Up until a few years ago I served as Pastor of Irving Park Baptist Church, a small mostly White and aging multicultural congregation on the north side of Chicago. I love that church. The people are wonderfully open to trying new things and embracing change. To be honest, not everybody liked change. But enough of them were willing to try new things to make change happen– like calling me, an African American woman, as their pastor, and inviting a highly gifted pony-tailed guitarist to serve as their music director.
There is one change this church went through that will always keep them close to my heart. As with most changes, it was difficult for them at first. But this effort truly changed the church, I believe for the better. It all had to do with a children’s home down the street from the church. It’s a home for children who’ve been removed from their families for safety reasons. Some of these children may eventually return to their families, some are adopted, and some stay at the home until they reach 18 and come out of the foster care system.
The thing about these kids is that most of them are Black. Irving Park is a predominantly White neighborhood that has recently gentrified and is now also predominantly well to do. Some of the members of Irving Park Baptist say that they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. The kids at the home clearly stand out there, and are known to some in the neighborhood as “those” kids from the home, without any further identification other than their skin color.
At my instigation, the church reached out to the home to invite the kids to participate in activities we planned for the neighborhood, like vacation bible school, Martin Luther King Day celebrations and outdoor family fun festivities. The home didn’t respond for a couple of years, until I finally made contact with one of the counselors who came over to the church to talk with me about the kids. She thought that the kids might be difficult for the church to handle, that they were rough and some had “issues.”
And while she told me this, I knew she was challenging me, and the church, to make sure the church would be a safe place to bring these kids, who she loved deeply. She wanted to make sure they didn’t get hurt. Like other foster kids, the one thing most of them wanted above all else was to be able to go home to a safe and secure place, to have a loving and healthy family. The last thing they needed was to be treated like outsiders, like much of the rest of the neighborhood treated them.
So we planned to bring the kids over for a Saturday Fun Fest, just for them. Several of the women of the church had taught Sunday School for years, some of them had been teachers, many had worked with kids in various capacities, and a couple of them had worked with handicapped children. So they got ready, planning arts and crafts projects and songs to sing, food to eat and a time of bible study.
When the kids arrived about 1/2 hour late, accompanied by their counselors (always), we were shocked. We had planned for children who we thought would be mostly grade schoolers. These kids were mostly junior high and high schoolers, and much more mature than we expected. These kids were not like the children the women were accustomed to working with. They were from a different culture, a different place, a place that these women did not know.
It was truly culture shock. One young woman who had planned the arts and crafts said she was surprised that most of the kids were bigger than she was. So we adapted. I don’t remember how, but we did. We talked together after the experience, and the church wanted to continue to have the monthly Saturday sessions for these kids.
That was a key point in my relationship with the church. They wanted to try. They were willing to stretch themselves because they knew that these kids needed more love in their lives, and they wanted to help make that happen.
A group of us worked hard together to make sure that the activities were more age-appropriate. We planned every minute out with things for them to do. For a few months it felt like hard work, until we began to get to know the kids better. After a while, we figured out that they were happy just to come, to be there with us, to “chillax” (for those of you who don’t get that, it means to both chill and relax) away from the home. We found it more fulfilling to sometimes just to talk with the kids, to listen to their stories, to get to know them as kids, just kids.
And sometimes it didn’t go as planned. Sometimes one of the the kids would get in trouble with the counselors and that made us all uncomfortable. Sometimes they didn’t show up, or were late, or we got our signals crossed about something. But the church kept on inviting them, and they kept on coming.
Over the years, the relationship deepened, and the kids responded to the church in some very positive ways.. More on this next week….