Top religion stories of 2020

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Here are my picks for the most significant religion stories of the past year:

COVID-19

Following Gov. J.B. Pritzker's guidance, most Forest Park religious congregations stopped holding in-person worship services. Some frustration was expressed at not being labeled an essential service, especially when liquor stores were. Congregations met for worship via ROKU, YouTube, Zoom and Line.

Depending on what phase the state of Illinois was in, faith communities began cautiously reopening with limited numbers of worshipers, socially distanced from each other.

Here's how St. John Lutheran Church tried to walk the thin line between holding worship in-person and being responsible from a public health point of view: From the third week of March through May they conducted small, carefully controlled communion appointments that lasted a little over 10 minutes. After several weeks of that, they moved back to having a maximum of 40 worshipers in the sanctuary with the congregation divided in half and coming to church on alternating Sundays.

All the CDC precautions are in place. Pastor Leonard Payton reported that during this time they have experienced no known positive tests among members.

CROP Hunger Walk raises $100K

Forest Park resident Joanne Despotes is the chair of the Hunger Walkathon West planning team. In March they lowered expectations for the amount of money to be raised on the 2020 walk, scheduled for May 3. The 2019 walk had taken in $70,000 and the team agreed that because the walk would be virtual, they would be happy with $30,000. After May 3, the donations kept pouring in until on Oct. 6 she sent the team an email with "We actually raised $100,000 for Hunger Walkathon West in 2020!" One team member responded with "Wow!!!!!!!!!!!" Indeed.

Thai church thrives

St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church celebrated its 35th anniversary this year and the fact that they have given over $1 million to what church folk call "benevolence." What is remarkable about this achievement is that immigrant churches rarely survive more than 30 years. What happens is that the first generation speaks the language of the country they came from better than English; their children speak English better than, in this case, Thai; and their grandchildren might understand just a few words. Each succeeding generation becomes more assimilated into American culture. The Thais now own the building on Dixon Street where they rented from the original St. Paul congregation, which shut down 10 years ago.

Renew My Church

One way in which congregations respond to demographic change and dwindling worship attendance is by partnering with other churches or merging. As part of an initiative called "Renew My Church," implemented by the Archdiocese of Chicago, St. Bernardine Catholic Church here in Forest Park has been placed in what the archdiocese is calling a "Grouping" together with the two Catholic parishes in River Forest and the four parishes in Oak Park. St. Bernardine's pastor, Fr. Stanislaw Kuca, explained that the archdiocesan strategy is designed to give parishes in each Grouping an opportunity to 1) build relationships, 2) support each other, and 3) collaborate on already scheduled programing.

PTMAN

Rev. Bill Teague, pastor of Hope Tabernacle on Dixon Street, is the executive director of the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network (PTMAN). The community-focused organization of church leaders believes that Christians are called to step outside the church walls and work with stakeholders to improve the communities in which they are located. PTMAN programs include monthly breakfast networking meetings, the Backpack Project for students, Truancy Project, Youth Summer Internship Project, Pastor Preachers Wives Conference, Meet the Candidates Forum, Monday Prayer for Clergy, Summer Tent Revival and First Responders.

Living Word helps businesses

The Joseph Business School, an arm of Living Word Christian Center, has been helping small business owners who were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The Joseph Business School was established in 1998, the result of a vision given to Dr. William "Bill" Winston to provide practical business and leadership teaching utilizing biblical principles and resources. The mission is to develop successful Christian entrepreneurs who will create income and employment opportunities for others, through the wealth and job creation that entrepreneurship and vocational training can provide. This, in turn, will assist in the rebuilding of the inner cities.

(Soon-to-be) Pastor David Mercurio

Until three weeks ago David Mercurio and his wife Piyamat were every-Sunday worshipers at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church. At an age when most people are making plans for taking it easy in retirement, he has just completed a three-year-long, mostly online course of study called TEEM, Theological Education for Emerging Ministries.

Mercurio, like many of his classmates, will continue in his profession as an investment banker, but on weekends he will serve one of the over 1,000 ELCA congregations in the U.S. that cannot afford a full-time pastor. Like most mainline denominations the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is scrambling to recruit trained leadership to serve its many small and shrinking faith community. TEEM is one fast track program designed to help meet that need.

Forest Park Baptist, OK without a pastor

Pastor David Steinhart retired from his ministry at the Forest Park Baptist Church over a year ago, and the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the Harlem Avenue congregation from interviewing candidates to replace him. But the congregation is carrying on because of the strong lay leadership that Steinhart mentored during his long tenure.

Forest Parkers take care of each other

Not a religion story per se, but the countless anecdotes of neighbors helping neighbors during the pandemic is, at least in my book, a spiritual story.

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