Oak Park is a funny town. There's too much to take in. Expand the Ike or not, give back to taxpayers some of the high school's $112 million slush fund or not, build a new elementary administrative building on the village hall parking lot or not.
And then there are the great moral issues of our day that get special attention here. Gay marriage. Helping the homeless find shelter. Diversity (which in Oak Park means the town's historic role in beginning to end discrimination against African Americans but also never doing it quite right).
What this town needs is a chaplain — someone with moral chops and a strong dose of compassion who can make sense of our uber-activist town, someone who can speak with a clear religious voice in a largely secular community.
In Oak Park/River Forest, in my humble and Catholic opinion, that person is Dean Lueking, pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, where he served as pastor for 44 years.
Why do we need Lueking as our chaplain?
Take the issue of peace (and war). When Oak Parkers speak about peace, it sometimes comes across as a '60s slogan, on the same level as eating organic or buying hybrid cars.
Last spring, Lueking wrote a letter to the Wednesday Journal following the death of Anne Smedinghoff, the River Forest-born State Department employee killed in Afghanistan. Lueking saw the white ribbons hanging all over town as "a defiant symbol against the insanity, the sinfulness of war." Good, if standard, words from a pastor.
But his main reflection was on forgiving the shooter, not giving in to the temptation to view him as a mere "terrorist" and resisting our inclination to see victims of violence in Afghanistan as "abstractions." As for Smedinghoff (and us), he bent a beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, past, present, and ongoing."
And so Lueking fills the role as town chaplain by saying the right thing in times of trouble.
But he is a moral compass — not just about big things but little things too, like helping a neighbor. Roughly a month ago, Lueking wrote to Wednesday Journal with a complaint. It was not about nighttime street parking.
He was annoyed at Chicago police officers making it hard for a recently released convict he was assisting to register his address at the police station and bureaucrats who created Byzantine procedures for the ex-con parishioner to register for food stamps.
I am sure he intended this story to be about the perseverance of the ex-con. But for me it was more of a challenge from an 80-plus-year-old former pastor, modeling for a very busy, upwardly mobile community on the need to accompany the poor. He was not scolding. He was leading by example.
T.S. Elliot wrote that "old men ought to be explorers," and Lueking must have read this because he (and his wife Beverly) are explorers of the first order,
Lately, I have been reading Lueking's book, Through Their Eyes (2010). In it, he relates his post-retirement experience visiting Lutheran faith communities in 32 far-flung countries on five continents, many of which faced persecution.
He tells their stories, like a Palestinian Lutheran pastor in the West Bank town of Bethlehem being harassed by Israeli border guards, or a group trying to re-establish the Lutheran faith in formerly atheist Russia, or a Lutheran church in Shanghai that was shut down during the Cultural Revolution. In all these stories, Lueking is the student and the people he encounters are the teachers.
And maybe that is the key to being the successful chaplain of Oak Park, leading without appearing to do so. Telling other's stories in order to get your message across.