Sally Olson and her wife Delena Wilkerson moved to Oak Park in 1993 because they heard that the village was LGBTQ-friendly and racially diverse. “We landed at Pilgrim Church because many of the people there were warm and welcoming to our lesbian-headed, bi-racial family,” Olson said.
“Church members told us explicitly that they were glad that we and our son were there, knowing that Delena and I were LGBTQ. They weren’t just friendly; they were explicit about welcoming us as LGBTQ people.”
Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake St., will celebrate 20 years of being what their denomination refers to as an “Open and Affirming” (ONA) congregation with the screening of the movie Boy Erased on Saturday evening and an Open and Affirming worship service on Sunday morning.
The couple, however, soon discovered that “welcoming” is a relative term. “Not everyone in the village was as accepting as they are now. We never faced violence because of being lesbians,” she said, “but we certainly experienced plenty of rejections and insults.”
At Pilgrim there were no rejections or insults, but some members chose to leave the church when two decades ago the congregation voted to adopt a resolution part of which reads as follows: “We are an open, affirming and actively inclusive community of faith, welcoming all … in diversity of race, marital status, family composition, sexual orientation.”
Rev. Michelle Hughes, interim pastor at Pilgrim for nearly one year, said, “Pilgrim is broadly welcoming and affirming of everyone who comes through their door. Many congregations are hospitable, but Pilgrim practices a radical hospitality that greets each stranger as a neighbor and seeks to integrate them quickly into the life of the church.”
Looking back 20 years, Olson described the process leading up to the adoption of the resolution as “painful.” “There were people who felt, honestly and with their whole hearts, that being open and affirming was a departure from God’s intentions for us and Christ’s teaching. And there were people who felt, honestly and with their whole hearts, that being open and affirming was an expression of God’s love and Christ’s teaching.
“We talked and talked, prayed and prayed … In the end, the congregation voted to become an open and affirming church. We did so as gracefully as we knew how, but this was an emotional, visceral, difficult and long-term discussion. We loved the people who left the church over this and love them still.”
Since then new members have been added to the membership precisely because Pilgrim has gone on record as being open and affirming. LGBTQ people, of course are attracted to the congregation, but Olson said that straight families who want to raise their children in an accepting environment also join.
Early on as it became known in the community that the church was gay friendly, it received threats that it would be fire bombed. When that happened, hundreds of people from many different faith communities attended services and candlelight vigils in support of the congregation were organized.
Kathleen Lojas, who joined Pilgrim with her wife Jenny about 10 years ago, framed the decision to become open and affirming this way: “They thought that if Oak Park is going to be this progressive community and they are going to be a church in that community they needed to be intentional about how they are going to be welcoming.”
Lojas looks at the proclamation from 20 years ago as a good first step but said that Pilgrim had not gone beyond that until the Pulse Nightclub bombing happened in 2016. She remembered that day almost three years ago: “Several of us were standing around in disbelief and crying and saying that we have to do more.”
That event triggered the formation of a group they call LGBTQ and A. “The ‘A’ is for allies,” she said, “because in our church there are people who aren’t openly gay who really want to work on justice issues.”
Lojas said the biggest accomplishment of the LGBTQ and A group is the placing of rainbow doors on the lawn outside the church. “We wanted a very visible sign for kids walking to and from school or people just driving up and down Lake Street,” she said.
“It’s been this quiet, non-verbal symbol which is pulling people to notice. We’ve had a few people come to church because they saw the doors and liked what they represent.”
She described how the doors impact her personally. “By the time I was 12 I knew who I was but didn’t tell anyone until I was in college. But in those days, any time I saw a rainbow flag or bumper sticker I felt ‘it’s not just me.’ That’s what I’m hoping those doors will do for the kids walking past the church to school every day.”
“Because our group is more visible now,” she said, “the kids in our church know they are accepted whether they are special needs kids or a little quirky or questioning their sexuality. At Pilgrim they are bathed in acceptance.”