You can't always tell a house of worship by its label

Opinion

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Rev. Tom Holmes, Columnist

Try to imagine (or remember) what it would be like to have just moved into town and decide what church to join. In a way, that is my situation. I started writing about religion for WEDNESDAY JOURNAL just 20 days ago, and I'm trying to make sense of the religious mix in Oak Park and River Forest.

"No problem," I thought. "I'll just pick up a copy of ANSWER BOOK [the new one is in today's paper] and select a church that sounds interesting."

Wrong. It's not as easy as I imagined.

There are 45 congregations listed in the 2004 Answer Book, plus a friend told me about six gatherings which are so new or so small or so unlike "normal" churches that they aren't listed. Are you ready? Regarding congregations to choose from, there are:

? 7 Roman Catholic

? 6 Lutheran

? 5 Methodist

? 3 Episcopal

? 3 Jewish

? 3 Presbyterian

? 3 Baptist

and a lot more, ranging from Baha'i to Quaker to Religious Science to Orthodox Church of India.

That means if you visited one church every Sunday, it would take you almost a year to sample all.

If you don't have time for that kind of research, you might decide to go with a label with which you are familiar?#34;say, Lutheran. Surprise. There are Lutheran Churches that are pro-life and others that are pro-choice. There are some that feature traditional classical music, while one has a gospel choir.

Brands, i.e. denominational labels, don't seem to tell us as much as they once did. For example you could visit what you thought was a peace church and discover that it's more of a gay church. You could decide to worship at what you thought was a gay congregation and be impressed more by its formal, traditional liturgy. There are churches that are conservative liturgically?#34;i.e. they do more or less the Roman Mass?#34;but are very liberal when it comes to their political agenda. There are congregations which are very conservative theologically but will really rock you if you go to one of their contemporary services.

A religious brand?#34;let's say the advertising of the brand?#34;isn't always revealing. For example, there are churches who talk the talk when it comes to being multicultural, and they are really sincere in their intentions. But if you worship with them, you'll discover that the bodies in the pews are only about 5 percent non-white. Others don't make a big deal about their racial mix, but they actually have it.

Here's a test. Guess what congregation this quote comes from on the basis of what you know about religion in Oak Park:

"[We have] a wonderfully diverse mix of ethnic groups! Among the regularly attending members one will see Filipinos, Czechs, Koreans, Africans from Nigeria and Ghana, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Mexicans and Polish. I am of Mexican/German background and my husband is Polish/Lithuanian!" Which congregation? The answer is the West Central Seventh Day Adventist Church.

What I discovered is that looking for a church that "meets all my needs" is like looking for the perfect person to marry. It ain't gonna happen. If you are a liberal who is opposed to the war in Iraq, you won't find a denomination that has made a stronger protest than the Roman Catholic Church. But if your liberalism includes being pro-choice, you won't find St. Giles or St. Edmund completely in agreement. You may find a congregation that is pro-choice, but you might not like the music. And so it goes.

To better understand what is going on regarding religion in Oak Park and River Forest, I decided to do some historical research. What I learned from a WPA Historical Survey, published in 1933, is that the phenomenon of migration explains a lot when it comes to religion. For example, we all know that the first people who lived here were Native Americans, whose religion was basically animist. So why aren't there animist churches in Oak Park? Because Joseph Kettlestrings and the other white Anglo-Saxon Protestant folks who migrated here from the east coast brought with them the religious denominations with which they were familiar, i.e. Congregational, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, American Baptist and Methodist

After the Civil War, migrations from Europe brought Jews, Catholics and Lutherans. As black people migrated to Oak Park from the West Side of Chicago, we've seen congregations like Fellowship Christian Church and New Liberty Church of God in Christ spring up. When, during the 1960s, the fear of blacks moving into Oak Park became an opportunity for liberal professionals from all over the country to buy Victorian and Gunderson houses for a song, a few mainstream congregations were transformed by the new migrants into bastions of liberalism. Gay folk found Oak Park to be a good place to settle, and the Metropolitan Community Church was established. And, as changes in immigration policy have allowed more Asians to come to this country, small Buddhist gatherings like the one on Harrison Street are starting to appear.

The issues that religious people in our villages have judged to be important have also changed over the years ... but then again, maybe they haven't. Take a look at the following quotes from the April 11, 1925 issue of the Oak Leaves. The big debate at that time was whether movie theaters should be open on Sundays. What do you think? Have things changed or stayed the same?

"Oak Park was founded by men who believe in God?#34;men that served God. ... Would Jesus, if he were among us, attend moving picture houses or the churches on Sunday? Oak Park is a different type of community than almost any other suburb around Chicago. ... This village was founded by a sturdy race 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."

After three weeks of getting to know religion in Oak Park and River Forest, I decided that finding the right church is a lot like dating. It might be OK to kiss on the first date, but it takes a long time and a lot of dances to find out who you want to spend a lifetime with.

The religious scene in this town, like many other things, is complex.

? Rev. Tom Holmes is the retiring pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Forest Park and a columnist for our sister publication, Forest Park Review. He will now write about religion for Wednesday Journal as well.

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