Bill Chin

Lent may be over, but a long-time commitment to diversity in music is not at First United Church of Oak Park. The church, 848 Lake St., gained national attention amid controversy for its Lenten theme, “fasting from whiteness.”

As the church’s director of music ministries, Bill Chin was not a decision-maker on the widely publicized Lenten theme, but he did select nearly all the music.

“This is not a totally unusual repertoire or something that we’ve never done before,” Chin said. When he recently looked back at music the church had incorporated during their online services during the pandemic, he found “quite a bit” of music with African American, indigenous and world origins. “It isn’t that we always do music by white composers and now we did a ‘180’.”

“Our hymnals have a rich variety of non-European, non-white sources, so there’s nothing new …” Chin said. “We just put the focus less on white European composers and put the focus on these other sources.”

Chin, who has been with the church for 20 years, said the Lenten-theme music, which included African and Latin American countries as sources, was “more engaging in certain ways.” It was well-received, he said, and provided a learning opportunity for congregants.

“The feedback I’ve gotten on the music has been positive across the board,” he said. “There has not been any negative reaction to the music. It’s really about variety and new things and I think most people like to be exposed to new things and learn about something they didn’t know about before.”

Information about the music was placed in the weekly church bulletins for further exploration.

While some outsiders found First United’s Lenten theme controversial, Chin believes the aim was different. 

“The point of the Lenten theme is to broaden our horizons, to include and to change the focus to things we haven’t been exposed to as much as we had before.” It also builds understanding, he said, and “… increases the number of things you can draw from to create a good worshiping experience.”

While the music selected changed the focus for five weeks, now that Lent is over and Easter has passed, Chin said their usual diversity of music plays on at the church.

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