Christmas may be past but there are those who maintain its giving spirit throughout the year. Tom and Doris Strieter are among the volunteers who serve at the Harmony Food Pantry in Chicago’s ravaged Lawndale neighborhood. This is nothing new for a Forest Park couple who have been united in marriage and activism for 53 years.
Every Wednesday they travel to 1908 S. Millard to feed the growing number of hungry people in a community with an estimated 60 percent unemployment rate. The Strieters were drawn to this mission because the youth pastor at their church, Grace Lutheran in River Forest, had felt summoned to serve this inner-city church.
The Strieters are addicted to the pantry though they grew up far from the inner city. Tom was born in Evansville, Ind., during the Great Depression. His father had been a missionary from 1911 to 1921 in Brazil, where he married Tom’s mother. In 1944, Tom’s father was called to minister to German POWs, who were scattered in camps across the U.S. For this purpose, Tom’s family moved to Chicago in 1944.
Tom’s dad not only ministered to the prisoners, he got involved with black mission churches and was an early participant in the Civil Rights Movement. After his father left for Venezuela in 1948 to continue his mission work, Tom decided to go into the ministry. “At the time, it was a dirt-cheap education to become a minister,” he recalled, “and you made a dirt-cheap living.”
Tom received a scholarship to Valparaiso University to learn music composition. The self-taught musician gave a concert of his original music at college but knew he couldn’t make a living at it.
Doris was studying piano at Valparaiso. She belonged to a sorority, and her roommate starred in many of the college musicals. One night, Tom called her roommate and asked her out. She said no. So he asked Doris for a date.
Doris has not let him forget this.
She was dead-set against marrying a minister. Her father had been a Lutheran minister, serving a small church in Alden, Iowa. Growing up as a daughter of a minister, Doris was expected to be a role model. “We couldn’t dance,” she recalled, “but we could go to drive-in movies.” These two “preachers’ kids” married in 1959.
Tom became head of Music and Education at a high school in Kenosha, Wis. In 1965, he accepted a teaching position at Concordia College (now University) and they moved to Maywood. At the time, Maywood was 50 percent black, but leadership of the village was white; the town was deeply segregated.
To bring about change, Tom and Doris helped form a Maywood action committee to elect African Americans to local office.
“We formed a black-white coalition,” Tom said. “Through fighting, partying and arguing, we came together in a partnership.” The coalition supported a slate for the village board and managed to elect two African-American trustees and one clerk. “It was a wonderful feeling,” he recalled.
Tom was then elected to the village board from 1969 to 1973. During this time, the couple became deeply involved with Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. “Fred came to our house,” Tom said. “We had a really good relationship.” Tom even invited Fred and the Panthers to speak at Concordia, an event that hastened his departure from the faculty.
The Strieters were in San Diego on Dec. 4, 1969, the day Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police. Upon their return, “we went through the murder scene,” Tom recalled. “There was a huge line around the block, as police were allowing access to the apartment.” Tom and others urged that murder charges be filed against the police. This stance earned him a letter of censure from his superiors at Concordia. In 1971, the former “outstanding professor” was not granted tenure.
Tom left Concordia, accepting a call from a church in Glen Ellyn. Meanwhile, Doris had been elected as Maywood’s first female trustee. The couple was still heavily involved in the community, but events would cause them to leave Maywood.
“We knew it was time to go,” Doris said, “when I found a male intruder in the upstairs hallway of our house.” Doris warned the man, “Don’t you dare touch me; I’m on the village board!” Her two young daughters came out of their bedroom and pounded on the man, crying, “Don’t you hurt our mother!” The memory of this moment still brings tears to Doris’ eyes.
The intruder fled that night but had the audacity the break into their house again. This time the daughters were home alone. One of the girls dialed the operator, who called the police, and the man was caught. He turned out to be one of their neighbors. In 1977, the family moved to Glen Ellyn.
During the ensuing years, Tom and Doris traveled extensively, working in far-flung places. In the wake of the military coup in Chile, they went there as dignitaries for the Chicago Peace Council to check for human rights violations. They later sponsored 70 refugee Chilean families to come to Chicago.
In Warsaw, Poland, Doris delivered a speech at a peace conference on behalf of the American delegation. Her photo appeared on the front page of the Daily World, where she was misidentified as Russia’s first female cosmonaut. Doris later joined Amnesty International and served as Midwest regional director for eight years.
