Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Building Bridges between Oak Park and the West Side of Chicago

I’m inspired by what has transpired among the Community of Congregations these past two years. We have prioritized cultivating relationships with people of faith on the West Side of Chicago. Rev. Sally Iberg deserves our collective gratitude for presiding the past two years. The conversations at our Annual Meeting with clergy leaders in Austin and West Garfield Park were a blossoming of our collective work. 

At our Annual Meeting, Rev. Cy Fields expressed appreciation for our mutual interest in building bridges between the Community of Congregations and The Leader’s Network of Chicago’s West Side. Rev. Dr. Acree invited us to participate in the immediately critical project to transport water to Flint Michigan and flag this humanitarian crisis. Rev. Dr. Hatch described the acute differences between police interactions on either side of Austin Boulevard and the need for reform in Chicago that respects the dignity of all people.

I love their call to see us together as “West-Siders.” We are neighbors after all. While we may want to ignore the many social challenges to our east, there is tremendous love, wisdom, and hope among the people, especially people of faith. These pastors are just three of the thoughtful, dedicated human beings with whom we can cultivate relationships. 

I am embarrassed that I served here at Unity Temple for eight years before cultivating relationships beyond Austin Boulevard. There’s a tremendous cultural pull to turn away from our neighbors to the east and focus on what is familiar. 

Four and a half years ago, I and members of my congregation at Unity Temple began breaking through this invisible but very real emotional barrier. We’ve come to know many good people, some of whom have very different life experience--and all of whom share similar life commitments. 

When we cultivate honest relationships, we are better together. We can identify what common interests we have and how we can all grow together as we work toward common ends. For example, after getting to know several men in their 30s and 40s and learning how they received long prison sentences for non-violent crimes, their stories inspired me to join them in restorative justice efforts. In one campaign with a coalition of people of faith, we successfully advocated for legislation for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to seal their records four years after doing their time. It didn’t make the news but it affected many lives. However, many challenges remain: the need for economic opportunity is essential; good education is critical; the opportunities for mentoring children and adults abound.

I don’t know exactly what we, as the Community of Congregations, will “do” in the coming year, but I believe we need to begin with relationship building. I look forward to focusing on activities that provide us the opportunity to engage our West Side neighbors, allowing us to listen to one another about our hopes and passions, our fears and dreams.

Might your congregation want to build a relationship with another in the West Side?Rabbi Max Weiss and Oak Park Temple hosted Pastor Marshall Hatch and his choir from Mt Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at a Friday evening worship service. There’s a relationship in formation here. 

I’d love to hear how other congregations are creating relationships with others. Are there youth groups that get together? Choirs? What community service or social justice work is being supported and informed by bridges of faith communities?

May we rise to the challenges and opportunities before us, engaging the vision of the Community of Congregations. May we discover the gifts of building bridges with Chicago’s West Side and deepening in relationship. 

Rev. Alan Taylor is the Senior Minister at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the newly installed president of Community of Congregations

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