It was something of an Easter miracle that First United Church of Oak Park made it through four of the six weeks of Lent with its flowing outside banners proclaiming an aspiration of “Fasting from Whiteness” before right-wing media spun it up into another national sensation.

We feel nothing but pride and appreciation when a mainline Christian church on Lake Street addresses so directly its inevitable internal struggles with systemic racism. You don’t build that edifice, on that corner, in that last-century Oak Park moment, without a heaping helping of unexamined, unapologetic whiteness.

To its profound credit, First United — the blending of the straightlaced First Presbyterian and First Congregational congregations in 1975 — has always been an overwhelmingly white but consciously activist church. It would be a lengthy list of causes, battles and hospitality offered if you were to enumerate the church’s good works.

It is expressly for that reason that this intentionally liberal institution needed to, and wanted to, examine its white-to-the-core DNA, especially during the season of Lent just past. No criticism here of this next step in its growth toward recognition that liberal whites usually have a wide streak of racism, right there, just under the unblemished veneer.

Putting up the banners, though, was likely a strategic error. An Oak Park liberal declaration that we are eating chocolate but giving up whiteness for Lent just begs for derision and a turn in right-wing media’s cynical, simplistic, skeered-for-kicks barrel of hate.

And in this moment when demented social media connects us instantly through fears, ignorance and reinforcement, it took but a moment for this story to be wretched up from local news to Fox News. The spew of cowardly threats followed in an instant and led the church to pull back first, wisely, its banners and sadly some of its public, in-person Holy Week services.

We report this week on Oak Park Temple quietly opening its synagogue for First United’s Maundy Thursday services and the late decision to throw open the church doors on Easter morning.

Good for those willing to proclaim beliefs rooted in love, willing to put forward their failings and white-limited view of their world. And, yes, as part of that reckoning, good for a congregation to toss out the hymnals filled with only white composers and experience the joy of other glorious voices celebrating their deity.

Truth, though, is that much of the work of anti-racism needs to be internal to a person, to a congregation, to white people talking to white people about the plain truth that our skin-color luck has about run out. That delusional claims of superiority are plain racism. And to recognize that this brutality and inequity is baked into every institution we protect.

Opening that hard, painful work to caricature by haters won’t speed the effort; it only gives reinforcing cause to those who plan to squeeze another moment, another election cycle or news cycle from the sins of our founding, the sins of last week, and of yesterday morning.  

Join the discussion on social media!