First United Church of Oak Park (Google Maps)

Those who grew up in Christian households know the importance the Bible places on forgiveness. Like resurrection, forgiveness is foundational to Christianity. On Easter Sunday, First United Church of Oak Park reversed course and celebrated in-person both the resurrection and the act of forgiveness itself.

“Forgiveness allows Christians to be morally brave,” said First United’s Rev. John Edgerton. “When I do make errors, forgiveness allows me the chance to do better, to grow in spirit and to grow in love. I would hope for forgiveness from others when I make errors, so I extend that to others in obedience to the golden rule.”

First United, 848 Lake St., came into the national spotlight for its chosen Lenten theme of “fasting from whiteness,” which involved using music composed by non-white individuals and depictions of major biblical figures with dark skin. The slogan “fasting from whiteness,” coined by Edgerton, was intended to welcome the liturgical accomplishments made by people of color into the predominately white church in an act of anti-racism.

For these efforts, the church faced considerable backlash and even harassment for its Lenten theme after conservative media outlets caught wind of it. TheBlaze, The Washington Times and “Fox & Friends” all covered the church’s fast from whiteness. The church received angry and hateful messages online, in emails and over voicemail.

Edgerton shared with Wednesday Journal a particularly threatening voicemail, wherein the male caller asked to reserve a spot at the service, called those who attended the parish “out of your [expletive] minds” for participating in the Lenten theme and said he would bring some friends to the Palm Sunday service.

“We should all have a good time together,” the man concluded.

That call prompted Edgerton to cancel an in-person Easter service and move it online to prevent the possibility of violence. Oak Park police sent detectives to follow up with the man who made the call, according to Edgerton, who declined to share the man’s name. Wednesday Journal awaits confirmation from the Oak Park Police Department. The police, Edgerton shared, told the church that the man regretted making the call.

“He acknowledged that he shouldn’t have done that, and he explained that he had been upset and did something in the moment,” Edgerton relayed.

The man showed further remorse for his actions. A few days later, Westgate Flower & Plant Shop delivered an Easter lily to First United. Addressed to the church’s office staff, the attached card read, “Sorry for the inappropriate voicemail last week.” The man signed the card with a “God bless.”

When Edgerton called the man to tell him the flower had been received, he left a voicemail, offering the church’s forgiveness for the man’s previous behavior.

“I consider it to be a sincere apology,” Edgerton told Wednesday Journal. “And we accept that apology and extend him forgiveness.”

Edgerton believes perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this small experience. He hopes that the man has come to think differently about his prejudices and welcome into his heart greater love for all of mankind.

As for “fasting from whiteness,” Edgerton said it was an “amazing” experience. He noted the generosity of members of the Black community for providing “thoughtful, substantive and important” critiques of the church’s fast, offering food for thought on what it means to be anti-racist.

“I believe a little bit more than I did yesterday about the power of transformation and the power for something new to come out of something old,” he said. “I have more hope today than I did yesterday.”

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