Local churches, congregations evolve

Old churches are declining, some dying; new congregations take their place

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By Tom Holmes

Fifty years ago, members of Wesley Methodist, St. Peter's Lutheran, St. Paul's Lutheran and the Presbyterian church at the corner of Lexington and Ferdinand probably thought their congregations would live on forever. 

Who would have imagined back in 1970 that all four would eventually close and the congregations that remained open would have declined significantly in size? The First United Church of Christ has only a handful of people left, and Forest Park Baptist Church is perhaps 50 percent smaller. St. John Lutheran and St. Bernardine Catholic churches have both seen their parochial schools close.

St. Peter's is now owned by Maurice Streeter, the pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church, and First United is owned by Engage Christian Church, both of which are Black congregations. Wesley Methodist merged with River Forest Methodist Church after a fire destroyed their building, and St. Paul's Lutheran Church is now owned by St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church.

For many parishioners, the church and school closings felt like losing beloved family members.

"When St. Bernardine School closed in 2013," Julia Doloszycki recalled, "at the final liturgy I felt like I was attending a funeral for a close friend. My brother, many of my cousins and I had all attended St. B School. I went through a grieving process."

But as is true for individuals who bury loved ones, sadness is not the only emotion that is part of their grieving.

Lin Beribak, who attended St. Bernardine's parish school from kindergarten all the way through the eighth grade, said, "I also felt anger when the diocese expected us to contribute to the Teach Who Christ Is campaign, which in part was designed to provide scholarships for schools. It was too late to help our school."

Just as many individuals move on in their lives after the grieving process winds down, Doloszycki and Beribak are still engaged in many ministries in their parish.

Jim Murray, a longtime parishioner of St. Bernardine Church, acknowledged the changes, but spoke of the need for continual hope.

"Losses are part of life," Murray said. "We have suffered many losses at St. Bernardine over recent years, including priests and parishioners, but what choice do we have other than to deal with reality and make the best of it?  Regardless of what is going on in the world, we need to have hope that the Lord will provide."

Many of the faith communities in Forest Park have responded in creative ways to the decline in membership they were experiencing. Wesley Methodist Church, for example, met for worship in the middle school in town for five years; formed a "two-point charge" with a Methodist church in Melrose Park after that; and finally merged with four other congregations to form River Forest United Methodist Church on Lake Street which is now going through another transformation with Urban Village.

St. John Lutheran Church responded to its losses by forming partnerships with the West Cook YMCA, which uses the school building for day care, and with Housing Forward, which used their gym for a PADS homeless shelter every Friday until the pandemic made that impossible. They also used some of their land immediately west of the building to create a community garden as one way to reach out to the neighborhood.

When St. Paul's still owned their white stucco building with two steeples at 7420 Dixon St., their mainly white congregation would meet for worship at 10 a.m.; Hope Tabernacle, a mainly Black church would meet at 12:30; and the Thai Community Church at 4.

The story of how those three congregations partnered provides clues regarding why St. Paul's eventually closed.

When the three faith communities gathered together four times a year for a joint service or a picnic on the lawn, it would be like, as one member recalled, Dr. King's dream coming true: Thai classical dance, gospel music, German potato salad, kao soi and an energizing sense of hope for the future.

What happened, however, was that the next Sunday each congregation went back to their appointed times for worship and the dream was put on pause until the next time they got together. The separation wasn't an early example of polarization or racial tension. Rather, it was confirmation of the research that concluded when it comes to worship, people want to be with birds of the same feather, if you will.

When believers engage in that highly personal and intimate experience called worship, they want to speak in what one researcher calls their "heart language." Thais want to speak Thai and eat spicey curries following the service. African Americans want to sing gospel music with the amps cranked up to high volume. White Lutherans want everything to be done in good order and on time.

Part of what was happening, therefore, was that as the demographics in Forest Park changed, many of the new folks praised the good work the churches were doing, but when it came to Sunday morning, they wanted to resonate culturally with faith communities that looked more like they did.

A second dynamic going on that contributed to the decline of so many churches is that beginning with the 1960s, many Americans became either disillusioned or dissatisfied with institutions of all kinds. "I am spiritual," they often say, "not religious."

Robert Putnam documents in his classic study, titled "Bowling Alone," that beginning with the Baby Boomer generation "they put great emphasis on individualism and tolerance for diversity and rejected traditional social roles. … Throughout their lives they have expressed less respect for authority, religion, and patriotism. Boomers in general are highly individualistic, more comfortable on their own than on a team, more comfortable with values than with rules."

The new congregations occupying the buildings built by their grandparents and great-grandparents tend to be independent in terms of denomination and led by pastors who are entrepreneurial, who open up their own business, so to speak, instead of being a franchise of a corporate chain.

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