Local activists gathered at Scoville Park in Oak Park Sunday Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. for a Black Lives Matter Solidarity Walk. (Dawn Ferencak/Staff)

Last weekend there were large “Black Lives Matter” rallies in New York, Boston, L.A. and in Oak Park. An estimated 700 people gathered in Scoville Park on Sunday at 1 p.m. to sing gospel songs, hear speakers, march and pray in response to the killing of unarmed black men and boys by white police officers in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York.

The Rev. Ira Acree, one of the speakers from the West Side of Chicago, declared that the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York not to indict white police officers “have caused the faith community to wake up.”

Indeed, when the Rev. Shawn Schreiner, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, sent out an email to colleagues in the Community of Congregations, a week ago Monday, to float the possibility of staging a Black Lives Matter Rally six days later, she had no idea if anyone would respond. Apparently she tapped into a reservoir of pent-up emotion because an ad hoc committee of clergy got together the next day, emails flew, and the word got out in large part via social media.

Instead of listing specific proposals to turn things around, the speakers and individuals in the crowd who commented after the rally seemed to agree with Rev. Acree when he said, “The church is the conscience of a nation. I am honored to lock arms with faith communities of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds for such a worthy cause. Systemic change occurs when the church speaks up.”

After the rally, Marty Swisher, music director of Unity Temple, seemed to speak for the crowd, which was 90% white, when she said with emotion, “I’m here because we need to represent a community that cares about what’s going on. We are all here because we need to let the world know how much Oak Park is behind people of color.” 

“This isn’t about good cops and bad cops,” said Acree during the rally in an attempt to broaden the discussion. “We can’t be sidetracked by a few bad police. We must concentrate on the bigger problem, America’s deepest moral sin, and that’s racism. Police are merely the gatekeepers of a racist system in America.”

What justice demands, he said, is a level playing field on which people of color don’t have to go 12 yards to get a first down when whites only have to go 10.

Rev. Kathy Nolte, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, added, “Those who have the power must speak into the heart of prejudice and racism. Those who are benefiting from white privilege must speak publicly and loudly against racism.” She said that her bishop, Rev. Wayne Miller, had sent out an email to every congregation in the Metro Chicago Synod to wear black on Sunday in order to be in solidarity with victims of racist violence.

Just before the rally ended with the singing of “We Shall Overcome,” Rev. Schreiner declared, “This is not the end. Our whole point is that we’re starting this today, but we can’t end it here. The journey continues.” 

Richard Boykin, newly elected Cook County Commissioner (1st District which includes Oak Park), proposed one step as a way to move forward. From the stage he said, “I invite everyone to come to the Cook County board meeting on Dec. 17. We have a resolution calling on President Obama to create a national commission to examine the entirety of the criminal justice system and the impact of race. The commission would include all stakeholders and would issue a report on ways to reduce the number of black males who come in contact with the criminal justice system. If current trends persist, one in three black boys born today will go to prison.”

In the crowd, Glover Johnson, a member of St. Giles Family Mass Community, was circulating a petition to run next spring for the Triton College Board of Trustees.

“I think there are a lot of fundamental issues happening in this community and around the U.S.,” he said, “and if we don’t do something about the inequality in the justice system, we’ll only perpetuate it. I currently serve on the Triton board and am running for reelection because I believe that inequality in education is part of the problem.”

Melanie Kincaid, a Forest Park resident, said, “I am most encouraged by the momentum going forward and this will not end here for the sake of those who did die. We need to make changes, but I don’t know how to do that myself. It was very affirming to know that there are people who will lead us forward.” 

Schreiner said she didn’t know the names of every faith community represented in the rally but the partial list includes Grace Episcopal, First United Church of Oak Park, Unity Temple, St. Giles Family Mass Community, St. Christopher’s Episcopal, Fellowship Christian Church, First United Methodist, Pilgrim Congregational, and Oak Park Temple, all from Oak Park; West Suburban Temple Har Zion from River Forest; and Third Unitarian and Greater St. John’s Bible Church from Austin.

“We will walk and gather and declare that “Black Lives Matter,” walk organizers wrote on the event’s public Facebook page a few days before the event. “We will be a witness against a justice system that is not working and share that we do not believe excessive force to and killing of unarmed black men is acceptable in the a country of the free and brave.” 

A number of Dominican University students, faculty and staff staged a “die-in” on campus Dec. 9 as a mark of solidarity as well.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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