Picture yourself as a small business owner in Forest Park. What do you think you’d be feeling this week?
What I hear is that some are energized by the prospect of reopening while others are afraid they won’t survive. Most seem to be somewhere in between, and that reminded me of how I felt almost 40 years ago.
When I arrived in Forest Park in 1982 a profound change in the demographic climate was beginning. The transformation wasn’t caused by a virus but by racial and cultural change. Demographically, the village was gradually becoming more diverse and the whole society was becoming both more secular and increasingly anti-institutional.
When it comes to churches, diversity is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing, because every church member in town dreams Dr. King’s dream of all of God’s people being united. At one point around the turn of this century that small white stucco building at the corner of Brown and Dixon would have a mostly white congregation called St. Paul’s worshipping at 10 a.m., a mostly Black church called Hope Tabernacle gathering at 12:30 p.m. and the Thai Community Church starting their service at 4.
We’d get together three or four times a year, and afterward we’d all go home feeling great, but the next Sunday we’d be back in our separate, relatively homogeneous faith communities. When it comes to churches, birds of a sociological feather like to flock together, at least most of the time.
It wasn’t surprising therefore that, as the village diversified, St. Paul’s declined in size. It wasn’t that we hadn’t tried our best to keep our “ark” afloat during the flood and to adapt to the profound changes happening all around us,
But when we took stock of where we were as we entered a new millennium, we had to admit we weren’t sure how our story would end. The situation was ambiguous. Same thing for small business owners these days. And when we looked in our crystal ball, the future was unclear. Same thing for business owners and probably for most of the rest of us as well.
What happened in my church 20 years ago is that we found ourselves simultaneously grieving what we had lost and looking to the future with what seemed to be a mutually exclusive combination of anxiety and hope.
Grieving. The members of St. Paul’s grieved their losses together.
The mission of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce is to promote the businesses in town, and during this stressful shutdown, they continue to keep our town on the radar screens of consumers in the whole region. But they have also functioned as a support group. Especially the regulars, the active involved members who have known each other and worked together for years and have built up their trust level to the point where they can confess to each other how they really feel in this scary time.
Healthy grieving is not the same as being stuck in the past.
Fear. Because the present is ambiguous and the future uncertain, fear is normal.
Back in 2000 parochial schools like the ones at St. Bernardine and St. John were losing enrollment and most of the small congregations were on their last legs. If you looked at the numbers, the future did not look good. Fear or at least anxiety was understandable. If you look at the balance sheets of several small businesses here, unless a miracle happens, the numbers don’t look good for survival.
Open-ended hope. Accountants are all about numbers and bottom lines. People of faith are about realities that cannot be quantified. If St. Paul’s members had focused only on numbers, they would have concluded that the party was over or soon would be, and therefore the options would be to either go down with the ship or transfer to a boat that is more seaworthy.
They faced reality and formed interdependent relationships with two other vulnerable congregations, but they didn’t stay there. What they did was focus on an open-ended promise that somehow and some way God would lead them through 40 years of wilderness wandering — to mix metaphors — into some kind of promised land.
Closed hope is specific. For example, I hope the Cubs win today. Open-ended hope looks for an unspecified good, something to happen, maybe on the way to the game or with the stranger sitting next to you in the grandstand. Closed hope says I hope my business survives the shutdown. Open hope simply believes that after every fall there will be one kind of rising or another, maybe not “back to normal” but to some kind of new normal which no one can see right now.
St. Paul’s eventually closed in 2010 after being in “business” since 1879. Sad. But so will, I suspect, every business in town, sooner or later — as did Krader Wolf Furniture, Denny Moran’s Garage, Refiners Pride, the Venture Restaurant and that gourmet popcorn place that only lasted a year.
What I saw St. Paul’s members do is move into their uncertain future with their eyes wide open to the so-called “reality” of the situation but also with an open, empowering hope that allowed them to keep on moving forward one day at a time.
Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.
Twenty years ago I used to pray that prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship every day. Maybe I should start doing that again.