First United Church of Oak Park

Many Christians choose to give up something for the 40 days before Easter. Whether potato chips or television, the act, known as a Lenten sacrifice, is a spiritually-inspired and voluntary repudiation of a luxury or pleasure to make more room for God and growth in their lives. One church in Oak Park has taken the religious practice a step further by “fasting from whiteness” — and in doing so, faced significant harassment.

“Fasting is about opening up space in our hearts and you fast from things that have a tie on your heart,” explained Rev. John Edgerton of First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St.

The church’s eye-catching Lenten theme was coined by Edgerton but is part of the church’s comprehensive anti-racism efforts. By fasting from whiteness, First United is recognizing that Christianity is not exclusively practiced by white people. The clergy and laity of First United Church of Oak Park have widened the scope of their worship to highlight that fact, choosing instead to use contributions of non-white Christians.

“We’re trying to take the normal frame of reference that we have as a predominantly white church, but to remove from that [the] liturgical work that has been written by white people, music that was composed by white people,” Edgerton said. “Into that space, we have poured the amazing, beautiful work of Christians from a diverse background.”

For the entire 40-day pre-Paschal period, the church has only sung and played songs composed by non-white Christians.

“We [are] trying to highlight and lift up the voices of people of color,” Edgerton said.

The church has also refrained from using iconography that depicts Jesus Christ and other religious figures as white-skinned. In its place, the church’s bulletins feature the work of visual artist and photographer John C. Lewis. Lewis’ work portrays major biblical characters as people of color. 

“It has been absolutely amazing,” Edgerton said. “Our church services have been so joyful and so wonderful and challenging in all the best ways.”

For all the joy that fasting from whiteness has brought the church, First United has faced criticism and even ire from people outside of Oak Park after the story was carried in such conservative outlets as TheBlaze and The Washington Times.

“This has been picked up and used as a cudgel by certain quarters of the media as a way to try to hold up the gospel work that we are doing as some kind of aberration, something to be ridiculed.”

First United was also featured on the conservative morning talk show “Fox & Friends,” where Boston Rev. Eugene Rivers III called the fast a “wokeness-gone-mad gimmick.” Right after the segment aired, First United began receiving voicemails at a rate of five per minute, according to Edgerton.

Edgerton disagrees with Rivers’ characterization. Rather, he believes the church is simply doing their Christian duty during this holy season.

“In reality, what we are doing is serving the gospel; we are being faithful to the good news of Jesus Christ, who was a dark-skinned man from the poor part of town, who lived under the boot of an oppressive regime and who was executed for standing up for justice,” Edgerton said.

Oak Park Village Trustee and First United congregant Susan Buchanan organized volunteers to read emails sent to the church’s three pastors, screening the messages for threats.

“Clearly racism is alive and well in this country,” Buchanan said of the hateful messages the church has received.

Despite Oak Park police cars stationed outside and ugly discourse about the church happening on the internet, the harassment has done little to dampen Edgerton’s spirit. Inside the confines of First United, no members expressed discomfort or disapproval regarding the fast; rather, there were many who wished the church would be bolder in its efforts, according to Edgerton.

Support from local organizations and residents has also bolstered the church, which is something Edgerton said cannot be seen online. Elected officials have reached out to First United and people from other religious denominations have brought platters of fruit and cookies. He expressed his gratitude to the Oak Park community.

As a safety precaution, this Sunday’s Easter services will be online only.

Despite the vulgarity and vitriol from those offended by the fast, Edgerton believes the media attention provides an opportunity to encourage a wider audience to partake in anti-racism discussions. He acknowledged the difficulty of having those conversations, but he does not apologize for making some people uneasy.

“There is no way to speak about racism in this country that is not uncomfortable. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable,” he said. “The other option is silence and we will not be silent.”

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