Sunday evening on the West Side, the Community of Congregations offered its annual Multi-Faith Thanksgiving Service. Go back not too far and this Oak Park and River Forest-focused group was the Council of Churches and the multi-faiths were Protestants and Catholics patting themselves on the back for being so progressive that they were marking a non-religious holiday in a shared pew.
We’ve come far.
The Community of Congregations, in addition to Catholics and the traditional mix of Episcopalians, Methodists and Lutherans, now includes the Baha’i Community of Oak Park, the Oak Park Friends Meeting, Oak Park Temple and West Suburban Temple in River Forest, the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, the Shem Center and, yes, Unitarians.
But the news these past years has been the alliance, consciously grown, between the Oak Park and River Forest congregations and their counterparts on the West Side of the city in Austin and West Garfield.
Locked, fully stuck in fear and doubt, this is a shared, hard-won effort by women and men of faith who have left traces of comfort well behind. It was a pact forged in anguish after the June 2015 murder of nine African-American worshipers in a historic black church in Charleston.
Rev. Marshall Hatch and Rev. Ira Acree, pastors and sponsors of the Leaders Network of West Side religious, planned a memorial in Hatch’s welcoming New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Boulevard. While billed as an interfaith and interracial gathering, I look back at that afternoon as an epiphany for all blessed to have been there. In that moment, for that moment, at least, suspicion dropped away, nerves over genuine cultural divides were tamped down and deep pain and grief were shared.
To the credit of all, that was not a moment frozen in time. Connections have been built, projects shared.
And so on a Sunday night just before Thanksgiving it was a return trip to New Mount Pilgrim for these allies of so many faiths, so many races, so many ways to be divided and core ways to unite. In a gracious sanctuary, a multi-faith choir belted and caressed songs of many traditions; a string of ministers brought deep worries over social justice to the pulpit; Chicago’s mayor, announced but not present, missed a great opportunity to see profound possibilities. Rev. Alan Taylor, president of the Community of Congregations and minister at Unity Temple, proclaimed that from West Garfield to Oak Park to Proviso, “we’re all West Siders.” He exclaimed “the transformative power of love as we build relationships across faiths, races, class and so much which divides us.”
Rev. Marshall Hatch described “one of those periods of history that can go either way.” We are, he said, “in tremendous danger with an irreconcilable division of visions.” One vision, he said, will win out and “we must arrive at one destination. A multi-racial democracy. Everybody is in. Nobody is out.”
Four years ago, Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple told those gathered at New Mount Pilgrim to mourn those slain in South Carolina that “I am ashamed that I have never been in this house of God.” This Thanksgiving week a more rooted man said, “Look around this holy room. Look at each face. Each one created in the eye of God.” And then in a call-and-response that would make any black minister smile, the rabbi led a charge for social justice across the divides that have tethered us to fear and failure and implored this one-night-only congregation to stand together for good.