All of these progressive activities attracted the attention of local authorities. The couple requested their files from the notorious Red Squad of the Chicago Police Department, which monitored suspected subversives. Tom’s file consisted of five pages, but Doris’ file was 40 pages thick. The Red Squad described her as a “female advisor” to the Black Panther Party, which still makes the couple laugh.
After Tom obtained his doctorate from the Lutheran School of Theology, he served churches in the Midwest, including an African-American parish in Beverly. He retired from the ministry in 2002, and Doris stopped working full-time in 2007. It’s been anything but a restful retirement for the couple. They are knee-deep in editing theological textbooks and looking forward to translating the sermons of activist priest Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador while saying Mass.
In explaining their lifelong passion for social justice, Tom said he was simply following the example of his father, who was always enlightened about race. He remembered the night Fred Hampton was murdered. His mother called to ask why he was involved with the Black Panthers. Tom told her, “I got my ideas from you and Dad.”
Harmony in Lawndale
Rev. James Brooks, the 38-year-old pastor of Harmony Community Church of Lawndale, certainly appreciates Tom and Doris’ wisdom and giving spirit.
Brooks worked at Grace Lutheran in River Forest from 2002 to 2010 before being called to the pulpit of Harmony Community Church. Brooks was no stranger to the century-old church. His father, James Brooks Sr., had served as pastor since 1991.
“He’s the man,” Brooks said with admiration. “He’s full of wisdom and I stand on his shoulders.” Still, leaving a ministry in River Forest for Lawndale wasn’t easy.
“It was a tough decision,” Brooks confided. “I gave my final sermon at Grace about dealing with tough calls. I was crying all through it.” Brooks, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Broadview, lost more than half his salary. “But I have a heart for urban ministry and Christian community development. Grace gave me the organizational skills to use in this job.”
So far, Brooks has enjoyed a successful ministry, with 300 members of his ecumenical congregation worshipping on Sundays. Meanwhile, the church’s food pantry feeds 400 families every week.
“We celebrate the Christmas spirit all year,” Brooks said, “sharing God’s gifts with others, sharing the goodness of God by loving your neighbor.”
Diane Carioscio of River Forest, a member of Grace Lutheran since 1981, shares the title of pantry coordinator with two Harmony members, Andy Simpson and Lanette Joseph. They are aided by 10-15 members of the community. This faithful team of volunteers comes together for service without fail each week. “Loving and serving like Christ” is the theme embodied by Harmony’s volunteers.
Carioscio had gotten to know Rev. Brooks when she served on Grace’s youth group committee. One day he invited her to the Harmony Food Pantry. Carioscio was immediately hooked.
It was James Brooks Sr. who started the food pantry in 2006. He arrived at Harmony Church one day and noticed a man digging through the Dumpster in search of food. The sight so moved him, he decided to do something about it. “No one should be that hungry,” he vowed. Every week since, Harmony has opened its doors to the poor and homeless.
Reflecting on what motivates her to volunteer, Carioscio cited a recent sermon she heard at Grace Lutheran. Rev. Bruce Modahl, the pastor, recounted a talk he had heard by a pantry director in Florida.
“If you have come here to work because you want to put an end to hunger and poverty, you will last two months,” Modahl said, quoting the pastor.
“Every week, the line will be as long as it was the week before. And sometimes the line will be longer. After two months, you will realize the line will always be forming at our front door. You will give up and find something else to do with your time,” he told Modahl.
“If you have come here because it makes you feel good inside to help others, you will last one month. Some of the people who come here are mentally ill. Some of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some of them have been kicked in the gut. They don’t care how you feel inside. They may well get in your face because they resent you. If you want to feel good inside, then go shopping,” the pastor added.
“But if you are here because you have a vision of God’s new creation in which no one goes hungry or homeless, you will become addicted to this place and these people. You will feel like one of them and they will trust you,” the pastor said.
Brooks appreciates Tom and Doris Strieter and encourages other Forest Parkers to help the pantry by visiting www.hcc1908.org, where they can find opportunities to donate or volunteer.
“We’re trying to acquire the vacant lot to the south of the church for parking and put up tents to protect the pantry participants,” Brooks said.
If people give to the church’s capital campaign, these hungry people might be spared standing in the snow next Christmas.