I can’t recall any big climatic events in Forest Park this last year. No tornados. No floods. Nevertheless, climate change is a huge event that is so incremental in its effect that it’s easy to not notice it’s happening.
The same is true of religion in our town in 2016. Nothing earth-shaking happened in our churches, yet major forces were nevertheless making an impact on our village. The ten top religion stories will illustrate what I mean.
1. Demographic change
When I moved to Forest Park in 1982, the town was almost all white. In the last 34 years our village has evolved into a multiracial community — white 46%, black 32% and Hispanic 10%. The congregations here in 1982 were almost all white, except for Forest Park Baptist Church which was quite integrated.
The demographic flood tide has naturally affected who go to church on Sunday. Since 1982, four white congregations have closed — the Presbyterian church, the Methodist church, and St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Lutheran churches. St. John’s parochial school has closed. So has St. Bernardine’s.
Mount Moriah Church worships where St. Peter’s used to be. A Thai congregation owns the building that St. Paul’s called home since 1899 and rents the building to a black congregation called Hope Tabernacle. Rev. Tony Davidson, the pastor of the multiracial Chicagoland Christian Center, owns the building which used to belong to a Presbyterian congregation, and the Methodist congregation never recovered from the burning of their building. And, of course, the black mega-church Living Word Christian Center now claims a membership totaling 20,000 souls.
2. Thai church thriving
On Nov. 6, a film crew from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) interviewed several members of St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church for a video they are making on examples of multicultural congregations. The congregation is mainly Thai, and Thai is the primary language used in worship, but because 20 percent of the members are not Thai, almost every word in the service is translated into English.
What’s more, at their Christmas celebration on Dec. 18, the Hope Tabernacle congregation, which rents from the Thais, joined them in a truly multicultural service.
3. Rev. David Steinhart
David Steinhart has been pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church for 30 years. Under his leadership the congregation has maintained a truly multicultural profile, half black and half white, for decades, which is a tribute to the church and its pastor because when it comes to Sunday morning, birds of a feather tend to flock together.
4. Muslims remember 9/11
Imad Tarhoni watched planes crashed into the Twin Towers on his TV in Libya on 9/11. Now a resident of Forest Park, Tarhoni shared the same emotions as did most Americans — disbelief, horror, and confusion.
He remembered thinking, “Here was an airplane filled with hundreds of innocents hitting a tower filled with thousands of innocents. When I saw people jump from windows and the buildings collapse with people still inside, I felt a combination of anger and sadness. The worst was when I learned that bin Laden claimed responsibility and said that he was doing it for the sake of God and Muslim nations. I felt like he had stolen my identity as a Muslim.”
5. Hope Tabernacle
Hope Tabernacle is a small black church making an impact, larger than its size, on the area. On Feb. 8, Pastor Bill Teague and his congregation hosted a celebration of Black History Month, which featured music by the Hope Praise Team, a performance by the Black History Praise Dancers and a message by Pastor Teague.
In addition, Teague is a leader of a group of ministers centered in Maywood called the Proviso Township Ministers Alliance Network (PTMAN), a coalition of black congregations working to address systemic issues in Proviso Township.
6. A barbershop where you can let your hair down
Tige Wardlow is a licensed barber/stylist who cuts hair at the Millionaires Barber Shop on Beloit Ave. just opposite the entrance to the Park District of Forest Park. He is good at cutting hair. One customer on Yelp used words like “craftsman,” “professional” and “highly skilled” to describe Wardlow’s work, but Tige himself doesn’t see cutting hair as his primary vocation.
“Barbering is way more than cutting hair,” he explained. “Every barber you talk to says that barbering is mostly counseling. I’ll never forget this guy who told me that a man will open up in one of two places: on a bar stool or in a barber chair. …
“I think that if we get caught up in race or any other issue, we’re going to have problems,” he explained. “Growing up like I did on the West Side and in Oak Park, you can be angry as a black man. Trust me. I have felt all those things, but when I discovered who I am in Christ, he began to change my heart. He began to change who I am and how I see things. That’s why I don’t look at race as the problem. I look at it as what it really is. We have a sin problem, and the cure is the Lord and Savior.”
7. St. John School used to feed hungry kids
According to government statistics, 38 percent of the children in Forest Park’s school District 91 come from families whose incomes are low enough that their children are eligible for free or greatly reduced cost lunches. The problem is how to get those meals to children during the summer when they are not in school.
On June 20, St. John Lutheran Church opened its doors to Forest Park children from 11 a.m. till 1:30 p.m., as it did every Monday through Friday until Aug. 19. Matthew Huner, the congregation’s president, explained how his church located at 305 Circle got involved: “The YMCA approached me in early May about the possibility of St. John hosting the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry’s lunchtime meal program as the Forest Park site. When there is an opportunity to serve and impact our community, we as a congregation want to jump on that opportunity.”
8. Waldrons dialogue with non-christians
Mark and Cindy Waldron have hosted foreign students, many of whom are not Christian, for years. The Waldrons are devout Christians, but that has not prevented them from being impacted by their non-Christian guests. “Being exposed to people who believe differently than I do has, on the one hand, strengthened my own faith,” he explained, “because it challenges me to question what I believe. Sometimes the questioning leads to a more solid faith, and sometimes it causes me to change how I understand something in scripture. It certainly increases my respect for other people’s beliefs. We don’t see our role as converting our non-Christian students because we know that the best way to engage in evangelism is to be in relationships with people. We don’t know how God will use the relationships we build nor how they will influence people down the road. That’s not our place, and besides, we don’t need to know.”
9. Living Word and Rev. Bill Winston
Pastor Bill Winston wants his parishioners to be saved, but he also wants them to get a job — or better yet, start their own business. Living Word Christian Center, the 20,000 member mega-church on Roosevelt Road here in Forest Park which he leads, held a mega-conference March 29-April 1 titled “Missions and Marketplace.”
A promotional flyer for the conference poses the question, “Does God belong in our business, workplace, entertainment and politics?” The promotional piece answered its own question by saying that the event would feature “three days of workshops, classes and presentations from 30 culture-shifting leaders in business, ministry, Hollywood and social justice.”
10. Faith and family problems
Ted and Karen (not their real names) are the parents of a young man who is bipolar and who is a real challenge when he is in a manic stage. An important resource for Ted and Karen is God. “God is a big part of our dealing with this,” Ted said. “I say that my recovery from depression, beginning many years ago, was a miracle.” His willingness to share his story in the Review was motivated by gratitude. “God did [his recovery] for me. I now have to do what I can to help and inform other people because I owe God.”