By Dan Haley
Sunday afternoon was the unofficial sendoff for Sally Iberg, the pastor these past seven years at Pilgrim Congregational. You might know it primarily as the "donut church" from Farmers Market or as home to a wonderful preschool.
But this church with a fairly small, diverse and mighty congregation, has long had greater ambition on social justice issues. That explains the genuine thanks offered Sunday by, among others, Michele Zurakowski, head of the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry and Lynda Schueler, leader at Housing Forward.
The reason I was there, and among the many speakers, was Iberg's profound efforts to forge alliances with her faith colleagues in Austin. And it was the Sunday testimony of three of the West Side's most noted black ministers — Rev. Ira Acree, Rev. Cy Fields, Rev. Marshall Hatch — that made plain that true and game-changing connections have been made.
All three of those powerful men spoke of the Father's Day Sunday in 2015 when Rev. Hatch issued an invitation to a unity service in the troubling wake of the murders of the Bible study group meeting in the legendary Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Those dozen African American faithful had been gunned down by a young white supremacist. Across America, the calls for forgiveness from the families of the victims were stunningly welcomed.
Hatch issued the unity service call and it was heard in Oak Park by among others Iberg, Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple and Rev. Alan Taylor of Unity Temple. Together with members of their congregations, that trio of white faith leaders joined with Hatch, Acree, Fields and other West Siders in the welcoming sanctuary of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Boulevard in Garfield Park.
I wrote about that afternoon and its profound impact on me in this space two years and seven months ago. And I've often thought of that afternoon in the dark and divided days we endure at this moment. But to hear these black men stand in the pulpit of Pilgrim Congregational on Sunday affirmed that something with deep meaning and possibility had taken place.
Rev. Hatch remembered "people, neighbors we had not met yet, flooding across Austin Boulevard. We saw the barriers broken down." And he recalled Iberg, who brought intensity, anguish, and, remarkably, thanks to the black ministers for having the trust to welcome white ministers into their church.
Iberg "was a spiritual ball of fire, in the African American tradition," Hatch said Sunday in perhaps the most sincere compliment that might be offered.
Rev. Fields was wonderfully candid Sunday, speaking of Iberg: "It was the first time, up close, that I saw a white woman full of spiritual passion. I knew in theory about such people but had never seen it. It gave me hope. I felt that we were not alone."
That afternoon was magical, maybe miraculous if you are inclined to see such things. But it could have ended there. Both the West Side and the Oak Park ministers could have felt the rush but returned to the suspicions and the fears that had kept them apart all these decades.
It hasn't evolved that way.
Iberg had recently taken the helm of the driftless Community of Congregations in Oak Park and River Forest. She infused that group with her fire, led a movement to formally widen its reach into the West Side, and helped convene the group's annual meeting in Rev. Acree's church last January. For their part, Fields, Hatch and Acree welcomed the Oak Parkers into their West Side Leaders Network, a bold and inclusive welcome.
This village of Oak Park has been slowly coming out of its defensive crouch toward Austin the past few years. Thirty years squandered but still good. In this moment, we need to keep this plague of carjackings from reigniting the fears. Only forward.
The Community of Congregations will host its annual meeting on Monday, Jan. 29 at Oak Park Temple, 1235 N. Harlem. Dinner at 6:30. $15 suggested donation. Keynoter will by Mony Ruiz-Velasco, an Oak Parker and executive director of PASO. The topic: What happens when the religious community steps up on immigration.
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