Left Justified: Diverse Rockford

Rockford is as diverse a town as you’re going to find here in the Midwest—almost 20 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic and 5 percent other. You’d think there’d be more interaction among people, but there isn’t. Too bad, for a strong community is one that knows its neighbors, and thus knows itself.

You have to keep your eyes open for diverse groups of folks, for they all don’t live in the same neighborhood. But it’s well worth it. My neighborhood, the Seventh Street area, is most like the United Nations. Almost every nation that has been bombed by the US is represented. Refugees move here and are welcome. The items in our new fair trade store, JustGoods (201 Seventh St., open 10-6, Tuesday-Saturday) reflect the diversity of this little community.

It is difficult to find meeting points for the variety of folks who inhabit Rutsfurd. The most colorful mix I saw lately was on election night at the Lithuanian Club. They hosted the local Democratic Party; and it was a party!

There weren’t too many Lithuanians, but there were a whole lot of others. It’s a wonderful experience to share a little joy with a diverse group of people.

There are few times Rockford integrates so well. The last ice cream social hosted by Allen Chapel (which was a tradition started by Westminster Presbyterian) was threatened with rain, so their neighbors, Our Savior’s Lutheran, opened a hall to another joyful mix. Country and black gospel choirs, both young and old, shared the stage. Praise the Lord, and pass the desserts. True neighbors, they were also sharing an American tradition of pie a la mode.

Rockford has a checkered past; abolitionists (anti-slavery activists) were strong in these parts during the 1850s and ’60s. But in the 1920s, the KKK used to hold rallies at Fairgrounds Park, and restaurants touted their “American only” customer policies. The Swedes, when they first moved here, were not welcome downtown and thus built up Seventh Street. Certain businesses were segregated until a coalition of pastors visited theaters and eating establishments, opening up commerce to everyone after World War II.

The Rockford Interfaith Council was founded by yours truly in response to attacks on the Lao Buddhist Temple. Christian and Jewish congregations had been working together under the leadership of Paul Whitham (now departed). We welcomed the fledgling Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist communities, and started a tradition, the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, which will be this Sunday, Nov. 19, beginning at 3 p.m. at Rockford College’s Fisher Chapel. This year’s theme will celebrate immigrant stories as well as the usual interfaith songs and thanksgiving prayers. We all should be thankful that we can worship in our own way.

And I’m hosting a public meeting called “Ask the Imam,” Monday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4848 Turner St. on the east side of Rockford. Imam Shpendim Nadzaku will answer your questions about Islam, the Middle East, and living in Rockford as a Muslim leader.

They say, “The most segregated time in America is Sunday morning.” How true! And how sad. One of my favorite congregations may be one of the few interracial churches in town. Christ the Carpenter United Methodist Church, albeit a small community of faith, is just south of Booker Washington Center at Morgan and South Winnebago. The church was founded in the late ’60s to be a catalyst for change in that community. The new pastor, Rev. Ricky Georgetown, has big plans and is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard.

Court Street United Methodist Church’s new pastor, Keith Kelsey-Powell, is the epitome of interracial harmony since he and his wife are of different races. That used to be against the law in some Southern states. The product of their wedded bliss is a beautiful, intelligent daughter and a witness to what the world should strive for: relationships of diverse people working for harmony in future generations.

Rockford has a good heart, but aching tired muscles, and I think we are so busy working that we forget to celebrate the life and loves of this community. I encourage you to join in any interfaith, interracial or diverse community you can.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Nov. 15-21, 2006, issue

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