Bahai News - Spirits soaring in Chicago
Spirits soaring in Chicago
A year of reports finds a religious community that celebrates vitality,
diversity and ecumenism
By Steve Kloehn
Tribune Religion Writer
September 22, 2000
Rev. John Alexander Dowie left little to chance a century ago, when the
charismatic preacher founded the
city of Zion as a carefully ordered religious utopia: He immediately
Sin, unfortunately, proved no easier to eradicate with law enforcement
than with moral suasion. And the utopia Dowie plotted never fully
A few dozen miles to the south, and a few decades earlier, the city of
Chicago had been founded on a different kind of faith: a belief in
hustle and human ingenuity and the likelihood that a fortune lay just
around the corner. Sin was not promoted, exactly, but was sometimes
winked atóbeing, after all, a growth sector in the economy.
But as the city built up and sprawled out from its swampy center, an odd
thing happened. Religion flourished.
Protestant preachers like Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday found their
voice on the streets of the Loop. Catholic and Jewish communities
thrived, far from the shadow of their old-world origins.
And then came the newer waves of immigrants with their religious
traditionsóthe Orthodox, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the
Jains, the Sikhs, the Baha'i and so many more.
Greater Chicago is not at all the theologically particular and
regimented religious utopia Dowie had in mind. But it has become a
singular and congenial home to a vast spectrum of religious communities,
unlike any other in the world.
Without willing it, Chicago has become a place where the world's
religions mix with unprecedented ease. There are bumps and scrapes along
the way, clashes and misunderstandings that draw headlines, but the real
news is the underlying desire to move beyond suspicion and mere
In each of the last 52 weeks, the Tribune has sketched out a tableau
from this roiling encounter, under the heading Faces of Faith.
Many of these portraits, like the story of open-air
masses celebrated by Mexican-American Catholics in Pilsen, offered
vivid examples of the ways in which cultural shifts refigure faith
traditions. Others, such as the tale of Skokie's
Congregation Bene Shalom and its core of deaf worshipers, depicted
religious communities that have intentionally reached beyond traditional
Some, like an article detailing the quiet philanthropy of Swadhyaya
Hindus, opened windows into groups virtually unknown to outsiders,
even to fellow believers.
From a researcher's point of view, it would be hard to imagine a more
fully stocked laboratory of religion than Chicago offers.
But of course, religious communities are not closed experiments,
stoppered beakers that can be isolated for study. They swirl around
together, agents, reagents and catalysts, constantly changing one
Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George said in a 1999 speech that one of
Chicago's gifts to the world might ultimately be its own model of
interfaith relationships, the open conversations among religions that
prosper locally even as national and international talks break down.
Faces of Faith found such interfaith conversations, intended and
otherwise, taking place closer to the grass roots as well.
When the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed a historic
agreement last fall in Augsburg, Germany, St. Paul's Lutheran Church and
St. Mary's Catholic Church, just a block apart in Evanston, decided to
celebrate the event together.
The theology of salvation hammered out in Augsburg was a little
abstruse. But St. Paul's and St. Mary's had a much simpler idea of how
ecumenism should play out in Evanston: Children from the two
congregations stuck 95 Post-it Notes to the doors of their churches,
each one bearing a reason to love one's neighbor.
Some of the cross-cultural encounters chronicled in Faces of Faith
proved more exotic. For instance, Rev. Robert V. Thompson, a senior
minister at the Lake Street American Baptist Church in Evanston,
traveled to Naperville's Science of Spirituality Center to engage in the
Sant Mat tradition of meditation. He said the meditation, more
closely aligned with Eastern religions, helped him refocus on a more
personal encounter with God.
Many of the ideas and practices that the Roman Catholic Church codified
at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s found life and freedom here
in the 1940s and 1950s. Chicago's Jewish community has managed to hold
on to its ties with Israel while letting go much of the factionalism
found on the American coasts. Immigrant Muslim communities here are tied
as closely to one another as they are to their countries of origin.
Where that leads is far from clear. But for many Chicagoans, that
unforeseeable future is a reason for hope, not fear.
"The very fact that creation is incomplete points us irresistibly into
the not-yet," Rabbi Herman Schaalman, a pioneer in Chicago's interfaith
community, said last year.
For Schaalman, speaking from the ancient traditions of Judaism, as much
as for believers with shorter histories, the story of faith has not yet
concluded. It is lived out every day in and around Chicago, in thousands
of communities following thousands of different paths.
And though universals are scarce across this wide array of faiths, they
do share the common belief that the best, however distant, is yet to come.
©Copyright 2000, Chicago Tribune
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