If I’ve looked a little down lately, it’s because I’m mourning the closing of the church I belonged to for 27 years – St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. On March 28, St. Paul’s held its last service in the white stucco church with two steeples at the corner of Brown and Dixon.
It’s hard to say good-bye. We went through a lot together since I moved into the parsonage next to the church in 1982. Good times like when two Nigerian twins were baptized and the family invited 40 of their African friends to join us for worship on Easter Sunday. Good times like watching our children re-enact the story of the birth of Jesus every Christmas Eve.
Hard times like the 165 funerals at which I presided. Hard times like divorces, surgeries, unemployment, alcoholism, and the time our treasurer embezzled $12,000. What’s especially hard to let go of is that even many of the hard times were transformed into profound, inspiring experiences because that little community of believers chose to frame the challenges as opportunities to experience God’s grace.
If I’ve looked hopeful lately, it’s because two weeks after saying their final amens, the remaining remnant of St. Paul’s members chose to hand over the keys to the Thai congregation which has been sharing the building with them since 1992. The Thais never intended to stay that long. Their plan was to be there six years, save up a couple hundred thousand dollars and eventually buy their own building.
As time went on, however, many the members of the two congregations became attached to each other, the Thais became comfortable in the building, and a trusting relationship grew. So as St. Paul’s continued to slowly decline in membership, the congregation began to think of what it could pass on as a legacy at that seemingly inevitable time when it would no longer have enough people to keep the church going.
So on April 11, a kind of reincarnation happened in front of our eyes. The American congregation died and a new congregation, calling itself St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, came into being. It may sound strange to use a Buddhist concept to describe what happened to a Christian church. I thought about using death and resurrection, but those terms don’t exactly fit. No, the church was reborn, so to speak, in a quite different form.
Instead of German potato salad, baked beans and Jello salads at church dinners, parishioners now savor the aroma of Pad Thai and curries with mango, and they enjoy mango and sticky rice for dessert. Directly below a big stained glass window with the words “Heilige Bibel” is a 13-frame mural of the life of Jesus, painted according to Thai artistic conventions.
What makes me hopeful is that the reincarnation I witnessed seems to bode well for the changes Forest Park is going through. The history of our village is marked by the arrival of wave after wave of immigrant groups. Following the Native Americans who lived here was the migration of thousands of Germans in the late 1800s. That’s why there are three Lutheran churches and a German Baptist church located north of Jackson Boulevard.
When Chicago’s West Side experienced sudden and dramatic racial turnover in the 1960s and ’70s, whites fled to villages like Forest Park where hundreds of six-story apartment and condo buildings were being constructed to accommodate them. The irony, of course, is that the whites who moved here were followed by African Americans from the same West Side who were looking for safer neighborhoods and better schools. Gradually, black residents are taking their place as leaders in this community and contributors to the common good.
There have been bumps in the road, of course, but the recent transition I’ve witnessed at St. Paul’s is just one in a series of events in this village confirming my faith that, in the midst of all the challenges and changes we’re going through right now, together we’re going to make it work.
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.