black.
In the wake of the killings, the three went to a unity service held the Sunday after the shootings at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood.
“Over the last few years, it’s become so clear and obvious the depth of systemic racism,” said Taylor during a recent interview. “I showed up at that call for unity ready to engage with others.”
Taylor, who has been pastoring in Oak Park for 13 years, said he and his church had been involved with various community outreach and social justice initiatives before, including a campaign to push policy that would seal the records of felons. And each Sunday, for the last several years, his congregation has recited the names of soldiers killed in combat — and people killed in Chicago.
But he wanted to go further. Out of that call to service, Taylor said he was invited by Rev. Marshall Hatch, New Mt. Pilgrim’s activist pastor and Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in the Austin neighborhood, to join the Leaders Network — a faith-based social justice organization they both co-chaired.
Taylor took them up on the offer, eventually inviting Weiss and Iberg to join before being appointed to a seat on the board of the predominantly African American organization.
Acree said this kind of cross-border engagement with Oak Park pastors is, from his perspective, unprecedented.
“We’re building trust,” he said. “Anytime you’re going to do something significant it has to be relational. We hope to build real bridges, not just symbolic bridges. They are our neighbors.”
Weiss came to Oak Park from Hoffmann Estates, where he said he was heavily involved in social justice issues — but the two places are very different, he said.
“When I moved to Oak Park, I realized the deep divide that seemed to exist on Austin Boulevard, but I never really gave it much thought because I was moving into the synagogue and was concentrating on getting to know the community. But every week, I would sit in our worship services and we have a liturgy we repeat and we’d pray for justice and mercy. And I realized that I and my congregation needed to move liturgy into action.”
Since their involvement with the Leaders Network, the three Oak Park pastors have acquired a newfound immediacy to the city’s gun violence — completing first-responder training to comfort the families of gun violence victims and lending their voices to editorials and press conferences.
Iberg said the Oak Park pastors’ advocacy has its strategic benefits. There are certain positions that white, or non-black, people can take with impunity, or without the threat of being delegitimized, she said. Things like Black Lives Matter.
“That sign’s not coming down until I’m not here or things change,” she said.