My picks for the top 10 religion stories for Forest Park last year reveal that there is as much spiritual variety in this village as there is racial and ethnic diversity.
1. Crain’s Chicago Business reported that in September of 2007 a Living Word holding company, Covenant Bancshares Inc., bought the Community Bank of Lawndale for $5 million, $3 million of that upfront in cash. The purchase is more concrete testimony to the credibility of Rev. Winston’s message as stated on Living Word’s Web site: “God has given us the vision to birth a myriad of Christ-centered enterprises through which the wealth transfer can occur and his covenant can be established in the earth.”
The bank is at 1111 S. Holman, a location central to the congregation’s membership, half of which lives in Chicago.
2. The Center for Spiritual Living became the newest congregation in Forest Park, joining four others that have moved here in the last five years. What is unique about the center is that it is not exclusively Christian. Co-pastors Mike Gerdes and Margo Ruark explained that their ministry emphasizes the practical skills of relating to God rather than on doctrine, practices which can be utilized in any religious tradition.
3. The arrival of the Center for Spiritual Living is emblematic of a trend in our society. Inspired by the anti-institutional attitudes of the 1960s, increasing numbers of people are saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Alcoholics Anonymous has been promoting itself that way for more than 65 years, but more and more, people who claim to believe in and have a relationship with God see no need to belong to a faith community.
4. Most congregations in Forest Park, except for Living Word and the Baptist church, have experienced a decline in attendance and income in the last 10 years. Pastor Tony Davidson, in fact, has had his church building on the market for more than a year because of his congregation’s financial situation.
Living Word’s success has had little impact on Forest Park’s congregations, since only about 2 percent of its membership resides in our village.
5. Necessity was the mother of invention in the case of Walther Academy, which opened its doors in 2007 and finished its first year of operations in 2008. Declining enrollment caused St. John Lutheran Church to close its school. A creative proposal by Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park combined forces with the Oak Park Christian Academy and started a new school in the facility owned by St. John. Church members report that enrollment is up this year.
6. Hope Tabernacle Community Church began worshiping at 11:30 a.m. this fall in the building owned by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, whose service begins at 9 a.m. The Thai Community follows the Hope Tabernacle, starting their worship at 4:30 p.m.
7. The previous example not withstanding, 11 a.m. on Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week in Forest Park. While every congregation has some degree of diversity, none come anywhere near reflecting the racial and ethnic mix in, for example, the schools.
8. Rev. Cliff DiMascio, the pastor of First United Church of Christ for more than 20 years took a call in Dyer, Ind., and was replaced in a matter of a few months by Rev. Dean Kucera. The congregation’s adaptability is revealed in its bonding with a new pastor who holds a significantly more conservative theological view than his predecessor.
9. On some Sundays, you can hear Spanish, Telegu, Thai and English being spoken in worship in Forest Park. Five of the 15-yes, 15-churches in town are predominantly black congregations. One is Thai, one is Indian, and one is Hispanic.
10. The economic downturn has not spurred an increase in church attendance, but village clergy report more conversations about what is most important in life and a questioning of the importance of material possessions. Interesting how hard times often facilitate spiritual maturity.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.