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By Tom Holmes
"I began to see Austin Boulevard as a meeting place, not a dividing line," said Dr. Marti Scott, pastor of Oak Park's Euclid Avenue Methodist Church, Monday night after a Community of Congregations sponsored meeting brought together more than 150 people from Oak Park and the West Side to talk about building connections.
Leonard Grossman, president of the Community of Congregations, opened the community meeting saying, "Recent publicity has presented a one dimensional portrait of the Austin neighborhood. Tonight we hope to broaden our understanding of our neighboring community."
Eleven people, a cross of Austin residents and Oak Parkers, spoke to the crowd at Ascension School's Pine Room, about their experiences living and working in Austin and Oak Park, about the hard divide that Austin Boulevard has become in the 40+ years since the West Side resegregated racially.
Among the speakers were the founder of the Little League in Garfield Park, the head of a non-profit health care provider in Austin, leaders of Oak Park-based services which work on the West Side, and State Rep. LaShawn Ford who represents both West Side and west suburban neighborhoods. Ford urged the audience to see Oak Park and Austin as "interdependent" and not isolated.
Although everyone on the panel emphasized the positive things going on east of Austin Boulevard, they also acknowledged that the Austin glass is still half empty. Cristy Harris, director of Prevail (formerly the Walk-In Ministry), seemed to speak for all the presenters when she declared, "What keeps me up at night is once you're in poverty, it's darn hard to get out of poverty. It's really complicated. Starting a dialogue, starting a relationship is a good thing but it's going to require a long term commitment to maintain that relationship. I challenge all of you here to commit yourselves to that challenge."
After the meeting, many in attendance said they had been inspired by the gathering and were taking Harris's challenge to heart.
Scott, the Methodist pastor, said, "The Community of Congregations gathering was the most exciting and hopeful event I have attended. … It demonstrated how people have for years put words into actions. My favorite moment happened after the benediction, when people were rushing the table of speakers to make connections and share thoughts. It was a critical and holy moment of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called 'Beloved Community.'"
Dawn Ferencak, a salesperson for the Austin Weekly News and Wednesday Journal and an advisor in choosing the panelists, estimated the crowd was 60 percent Oak Parkers and 40 percent West Siders.
Edward Coleman, vice president of economic development for Bethel New Life a major West Side nonprofit, touted his organization's efforts to create jobs. Serethia Reid, president of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA), gave her group's recognition with the 2011 Chicago Beautiful Award as evidence of CANA's effectiveness at revitalizing her neighborhood "sixteen blocks at a time."
Lt. Frank Brim described how the Chicago Police and Firefighters Training Program involves 250 teenagers "from every corner of the city" each year and how he founded the Garfield Park Little League to teach kids discipline, accountability and respect. Dr. Andre Hines told the audience about how her agency, Circle Family Health Care Network, has been serving the West Side for the last 36 years with affordable, health care from cradle to grave.
Rev. Reginald Bachus, executive director of Austin Coming Together (ACT), promotes collaboration among the neighborhood organizations through monthly networking meetings. Rev. Walter Jones, executive director of Fathers Who Care and a mentor for the West Garfield Park Youth Council, declared, "When real men come together and address men's health and parental involvement, and are able to get decent employment, men can change their community."
Four of the presenters were from organizations incubated in Oak Park. Kathryn McCabe, head of the Cluster Tutoring Program, talked about how her organization has been helping West Side children raise their reading scores since 1990. Michele Zurakowski of the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, reported that her agency supplied emergency food last year to over 16,000 families, 60 percent of whom live in Austin.
Prevail's Harris told how her non-profit helps people who are in a financial crisis to not only get out of it but also receive training and resources to move into a position of greater financial security. West Suburban PADS Director Lynda Schueler said that even though PADS does not run a homeless shelter in Chicago, that 19 percent of the 540 people who used shelter services last year were from Austin.
Many of the attendees were already considering what the next step would be for themselves personally and for the organizations and faith communities of which they are a part. Jerry Lordan, an Oak Park resident and Fenwick High School leader, said, "I think the next step is to find projects to pursue for Oak Park and Austin residents to interact together. The more things we do together, the better we will get to know and trust one another. One such project could be mutual engagement with the Blue Line Visioning Project."
Kathy Nolte, pastor of Oak Park's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, said she intends to take some of her business east of Austin Boulevard and to continue encouraging her congregation to build and maintain bridges to "our neighbors to the east."
Rev. Scott felt compelled to recruit medical personnel from her cluster of churches to volunteer in the Circle Family HealthCare Network and to call on the arts communities in both Austin and Oak Park "to write a new story, a play, offering a vision of what a new Austin Boulevard could become for all our sakes."
Mandy Gawf, the congregational liaison for West Suburban PADS, came away from the meeting feeling hopeful. She said, "Despite all the challenges mentioned, many strengths of the Austin, Oak Park and surrounding areas were also revealed. One strength that was highlighted for me was the strong, active, and innovative faith community in this area. I think the network of congregations is a significant community resource of great potential that we should remember as we work toward becoming a community of greater wholeness."