With holidays come traditions, and in Oak Park, the Community Kwanzaa Festival has become a favorite annual event. Marking its seventh year, the feast and celebration will be held this Sunday afternoon at Pilgrim Congregational Church.

“It’s a wonderful community building activity,” says John Mayes, chair of the event. “It’s a huge deal for people to come together in the village where we sometimes do more talking than walking.”

Credit Project Unity, a grassroots organization that works to promote racial harmony through social interaction, with starting Community Kwanzaa and making it happen through the years. Oak Parkers Cheryl Capps and Karin Grimes founded Project Unity 11 years ago when they noticed students in local schools separating by race.

“We spent several meetings at the start picking the name Project Unity,” recalls Grimes. “The name stands for what we want to be about?#34;a community coming together in unity around diversity.”

In recent years, Project Unity has suffered from its volunteer core being “spread too thin,” says Grimes. She and Capps stepped away for a few years, but came back last year to help decide what direction the organization should take.

“We couldn’t let it fall by the wayside, and we won’t tolerate seeing it die,” says Grimes. “It captures the spirit of Oak Park.”

As a result of some collective soul searching, they’ve decided to concentrate their energies on two of Project Unity’s premiere events: Community Kwanzaa and the Annual Gala. The Gala’s been moved to summer to spread out the two activities.

That’s not to say there won’t be more. Grimes was encouraged that 12 people showed up to the annual meeting earlier this month, including some “new people with ideas,” she says. “We’re very open to anyone stepping forward and taking the lead in organizing” other activities.

For now, Kwanzaa takes top priority. Kwanzaa is a non-religious holiday that celebrates African-American heritage, pride, community, family and culture. The seven-day festival begins on Dec. 26. Its roots lie in African harvest celebrations?#34;the word “kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” or “first fruits.” Each day focuses on one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Sunday’s celebration begins with family activities and a social hour. “It’s a whole family event, with lots of focus on involving young people,” says Grimes. Families with young children will be able to make musical instruments, or “Afrocentric noisemakers” as Mayes terms them, to use during the musical part of the afternoon.

The Kwanzaa Program features drumming, dancing and ceremony by Atiba and the BUSA family.

A huge “karamu” follows. “A marvelous feast,” translates Mayes. The main dish, perhaps turkey, is prepared on location. Guests are asked to bring “mazao” (fruits and vegetables of the harvest season) to serve 10 to 12 by contributing a salad or appetizer (last names A-H), side dish (I-Q), or dessert (R-Z).

One of the best parts of the Community Kwanzaa is the involvement of so many other organizations, notes Grimes. Besides Project Unity, sponsors this year?#34;both longtime supporters and new ones?#34;include Oak Park Area Arts Council, APPLE, Oak Park NAACP, Oak Park Public Library, Village of Oak Park, Oak Park and River Forest High School, Resources Unlimited Foundation and District 97’s Multicultural Education Department.

Everyone’s welcome at the Community Kwanzaa. Just bring your side dish to Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake St. on Sunday, Dec. 26. Hours are 3 to 6:30 p.m. For more information, see culturelab.net/OakParkKwanzaa04. If you’d like more information on Project Unity, call 861-0414 or e-mail projectunity@comcast.net.

?#34;Laura Stuart

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