Reawakening Oak Park's Community of Congregations

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

People active in the interfaith and social justice communities in Oak Park and River Forest are using words like reenergized  and  out of hibernation to describe what is going on in the interfaith organization called Community of Congregations (CoC). 

Katie Avalos, the organization's executive secretary, reported, "From a numbers standpoint, we have seen more people attending our meetings, more organizations submitting articles to our newsletter Common Call, and more people asking to be added to our mailing list." 

"From an anecdotal standpoint," she said, "there is a buzz in the community about our organization.  I frequently run into people around town who want to know about what we have coming up and are excited about our work of bringing people together."

"It is an exciting time for the ministry of the Community of Congregations," said Shawn Schreiner, a past CoC president and rector of Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake St.

Current and past CoC presidents put the present level of excitement into historical perspective.  

When Sally Iberg became the pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church,460 Lake St., in 2010, the congregation told her that they wanted to become more involved in CoC, so she began asking people what the organization was about.

One of her members said, "I don't know."  A colleague at a clergy luncheon replied, "I think it's defunct."  CoC was certainly not defunct, but the responses Iberg heard revealed that the ecumenical organization was operating under the radar if not in hibernation.  Turnout at major events was low.  Creative energy was not like it was in the 1990s.

Indeed, the 1990s were seen by many as the organization's golden age.  Ed Hiestand was pastor of River Forest United Methodist Church, 7970 W. Lake St., from 1984 till 1997, and was president of CoC between 2000 and 2002. He has been involved in the organization and its predecessor bodies for 30 years.  Noting the surge of creativity during the last decade of the Twentieth Century, he said, "CoC was instrumental either in initiating or enabling with support and networking the CROP Walk, PADS, the OPRF Food Pantry, the Holiday Food and Gift Basket, the Walk in Ministry (now called Prevail), the Houses of Worship Faith Walk, convening clergy breakfasts and encouraging lectionary groups."

Pat Koko, whose association with CoC goes back to 1975 and who served as the administrative secretary from 1995 to 2005, remembers 1975-1990 as a time of transition for the faith communities in Oak Park and River Forest as well as for the villages as a whole. "I served in the CoC in various ways," she recalled, "through the transition from Council of Churches into Community of Churches in the late 1970s when the Catholic Churches began to work with the organization through the Food Pantry and it seemed good to include them.  That went along until 1992 when a formal vote was taken to change to Community of Congregations in order to become faith inclusive.  After all the Jewish congregations and other faith groups were also working with our ministries especially the Food Pantry and PADS.  It just made sense." 

During the 2000s the creative energy seemed to dissipate.  "As we got into the 2000s," said Leonard Grossman, who was the CoC president at the turn of the century and again until this last January, "people weren't going to meetings anymore. They were too busy.  Women were working.  There wasn't time for everything.  Many CoC events and activities faded out."

Koko pointed out that some of the organizations "cradled" by CoC "left home" so to speak and became independently operating, though not unrelated, organizations which no longer needed the direct oversight of CoC.  Whatever the cause, the result was a decrease in energy and activity.

Expectations, therefore, for the community meeting of CoC to be held at Ascension Catholic Church, 801 S. East Ave., in the fall of 2013 were not very high.  "We'll be lucky if 50 people show up," CoC board members told Iberg who was now a board member.  

But, to everyone's surprise and delight, between 150 and 200 people—depending on who was doing the estimating—showed up to hear presentations from representatives of organizations working in some way for social justice in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

Koko gives a lot of credit for the turnaround to Grossman.  "As many organizations do," she said, "leadership has much to do with the on-going activity of its programs and events. As different leaders were elected they had different goals and objectives and changed the general meetings to less frequently, didn't stress the need for named delegates from member congregations and really didn't pursue active membership by local congregations. But things have turned around in the past three years, after Len Grossman was persuaded to return to the helm, and he undertook to revitalize the organization to a valued place in the OPRF and nearby communities."

That successful event was follow by another well attended community meeting in January in which those who attended engaged in discussions in one of three groups—focusing on radical hospitality, empowering youth and economic justice.  The task given to each group was to generate ways that both individuals and institutions could channel their renewed energy toward specific results.

Then, on April 28, a third meeting enabled the 50 people in attendance to engage in conversation with representatives from 16 organizations seeking in one way or another to serve people in need—organizations such as Austin Coming Together, L'Arche, Celebrating Seniors and God Breathed Ministries.

Joycelin Fowler, a River Forest resident, found out about the event from her congregation, Pilgrim Congregational Church.  Inspired by the representatives with whom she networked, she is going to make a quilt for Rainbow Hospice and is considering being a part of Austin Coming Together.

Paul Eichwedel is the secretary of the Peace and Justice Committee at Grace Lutheran Church, 7300 W. Division,  River Forest.  He interacted with representatives from Prevail and Kidz Express and intends to recommend that his congregation continue its support of both organizations and to advocate for his church members to get more involved with them.

And that's exactly what Iberg, who began her term as CoC president in January, hoped would happen.  She jokingly referred to the process at the April 28 meeting as "speed dating."  "We don't want to recreate the wheel," she said.  "We don't need to create something new as much as work with what already exists.  Let's get to know each other better, know what's going on and see where we can connect the energy we have."

She explained the large increases in turnout at CoC events by saying, "My interpretation is that our communities are hungry to know each other, hungry to know what's going on, hungry to be in relationship and to make a difference."

List of CoC member congregations:

  • Ascension Church
  • Baha'i Community of Oak Park
  • Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, Oak Park
  • First United Church of Oak Park
  • Fraternite Notre Dame
  • Grace Episcopal Church, Oak Park
  • Oak Park Friends Meeting
  • Pilgrim Congregational Church, Oak Park
  • River Forest United Methodist Church
  • Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality
  • St. Edmund Parish
  • St. Luke Catholic Parish, River Forest
  • United Lutheran Church, Oak Park
  • Unity Temple, Oak Park
  • Unity Church of Oak Park


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