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Back to Newspaper articles archive: 2000


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 outlawed sin.

Sin, unfortunately, proved no easier to eradicate with law enforcement than with moral suasion. And the utopia Dowie plotted never fully materialized.

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 tolerance.

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 borders.

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 another.

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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