When hundreds of far-right protestors, including young white supremacists and neo-Nazis armed with weapons and tiki torches, took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in August, Yevette Killingsworth thought about her son, who was living in Charlottesville at the time.
“He said it was scary for people to even be out at that time — and this is 2017,” Killingsworth recalled during a Dec. 16 interview at Cornerstone Anglican Church-True Freedom Ministry, 171 N. Cuyler Ave., in Oak Park.
The protests had a more indirect effect on the Rev. Michael Wright, the pastor of True Freedom Ministry — a predominantly African-American congregation that shares space, along with a predominantly Hispanic congregation, inside of the Cornerstone Anglican Church, a predominantly white congregation.
Wright’s church had been developing a relationship with an Anglican church in Wheaton. The bishop of that church, Wright said, explained that his predominantly white congregation was so shaken by Charlottesville that he offered to bring counsel to Wright’s parishioners.
“I told him that we deal with that kind of trauma every day,” Wright recalled during an interview on Monday. “You’re talking about Charlottesville, but I have three members in my congregation whose relatives were shot.”
The frank exchange would eventually morph into a movement of sorts called, simply, Walk Across the Street. The initiative involves cultural exchanges between black and white churches — both on Sunday morning and during the week in the form of seminars on race relations and other topics.
Grace McCutcheon, a former member of another Anglican church in Wheaton who moved to Chicago last year and now attends True Freedom, said that Wright’s visit to her old church, which is predominantly white, sparked a cultural exchange that was “really powerful.”
“As they say, 10 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most prejudiced time of the year,” said Dorsey Johns, a West Side resident. “We’re trying to break that down.”
Last Sunday, the Walk Across the Street movement spawned a Christmas concert and variety show of sorts held at Cornerstone that featured a multicultural, multiracial choir singing popular gospel songs.
A literal walk
The name Walk Across the Street evokes the first encounter between Wright and Cornerstone’s pastor, the Rev. William Beasley, who around two years ago literally walked across the street to see what was happening at the predominantly black congregation, then worshiping at Beye Elementary School, located kitty-corner to Cornerstone.
“Rev. Beasley was having lunch with his wife and just walked across the street,” Wright said (attempts to reach Beasley before press time were unsuccessful).
The moment resulted in a fellowship between the two churches that made what happened one Sunday a little easier for the both of them.
“We had gotten locked out of the school one Sunday and we didn’t have a place to worship,” Wright said. “People were standing outside, so we walked across the street and Cornerstone allowed us to worship there for the day.”
In 2016, Wright said, True Freedom Ministry moved in permanently, with the two churches now joined at the hip — hence the merged name, Cornerstone-True Freedom. The church also shares space with a predominantly Hispanic congregation, Piedra Principal.
“We have different services, but our leadership is really integrated,” said Cornerstone member Betsy Rager, who lives in Austin. “We sometimes have combined services and we do different outreach ministries together.”
“Rev. Beasley always had a multicultural vision and I had a multicultural heart,” said Wright. “Oak Park, being a multicultural location, is a wonderful place for us to prosper.”
Wright and other people involved in the Walk Across the Street movement, however, are quick to point out that this extended moment of racial reconciliation is not premised on any watered down sense of unity.
“I love the notion of Christians coming together to worship from different backgrounds, but in a way that is just,” said Keesha Mwangangi, a former member of True Freedom, who now pastors a church of her own in Austin, where members of Cornerstone have visited as part of the Walk Across the Street initiative.
“What impresses me is when this notion came up of Walk Across the Street, Pastor Wright became the voice for what this can look like,” Mwangangi said. “That’s pretty big, because when we talk about racial reconciliation, leadership is only coming from whites and the blacks are just sitting-duck participants. But in this case, Pastor Mike came up with a curriculum and did an orientation.”
Pastor Rickey Sanders said that when his Austin church was visited by some white parishioners recently as part of the Walk Across the Street initiative, he didn’t shy from incorporating social justice into his sermon.
He spoke about Colin Kaepernick and the politics behind the former quarterback’s protest. He didn’t hold back for the sake of unity, he said, although the conversation was always cordial. And when Sanders visited a predominantly white church, he was struck by the commonalities.
Last Saturday, as Killingsworth spoke in the church’s vestibule, sounds of “Emmanuel,” a gospel song ubiquitous during the Christmas season, particularly in black churches, wafted from the sanctuary.
Everyone interviewed for this story was part of a multiracial choir that performed during the concert.
In keeping with Mwangangi’s observations, the African-American religious experience anchored the program, but there were flourishes of other cultures and ethnic intermingling. “Silent Night” was sung in Spanish. Someone played a harp. McCutcheon performed spoken word.
“We’re not allowing the affairs of Charlottesville to define who our neighbors are as Christians,” said Mwangangi. “The people who were carrying those tiki torches identify as Christians, but what’s encouraging to me as a pastor who has been part of this is that white Christians took the initiative to say, ‘This is not the narrative of my Christian faith.'”
One Jesus, Mwangangi said, led people to protest against blacks. Another, she added, led people to speak out against the protestors.
“I don’t know of a true, liberating Christian who would say we both serve the same Jesus,” Mwangangi said.
“One is false,” said McCutcheon, who is white.