Reverend John Edgerton, the pastor of First United Church of Oak Park, announced last month that he and his congregation would be “fasting from whiteness” for the 40-day Lenten period, which is before Easter and requires Christians to sacrifice something that’s important to them.
During the church’s “whiteness fast,” the congregation only played music by non-white Christian musical artists. The announcement itself, however, got a national reaction and coverage by mainstream media outlets, including many on the political and cultural fringes like the right-wing outlet Daily Wire.
In Austin, First United’s fast prompted an outpouring of support by area clergy and some criticism by community members.
Edgerton addressed some of the backlash during comments he made at a meeting of the Leaders Network held May 10, at Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 West Jackson Blvd. in Austin.
“We didn’t just touch a nerve, we touched a wound,” Edgerton pointed out in a statement the Leaders Network released after the event. “There is no way to speak about racism in this country that is not uncomfortable. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. The only other option is silence and we will not be silent.”
In the statement, David Cherry, the president of the Leaders Network, said the organization “proudly welcomes Rev. Edgerton to the west side,” adding that “this young white brother took a courageous stand and our meeting is an opportunity for the Black community and our allies to stand with him.”
But some West Side residents who were interviewed after the May 10 meeting criticized the whiteness fast as more performative than substantive.
“What we could’ve used was a donation,” said Anita Holmes, a resident of Galewood. “He could’ve picked any social service organization that serves Black communities and given them funds. That would’ve been more impressive to me than singing songs by Black artists.”
During the May 10 Leaders Network meeting, Edgerton voiced his support for the faith-based group’s plans to bring a credit union to the West Side, saying it would “fix the system” of financial oppression that many on the Westside face.
For South Austin resident Byron Thompson, however, an acknowledgement of financial oppression isn’t enough.
“Sometimes people want a pat on the back for coming to realizations that we [as Black people] have come to long ago,” Thompson said. “We need more than that. We need real work; work that takes longer than 40 days to do.”
First United’s website lists organizations such as Beyond Hunger, BUILD Chicago and Housing Forward as community partners through which members of the church’s congregation volunteer. They also offer peace vigils and speak out against gun violence in the community.
“I want more of these churches to do more,” said Barbara Burns, a lifelong resident of Austin. “Have more programs for the kids, have resources that aren’t just for church members. Not everyone goes to church. I think they should still be supporting the community though.”