Hosting a free summer corn boil in the community garden next to the church is one way St. John Lutheran Church hopes to plant the seeds that grow relationships between the church and its neighbors, said organizer Darlene Wentland-Wiktor, a life-long St. John member.
The third annual party will serve up sweet corn, hot dogs, watermelon, chips—free of charge on Saturday, Aug. 2.
Dave Hill, an elder at St. John said ears of corn will be purchased that morning from the Oak Park Farmers’ Market. Last year, visitors consumed about 90 hot dogs, 60 burgers and about 120 ears of fresh sweet corn. Desserts were made by St. John congregation members.
“It’s a very informal event,” Hill said, “no organized activities per se, but some folks will bring board games, and the kids run around or play Frisbee. Many of the guests pitch in when it comes time to take down the tent and help with the clean up.”
Wentland-Wiktor sees the garden party as a gesture of friendship.
“It’s a way that St. John can extend the hand of friendship to our neighbors,” she explained, “and let them know that we are here for them. I also personally hope that our neighbors will see that we are a friendly church and that they can join us as we grow in faith together.”
Rev. Leonard Payton, St. John’s pastor, said that the corn boil is part of a larger strategy to redirect the focus of the congregation’s mission to meet the needs of a changed neighborhood.
“We will be celebrating our 150th anniversary in 2016,” he explained. “We were a large congregation whose members were almost entirely German-American. Over the past fifty years we have shrunk, and our neighborhood has changed a lot. Our membership doesn’t look like our immediate neighborhood yet, though we are steadily approaching that.
“We’re sitting in facilities [a large worship space and a school with a gym] that were designed for a very different congregation with very different needs. Now we are trying to figure out how to use those facilities well, and because Jesus told us to love our neighbors, maybe there are intense ways to use our assets to do just that.”
Payton went on to say that the congregation wants to involve the whole neighborhood in that discernment process. That is why the large banner hung at the corner of Circle and Madison invites everyone to complete a survey created by Kim Rodriguez and the Board of Evangelism and Outreach which she chairs.
“We in the church could sit around and hatch all sorts of ideas of what we think might be good for the neighborhood,” said Payton, “and maybe some of those ideas might take off. But we think it would be much better for us to hear from the neighborhood about what they value, about what they think would improve life in the neighborhood, and about their sense of lack and deficiency in this local life. We in the church could then assess what resources we could bring to bear on those needs.”
Soon after becoming St. John’s pastor in 2010, Payton did a demographic analysis of the area surrounding St. John. What he discovered was a population which is 52 percent African-American and dense—5,000 people live within a three block radius of the church. There are not many public spaces in which residents can hang out. The creation of their community garden was a way to address that need.
Another issue, which has been well documented in the media, is isolation. “We live in a time when people are more and more isolated from one another,” said Payton, “mainly due to technological innovations and the demands of vocation in a global corporatized world. And while we all enjoy many benefits from these technologies and economic structures, we also suffer from the isolation they produce. St. John has the potential to be an anchor in neighborhood life.”
Rodriguez said that one motivation for hosting the corn boil is to address that need.
“The purpose of the corn boil,” she explained, “is also to reach out to our neigh borhood and have a safe environment in which the neighbors can meet and get to know each other.”
The St. John Corn Boil takes place Aug. 2 from 4- 7 p.m. around the corner from the church entrance at 305 Circle Ave.