A lot was going on in the faith communities in Forest Park last year. Following are my picks for the ten most significant stories about religion in 2005.

1. Bill Winston

In a way, Pastor Bill Winston at Living Word Christian Center is no longer news. It’s a bit like when Michael Jordan was playing. Sportscasters stopped making a big deal about His Airness scoring thirty, forty points a game. As it was with Jordan, so during the last fifteen years we’ve gotten used to Pastor Winston doing things in a big way, even though it might take him a while to do it. Winston grabbed the headlines again in 2005, not only by bringing Forest Park’s mall back but also for walking the talk of his prosperity theology by announcing plans for the opening of a medical clinic and a bank at the mall.

2. Blossoming of the Thai congregation

It’s hard to resist using the image of the unfolding of a lotus blossom for the Thai Congregation. After thirteen years of ministry in Forest Park, the Thai Community Church really came into its own last year. The congregation received national exposure when ABC televised parts of its 2004 Christmas service on December 25. TCC unveiled a twenty-four foot long mural of the life of Jesus in thirteen scenes by the Thai artist Sawai Chinawong, and the congregation has gained energy from the influx of many university students from Thailand.

3. Baptist vision

It’s too early to say if the dream will become a reality, but Forest Park Baptist Church has taken the first crucial steps toward carrying out its vision of increasing its impact on Forest Park. The vision involves a three part building plan which includes an expanded parking lot, a new, handicapped accessible entryway, and a new multi-purpose unit. Completing the whole plan would cost the congregation around $3 million. On November 27, it was announced that a total of 92 people had altogether pledged $348,967.46 toward phases one and two of the vision. Around here that’s one huge first step.

4. Shrinking mainline congregations

The other congregations which have been in town more than twenty years, however, have not done as well financially. Money problems have forced St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s, St. John, St. Bernardine and First United to either cut salaries or reduce programming in their congregations and, in two cases, in their schools. Falling attendance and demographic change are often blamed for the decline.

5. West Suburban PADS

Part of the paradox regarding the religious situation in Forest Park is that the ongoing effectiveness of the homeless shelter program in our area is due in large part to the commitment of members of the very congregations that are shrinking and having money problems. The 800 person volunteer network is comprised largely of church going folk, and of course every site is in a house of worship”each one more than fifty years old. West Suburban PADS was, more than other nonprofit organization, responsible for the excellent care sixty evacuees from New Orleans received at the Madden Mental Center in the fall.

6. Part time clergy

Partly because of the financial difficulties many congregations are facing, seven clergy in Forest Park do not earn anywhere near all of their annual income from the salaries their faith communities provide. The old model of at least one full time ordained person with full salary and benefits per congregation seems to be giving way to other”at times creative”staffing arrangements.

7. Pragmatic ecumenism

In terms of theology, Forest Park clergy have never reached a consensus. But when it comes time to putting on an event, they same to find a way to reach common ground which does not comprise their individual integrity. The community Thanksgiving service at St. John in November was a good example. Clergy and members from Pentecostal, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran and Catholic churches prayed, sang and preached in a way that was not only respectful of differences but at times synergistic. Maybe contentious politicians in Washington should check out this model.

8. The death of one pope
and the election of another

It wasn’t so much any program or event that was significant in Forest Park. Rather, it was that for about two weeks, the funeral of John Paul and the election of Benedict not only made good prime time TV viewing, but it also gave people an occasion to talk about their hopes and dreams for what the church could be. The exact content of what people hoped for varied, of course, from individual to individual. But right in the middle of news about clergy abuse, it was as if people wanted to dream of what could be for awhile and not spin their wheels in the mire of what sometimes is reality.

9. The coloring Of Forest Park religion

Think about it. New Harvest Fellowship”mainly Mexican. Chicago Christian Center”Mainly black. Thai Community Church”speaks Thai at every service. Living Word Christian Center”15,000 members, 95% of whom are African-American. The Telegu and Asian Indian Churches”smell the aroma of curry. That is in addition to almost every other congregation also having people of color in their midst. Maybe the biggest news is that it no longer seems to be a big deal.

10. Muslims get more assertive

After the terrorist bombings in London last summer, some of the Muslims in our Tri-Village Area were very willing to give interviews. That surprised me. The ones who talked to me explained that, in their opinion, their fellow believers have been keeping too much to themselves”a kind of don’t ask don’t tell approach to conversation about religion”with the result being that most non-Muslim Americans have no idea what mainstream Islam teaches about jihad or Shuria law or the role of women in society. It’s time”they were saying”to “come out of the closet” and let people discover that these are mainly folks like everyone else, and that terrorists represent Islam no more than the KKK is a poster child for Christianity..