A congregation finds meaning in the closing of their church on Christmas Day

Well done, good and faithful servants

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defines the challenge in the last stage of a person's life as involving looking back on it and closing it out with a feeling of integrity instead of despair. It's the stage in which individuals know they will soon die, and look back on their life in an attempt to figure out if that life was worth living.

Erikson wrote, "A meaningful old age ... serves the need for that integrated heritage which gives indispensable perspective to the life cycle. Strength here takes the form of that detached yet active concern with life bounded by death, which we call wisdom." (Identity, p. 140)

Austin Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ of Illinois/Wisconsin) has reached that last stage of its institutional life, and since the announcement of their closing, ABC's members have been trying to find meaning in the congregation's 113-year history. Their final worship service together will be on Christmas Day.

No regrets

When asked if his congregation's imminent closing means they have failed, ABC's pastor, Rev. Dwight Bailey, immediately responded with a firm "No." The congregation had been faithful, he explained, and that's all that matters to God.

Bailey added that the confidence he expressed doesn't mean he and his flock aren't hurting because of the loss of something good.

"The Christmas Day service will be the most difficult," said Jennifer Burney, an ABC member for 11 years and at various times a clerk, trustee and elder. "I'm sure many of us will not want to leave. It's like the death of a good friend."

People in the community who aren't members are also mourning the closing. Marty Swisher, the choir director at Unity Temple sent Pastor Bailey a note saying, "It is with a heavy heart that I read the news of your church's closing. The fellowship and grace that we have experienced these past years has been an extraordinary reflection of the work of the spirit."

Allen Harper put into words the outlook of most of the 100 people who on Nov. 19 attended the final Harvest Dinner, an annual event at ABC.

"I guess I am full of sadness and in the first steps of grief," he confided but immediately added, "There is a sense of celebration of the harvest of blessings this church has been to the community. It also brings about so many memories that it becomes overwhelming to contemplate."

The mood at the Harvest Dinner was more like a family reunion than a funeral. Members and former members told story after story about the relationships they had enjoyed within the congregation.

"I was in the midst of the most creative, rewarding group of people," said Trent Owens, who was ABC's pastor from 1969 to 1978. "We used to sing," he recalled. "Man, we used to sing!"

Janice Biggs who joined the church in 1954 remembered the 1950s as "the glory days," when there would be standing room only at some of the services. "Most of our social life was here," she recalled. "It's an unusual church."

Many at the dinner told stories about Cabaret, an annual event during which members of the congregation would create skits where they would comment on events that took place during the preceding year.

"The whole intent," said Bailey, "was to create a way to have a conversation. After the skits, the Cabaret Band would play, and we'd always end the evening by singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

ABC's pastor also talked about how the members of the congregation had ministered to him following the death of his mother in 1999. "The church loved me and supported me," he recalled. "I saw God's grace being unfolded to me through these people who prayed for me, stood by me, encouraged me and challenged me."

Harper put into words his appreciation of the love members had given him over the years, telling the people at the dinner, "Every one of you has had a part in creating me."

Church members also found meaning in the connection the congregation had built with the community. In her note Swisher said, "You have embodied generosity and faith to the members of our community, and we will be forever appreciative of this."

One by one, people at the Harvest Dinner rose and ticked off the list of ways the church at 634 N. Austin had impacted the community: pastors serving as presidents of the Community of Congregations and involvement in the West Suburban PADS homeless shelter program, the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, the Walk-In Ministry and the CROP Walk.

Bailey recalled a series of ABC pastors who have been deeply involved in the community and who embodied the congregation's motto, "Embrace Christ and serve the world."

Rev. Don Wheat (1963-69) was involved in civil rights and justice concerns. Rev. Owens reached across the boulevard, inviting kids of color into the church in the Fifth and Up Program. Rev. Don McCord (1986-2002) helped create Peace Bridges with Christians in Russia during the Cold War.

Bailey said some have criticized his church for being so focused on serving that they neglected the work of evangelism, i.e. gathering new people into their faith community. He and the members of ABC can live with that charge.

"ABC has been right on the front lines," said Bailey. "Part of the call of Christ in our lives as members of ABC is that we need to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. We also need to be that good news, to go out into the world and let Christ be the motivation of how we serve."

The decision to close

ABC members were thoughtful in discussing their decision on Aug. 21 to close. Jim Bruce, a member from 1967 until he moved to Iowa five years ago, called the vote "a responsible stewardship decision."

"Faced with an aging building," he said, "lack of parking, an aging congregation, and a greater Oak Park mindset that the neighborhood was not 'safe,' it is a difficult if not impossible task to increase membership. When all of a congregation's resources are consumed by maintaining and operating a building, there is little left for mission and outreach, which should be the prime reason a church exists."

Carol Josefowski, who has a Master of Divinity degree and has attended ABC regularly since July, said, "Churches, like people, have life cycles. A congregation who has faithfully lived, served and been in authentic relationships with its community need not consider itself a failure any more than a saint be considered a failure when they pass away."

Besides, she added, her congregation intended to keep its regular schedule of serving right up to the end. Their fall schedule included not only the Harvest Dinner and Christmas worship but Sunday worship, Bible study on Mondays, choir rehearsal on Wednesdays, Bridge worship on Tuesdays, participation in the Interfaith Community Thanksgiving service and even a wedding on Nov. 12.

What lies ahead

Although many members, including the pastor, confessed they were uncertain about what they are going to do about a church home after walking out the doors for the last time on Christmas Day, they didn't seem overly worried about it.

They frame it in different ways. Bailey likes the image of folding up a tent. He explained that after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel were frequently on the move, so they worshiped in a tent. Change was the norm. When they left a place, they folded up their "church" and brought it with them.

With such "nomadic spirituality," he said, "You may fold the tent, but the presence of God still abides. Even though the building may not be under our main leadership, the tent of God has still been pitched in our hearts, and we're going to carry that word wherever we go."

He added that ABC is trying to raise $20,000 before they close to fix the aging boiler so they can hand the building over to a new congregation with the facility in good shape.

Josefowski views all of the uncertainties about the future through a different lens: "I am so touched by the congregation's trust in God," she said. "There seems to be an innate understanding that God cannot be limited to the church's building. I'm confident God can, and will, use the circumstances to bring about something new, some Good News in unknown and unexpected ways."

Harper sees the closing as a sending out rather than as a death.

"We have had many people over the years come and go on to new opportunities," he said. "Our tradition is always to send them out with our blessing to serve out of the love they have experienced in their time of formation with ABC. Our last act must be that we send ourselves out to embrace the world."

No blame

"Austin Boulevard Christian Church has helped me realize there is no need to find or place any blame for its closure," Josefowski said. "ABC holds no regrets, and goes out, I believe, simply saying, 'God is good, all the time."

Bruce added, "I am convinced God will say to ABC, 'Well done, good and faithful servant!'"

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