Local religious documentary is worth another look


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Rev. Tom Holmes

The Judeo-Christian Perspective: A Century Glance, a documentary about religion in the Tri-Village area (Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park), was shown at West Suburban Temple Har Zion a couple of months back.

In these times of political correctness when diversity is celebrated and tolerance promoted in our villages, the West Suburban Temple event served as a reminder that it wasn't always so. Cliff Johnson?#34;who was a radio personality, Realtor and travel agent in Oak Park and finally a communications specialist at Concordia University?#34;created an award-winning documentary filled with stories of people who felt the sting of religious discrimination right here in our villages.

Joseph Kettlestring, the first non-native settler, was himself a WASP, i.e. a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Although German Lutherans had formed a congregation in the area by 1867 and Catholics were worshiping at the corner of Lake and Lathrop by 1887, it was the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists who were at the top of the social/political pecking order and, curiously, perceived the newcomers to be immigrants and therefore inferior.

Catholics in the film relate stories about not being allowed to play with non-Catholics, and Protestants remember how as teenagers they were not permitted to date Catholic girls. Rabbi Mirelman tells of Jews being accepted in the community as professionals and merchants, but "after 5 o'clock, the curtains of separation would come down." Mirelman also notes in the documentary that during World War II there was so much anti-German feeling in the country that "the Lutherans had it worse than the Jews" for a time.

Cliff Johnson's film, which he made at the age of 83, documents the local expression of what was a nationwide anti-immigrant prejudice in the whole country in the years from the Civil War until World War II. Sydney Ahlstrom, for example, in his Religious History of the American People quotes the president of MIT, Francis Walker, describing immigrants in 1895 as "beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence." Ahlstrom concludes, "Nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism ... were prominent and functional features of the Protestant Establishment in America during the last troubled decades of its hegemony."

This kind of prejudice became concentrated in the Tri-Village area, because immigrants tended to settle in urban areas. The big city, therefore, was an environment from which "decent people" fled to what was then a new suburban area. An article in the April 11, 1925 issue of the Oak Leaves declares, "Oak Park is a different type of community than almost any other suburb around Chicago. ... This village was founded by a sturdy race [read WASP] of pioneers ... [who] surround their children with the best educational and cultural facilities under religious influences in a clean environment ... far enough removed from the moral filth of the big city."

The documentary also tries to account for the changes our villages have experienced in the last 40 years. Father Paul Reicher, then at St. Luke Catholic Church, believed that the election of John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, in 1960 and the "opening of windows" at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 were two major events that helped bring Catholics into the mainstream of American life.

Dean Lueking, who was pastor of Grace Lutheran Church at the time Johnson made the film, remembers that rapprochement "began in people's living rooms over coffee" as Catholics and Protestants and Jews?#34;who had been neighbors for years?#34;finally gathered in the intimacy of their homes and in groups of three or four to share what they believed and listened with real interest to what people from other traditions really thought and did in their houses of worship.

Fr. Reicher, toward the end of the documentary, talks about a "mediating quality" that has arisen among the congregations in our villages and an "honest power" to cooperate in projects for the common good. For example, Lueking remembers in 1980 when all of the clergy and parishioners in the community were invited to Grace Church for a Service of Prayer, Remembrance, and Solidarity with the Jewish community in protest of the American Neo-Nazi Party's march at Lindberg Park.

Cliff Johnson has the final word before the credits scroll down the screen: "Keep the fire. Keep the light. Keep the love."

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