The following, in my view, are the top 10 religious stories of this past year:
Historical Society buys First United: At a special congregational meeting on Sunday, Sept. 27, the members of First United Church of Christ voted to sell their building, located at 1000 Elgin Ave., to the Forest Park Historical Society. Members had mixed feelings as they voted because, on the one hand, the Historical Society agreed to allow them to worship in the building rent free for 10 years. On the other hand, selling the building was a clear symptom of a congregation declining in numbers.
First United’s closing is part of a trend that has been going on for years. The older congregations are declining and newer faith communities are taking their place. The Methodist and Presbyterian churches are long gone. More recently St. Peter Lutheran and St. Paul Lutheran closed. Both St. John and St. Bernardine had to close their schools.
Ron Riley ordained as specific minister at St. John: Herman Holstein, who became a St. John member in 1947 and has a sense of the history of the faith community, recalled that Riley was the first African-American to join St. John and seeing him now being ordained, he said, was significant. One of the reasons why the ordination was a big day for “God’s church” is that it is a bit out of the ecclesiastical box, if you will. Riley explained that he is a “specific ministry pastor,” who, as the name implies, is a man ordained to one specific ministry, which in his case is the task of planting a new LCMS congregation in the Maywood/Broadview area.
Riley’s ordination back in February is part of the gradual, incremental, nonviolent diversification of Forest Park in general and its faith communities in particular. In the last 25 years, five majority non-white congregations — Living Word, Chicagoland Christian Center, Mount Moriah, Hope Tabernacle and St. Paul Thai — have taken root and grown.
Living Word reacts to the Charleston church shootings: None of the 400 men at an August Friday evening men’s fellowship meeting at Living Word Christian Center were wearing T-shirts with words like “Hands up” or “I can’t breathe” or “Black lives matter.” The prayers, the songs, the teaching that evening were not about working for justice in society or changing the system. Instead they were all about changing what Living Word’s pastor, Bill Winston, sometimes refers to as “stinkin’ thinkin'” in each individual. For Winston and the gathering of men assembled at Living Word, the enemy was not external in a man’s situation but internal in his spirit.
That reaction, too, is typical of faith communities in Forest Park. While acknowledging the existence of deep issues in our society, they tend to focus primarily on changing individuals rather than the system.
St. Bernardine receives two blessings: Fr. Stanislaw Kuca said his first Mass at St. Bernardine Catholic Church early in July and everyone interviewed was impressed by their new pastor. Then in October, the Catholic parish, whose building is located at the corner of Elgin Avenue and Harrison Street, received the good news that the Archdiocese of Chicago is going to pay them $30,000 a year to use their vacant school building for storage.
St. Paul Thai Church celebrates 30th anniversary: St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church began in 1985 as a small gathering of immigrants from Asia who rented space for worship from a Japanese congregation near Wrigley Field. Whereas many immigrant churches have declined or closed by this point in their history, the Thai congregation is thriving. Between 1992 (when they moved into the former St. Paul Lutheran Church as renters) and the present, they have not only purchased the building at the corner of Brown and Dixon but have given $931,451 to mission work during that time.
Living Word turns 25: In 1990, Rev. Bill Winston moved his small congregation from Chicago to a storefront on Madison Street in Forest Park. The Living Word Christian Center website says that in 1997 “a rapidly growing membership, faith, and obedience to God’s Word enabled the church to purchase a 33-acre retail mall that currently houses our Worship Center as well as other LWCC business units. Forest Park Plaza LLC has revitalized the mall to the point where sales tax revenues from the businesses located have added millions of dollars annually to our village revenue stream.”
David Steinhart celebrates 30 years in ministry: Rev. Steinhart came to Forest Park 30 years ago, right out of seminary. I have known and worked with Pastor Steinhart for all of those years, and to my mind he is a model of a good, competent, faithful pastoral leadership. Forest Park Baptist Church is blessed to have him as their pastor.
Memorial dedication: The memorial obelisk, dedicated to fallen police officers and firefighters on Sept. 19 at the corner of Circle and Randolph wasn’t a worship service per se but it felt like one in many ways. There was a procession and most of those leading the ceremony were dressed in their Sunday best. Two clergy, Fr. Kuca and Rev. Teague, prayed. The mood was respectful and sometimes solemn. There seemed to be an awareness that we were connecting with something bigger than ourselves, something transcendent. Mayor Calderone used the word “forever” at least twice. It’s an example of how, in this town, we feel a need to include the divine in solemn, important events.
Paul Roach and Charles Cairo: In separate interviews during this past year, two Forest Park residents talked about how their faith in God and their military service complemented each other. Captain Roach, a Navy surgeon deployed twice in the last six years to Afghanistan, talked about a sense he had of doing something important, being part of something bigger than himself.
Cairo, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, eventually earned a Doctor of Theology degree and was appointed a bishop in the Evangelical Free Baptist Church. He and his son, who is in the Marine Corps, went to a concert where all the military personnel in the audience were asked to stand. “As I stood,” Cairo recalled, “I saw my son across the table applauding me as I was applauding him. It was a moment of ‘satori’ in which I realized that he was no longer just my son, but also a brother in arms.”
PADS becomes Housing Forward: West Suburban PADS, which is supported by over 1,000 volunteers, mainly from area churches, rebranded itself this year and is now named Housing Forward. The move was made to better communicate to the public that the major goal of the organization is to get the homeless out of the emergency shelters and into their own homes.