Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 16, 2019
Pastor’s Report to the Faith Family of Morgan Park American Baptist Church - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
For ‘In God we live and move and have our being …’” (Acts 17:28)
On Pentecost Sunday, June 9, we had our annual congregational meeting. At that meeting, Bruce Stark, our church moderator, and I brought important news to our church. To get to that news, some church history needs to be unfolded.
Eleven and a half years ago, while I was being interviewed by the Pastoral Search Committee, I said to them that because of the church’s finances and budget, the church only had five years before it would run out of money. No one on the search committee disputed my analysis.
With God’s help, we’ve been able to weather some of the financial storms that occurred. Some years we did better than other years. But we still had to draw from savings each year to cover expenses. Our savings have been gradually depleted over time.
Naturally, one of my first pastoral tasks was to rebuild our congregational size. My Beth and I, along with others in the church, distributed over 4,000 fliers to homes in our surrounding neighborhood. We began many, many outreach programs.
Our beloved church became very visible in our broader community. We engaged many speakers and offered a wide variety of lectures and classes. We also began an important outreach which we named “The Center for Spiritual Health.” The Center offered free professional counseling and many health-related programs. Many in our neighborhood were helped through the services offered by our Center.
Yet we did not grow as easily as we had hoped. This is the situation which most, if not all, the Protestant churches in our Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhood face. Many of our younger people have stopped attending church. This phenomenon is found almost everywhere in our country.
When I began as pastor of our beloved church, there were 116 people listed as being affiliated with our church. In the 11 years I’ve served, 46 of those in that original list were called home to God. 23 of those listed left our church through moving or by joining another church. 12 of those listed in that original number continue to be affiliated to our church but are unable to attend in any significant way because of health issues or distance.
Thus some 81 of the original 116 are no longer able to be part of our worshipping community. In the years since I began, we have added about 22 new people. But this comes up very short considering the loss of those 81 congregants. We feel their loss. I see the faces of so many of the pillars of our church whom I have helped bury. Their loss burdens me daily.
The generosity of our congregants has been and continues to be astonishing. But we have so many serious expenses. We pay $1,000 per month just for insurance. The heating bill for the month of February was $4,358. The heating bill for January was $3,477. Even with the monies we collect monthly from Just For Kids, our costs remain an incredible burden on our small church.
Over the years I’ve attempted ways to help our congregation become stronger. When my friend, Pastor Bill O’Donnell, died so suddenly, I approached Bethany Union Church and suggested that I might pastor both churches with the eventual aim of joining both congregations together. They decided on a different pastoral approach.
When the Morgan Park Church of God lost its pastor, I approached them, through their Illinois State leader, to bring them into our congregation. I also had conversations with Pastor Craig Jenkins from our sister-church Beth Eden Baptist Church, about bringing both churches together.
Over the past two or so years, it’s become obvious to our deacons and to me that we were faced with the need for a serious decision regarding our building. This was brought to a head because of a malicious anonymous call to the City of Chicago claiming, wrongly, that our building posed a risk to children because of possible falling bricks.
The City sent an inspector who did an inspection unbeknownst to any of us. We were cited by the City and we were ordered to do some tuck pointing. Over a long period of time, we contacted various construction companies regarding the city-mandated repairs.
We finally settled on one company who would do the repairs for $41,000. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that amount of monies available to us when it came time to begin the work. We then turned to another company with whom we’ve contracted to do the repairs for $30,000. That work is happening currently.
Bruce Stark, along with our lawyer and myself, have been to City Court on a number of occasions to get extensions for this work to be completed. Our last appearance at court was Friday, June 7. We were granted a final extension to September. We’ll have the building inspected by the City a week prior to that court appearance.
Our building faces many challenges regarding maintenance. We have been incredibly blessed by the constant care of Ross Dring and Art Lynn. Ross recently had back surgery. He will also attain 80 on his next birthday. Art Lynn, our “boiler master,” along with his wife, Wendy, sold their house a block from the church. At the end of May, they gave up their condo in Orland Park. They now live full-time in Wisconsin.
For a year now, since JeanMarie Case finished two-sterling terms as chair, we’ve not been able to find someone willing to serve as chair of our Property Management Department. This is a very serious problem concerning the almost constant upkeep of the building. Bruce Stark, Ross, and I do what we can but our building is in serious decline. One estimate is that it would take more than $500,000 to bring the building up to where it should be.
I bring this history to highlight a decision that our deacons and I were faced with. We would have to either sell our building or lock the building and let it lay dormant. Neither alternative was appealing. But it was clear that if we sold the building, we might be able to continue our life as a worshipping congregation. I approached our Alderman who spoke with the Chicago Public Schools to see if they might be interested in purchasing our building.
In conversations, for a few years now, Cassandra Taylor, the owner of Just For Kids, has expressed a desire to purchase our building while allowing the congregation to continue. Just For Kids has been using our church building for some dozen or more years. We get approximately $6,000 a month from her for the use of the building.
With all of these things in mind, the Board of Deacons decided that we should pursue selling the building to Cassandra Taylor. This is what our church leadership has done. We’ve signed a contract with Ms. Taylor that she would purchase the building for $317,000. She is in the process of securing a bank loan for that amount. We are hopeful she might secure this loan, but there’s no guarantee for such an outcome.
We’ve spent time with lawyers arranging this purchase. The understanding we have is that our congregation would continue to use the parlor (and sanctuary) every Sunday for our worship and fellowship. There would be no rent that we would pay. The building would continue to be known as Morgan Park Baptist Church. Ms. Taylor would assume all utilities and other expenses. The building would no longer be owned by our church. We would no longer be liable for anything connected with the building.
This path appears to the Deacons and myself as the best course for our future. This decision was brought to our congregation yesterday. There were, of course, expressions of sadness at this announcement and, I’m sure, not a small amount of disappointment. Let me add: if there is some other avenue for us to take, please let Bruce or I know! We are all ears!
We’re also in agreement that our Scouts will continue at our church as they have for so many years. Our Scouts are one of our priceless treasures. I’m so happy to see our new female Scouts in Troop #609!
As might be expected, much energy and prayer has been devoted to discerning a path forward (along with more than a few sleepless nights). Our Board of Deacons has faithfully engaged in various discernment discussions regarding the future of our congregation. We continue seeking the Spirit of the Living God’s assistance in this discernment. The path forward will have its challenges to be sure. Prayers would be gratefully appreciated!
Our Bible Study continues to be a well-attended source of Biblical knowledge and understanding. We have a very faithful group who gathers roughly every other Wednesday to pour through Biblical books verse by verse. We’ll continue this study, hopefully, long into the future. I know people come because they wish to learn, notwithstanding the coffee and donuts!
I’m happy that our live-streamed Sunday services and Bible Studies continue to be widely viewed. This has been a gift to those unable, because of health issues or travel, to be with us on at our services and classes.
As I mentioned in my annual report last year, I applaud our growing awareness of what it means to be an American Baptist congregation. As an American Baptist congregation, affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and American Baptist Churches – Metro Chicago, we’re part and parcel of a mainline progressive Protestant denomination. I believe strongly in the principles and history of American Baptists - “the most racially inclusive Protestant body in America.”
May we, Morgan Park American Baptist Church, continue to be a gift and a grace to each other and to the neighborhood we’ve served so generously and so well for over 140 years!
Gratefully in Christ,
Pastor Thomas Aldworth