St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church's Pastor, Leonard Payton, stands in the church's community garden July 26. The church is surveying neighbors as to how it can better serve the local community.JEAN LOTUS/Staff

Members of St. John Church, 305 N. Circle Ave. are listening to what Forest Parkers have to say about their neighborhood.

“St. John has been around since 1867,” said Rev. Leonard Payton. “The neighborhood changes and every now and then we have to figure out what would make life in Forest Park better for our neighborhood.”

Payton and members of his congregation asked neighbors about their lives in Forest Park on July 20. Church members chatted with passersby in the tot lot at the intersection of Circle Avenue and Randolph Street. Those who answered the survey received a coupon from a fast-food restaurant.

It’s part of the church’s bigger mission of creating goals and programming that has meaning for the neighborhood, Payton said.

Respondents were asked “What are the most challenging issues to you in your neighborhood?” Volunteers recorded their answers.

It’s almost like a micro version of the village’s comprehensive plan stakeholder surveys, Payton acknowledges, although he said the church developed the idea independently.

“There are 5,000 people living within a quarter mile of the church,” he said. “It’s very hard to make contact with them and know what would be good for them.”

In 2010 St. John created a community garden in an empty weed-choked lot west of the school. Volunteers from the Forest Park Community Garden came and built 4 x 8 foot raised garden beds, which local residents planted with vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Little did the church know that neighbors from the area would start to linger in the garden, sit at the picnic tables and walk their dogs in the green space. (Payton says they do a good job cleaning up after dogs, too).

“The community garden was kind of a lucky stab in the dark,” Payton said. “It’s just got a nice feel back there. People sit out there and enjoy it.” In a section of town with little green space, Payton observes the garden is “like an extra park.”

Payton said the church and school buildings take up a village block, but that they don’t seem to have relevance for neighbors who live nearby. “The facility is large and gangly,” he said. “It was built for a different time and usage. It’s hard to heat and hard to fill.”

“We have this big building but we’re kind of invisible if we’re not part of their lives,” Payton said. “People walk by with earbuds in and basically ignore us. It’s very hard to make that contact.”

In early days, St. John served German Lutheran immigrants. Many Forest Park children graduated from the school, which even had a bowling alley in the basement. “Things do change,” Payton said. Part of the change was due to the tear-down of most of the single family homes in the neighborhood during the 1970s which were replaced by multi-unit apartment buildings.

Payton said congregation members are local for the most part, but that families from all over the region send their children to the school, now Walther Academy.

“Each one of those (apartment) buildings is like its own gated community,” Payton said. “You go in and you go up the elevator, down a long dark hallway til you get to your door. The hallway is not a good meeting place.”

What did residents tell St. John’s volunteers?

“There was one common thread,” Payton said. “Everyone we talked to liked Forest Park and thought it was a great place. But a number of them said, ‘it’s kind of lonely and neighbors don’t really communicate.'”

“There was a yearning for more social interaction,” he added.

Part of the feeling of isolation may come from the transience of the area, Payton hypothesized.

“If you’re only going to be here a year or two, you’re not going to invest in relationships here,” he said.

“The turnover simply compounds the loneliness,” he said.

Payton is a fierce believer in the concept of the Third Space: a congregating place outside of work or home that feels comfortable enough to hang out in and a place where social interaction is easy. He believes the church’s responsibility is to help create more third spaces, which build stronger communities.

“Madison Street is not really a third place,” he observed, although he would assert that several restaurants in town might qualify.

St. John’s community garden has become its own third space, Payton said. The church plans a community Corn Boil in the garden space next weekend on Aug. 10 from 4:30 – 7 p.m.

“There’s no charge for the food. It’s just sort of a community block party,” Payton said. The church also hosts a pig roast later in the fall. The church also opens up its gym to pickup basketball games three evenings a week. A new Boy Scout troop will be based out of the congregation in the fall.

Payton is not in a hurry to start forming plans to connect with the community. “We really need to be patient and listen to get ideas from the neighborhood,” he said.

“The risk for us that we want to avoid is to contrive a program that doesn’t really meet a need and throw a lot of effort at that. That doesn’t help anybody,” he said. “Better to be more patient and get it right.”

The task force will be conducting surveys again Aug. 10 at the Forest Bark Dog Park. But Payton said a call or email with an idea is welcome from anyone.

“If we do this right and the Lord blesses us, I could imagine in 10 years from now people talk about the area as ‘St. John’s’ and that’s what the neighborhood is, a good area, a good place to be.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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