Chicago is a city of unique constructions. The Sears Tower, 110 stories high, is the world’s tallest building. The Water Tower, one of the few structures to survive the Great Fire of 1871, stands like a little castle in the heart of the city’s posh shopping district. And in one of the central plazas, two statues, one by Picasso and one by Mire, engage in a “conversation” which only the most sophisticated followers of twentieth-century art seem to understand.
Another notable construction built in recent days is in the basement of a South Side duplex now used as the meeting place for the Hyde Park Ward, Chicago Heights Illinois Stake. In a corner stands a sturdy four- by six-foot plastic-lined wooden box with a garden hose running into it—the baptismal font.
The font represents one of the ways in which the Hyde Park Ward is adapting to the rapid growth of the Church in the urban black territory encompassed by its boundaries. Before the font was built, baptisms were performed either in the Orland Park chapel, forty-five minutes away, or in the murky and often frigid waters of a small lagoon off nearby Lake Michigan. As baptisms became more and more frequent, the former ward mission leader, Glenn Mayhew, decided that finicky weather and logistical problems for converts and members without cars required another solution. With the assistance of John Coleman (who was among the last to be baptized at Orland Park), Brother Mayhew constructed the temporary font. Sister Wallis Mayhew, a civil engineer with a specialty in water resources, added her expertise to the project.
The ward has its missionary work cut out for it. According to the 1980 census, the population of Chicago South Side neighborhoods within the ward boundaries is approximately 476,000 people. With the exception of a small Hispanic neighborhood and the square mile Hyde Park community, the population of South Side Chicago is 97 percent black.
The ward building itself is located in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago campus. The university community and students from other local colleges have historically provided the ward with a faithful but transient core. However, over the past decade, Church membership on the South Side has gained permanence and a local flavor. Many graduating students are contributing a welcome stability by choosing to work in Chicago and to live in Hyde Park instead of moving to the suburbs or back home. The city’s cultural offerings, its magnificent skyline, and the expansive lakefront are certainly attractive, but for many the choice to stay in Hyde Park is based on a special enthusiasm for their Church activity and relationships.
“When most people think of the South Side of Chicago, they think of gang violence and police shows on TV,” says Brother Mayhew. “It’s not all like that. On the whole, the population within our boundaries is made up of urban, middle-class professionals and skilled laborers. Yet single family residential neighborhoods, which comprise a major portion of the branch area, have only recently been opened for missionary work.”
For the most part, the experiences of black converts from these residential neighborhoods sound like the experiences of converts everywhere. Jacquelyn Shoto, a private duty nurse, describes her introduction to the Church. She had read a little about the LDS way of life but did not know how, to contact the Church. One day, three sisters out tracting came to her door. She was ready to tell them she didn’t have the time, but they said they were from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was so happy to see them she almost yanked them in.
“I wanted to know more about how to serve God,” Sister Shoto says. “The Church has taught me how to give that service. The gospel teaches us to care for each other, to open our hearts to everyone. Recently my husband died of cancer. It has been a time of deep thought and struggle. I have come to some peace about it and have asked myself, ‘Would I have been this strong if I were not LDS?’
“I find in the Church a genuine sense of family. I am grateful for the support I get from my brothers and sisters in the ward. No one is too busy to listen to you, to care for you, to pray with you. I feel as if I have come home. I never felt so good about a church before. I know this is the true church of God.”
Susan Walker grew up in Selma, Alabama, moving to Chicago in 1950 to study piano. She then married and settled in the city. Despite humble means and personal tragedies, including the deaths of two infant daughters, Sister Walker’s life has always been one of generous service. For twenty years she nurtured a foster retarded boy, teaching him to read a little despite the state’s insistence that he was blind and incapable of learning. Now a widow, she helps her own son raise his three children.
Sister Walker’s first contact with the Church came long ago when she discovered a book about the Latter-day Saints in her father’s library. She was fascinated by the pictures of the pioneers. In recent years, her interest was rekindled through articles printed in Reader’s Digest. One day, two missionaries came to her door. She asked them what church they represented. “When I heard they were Mormons I said, ‘Well, do come in!’” Sister Walker says. “I loved the way those young men prayed. I had never heard boys pray like that before. And the idea of modern prophets appealed to me very much. I feel like a new person since I joined this Church.”
Ward custodian Lester Jefferson, second counselor in the elders quorum presidency, welcomed missionaries at his door in October 1982. “I was impressed by the missionaries. They displayed a genuine love for me from the moment we met. They also showed great love for Heavenly Father.” He was baptized in December 1982. The plan of salvation lessons and the concept of baptism for the dead particularly attracted him, and he has since been to the temple to receive his own endowment and to do work for some of his family.
“The Church teaches that our primary purpose is to get closer to God,” Brother Jefferson comments. “The self-discipline and self-improvement we are involved in are for that purpose. Before I joined the Church I had no real aims. Now I aim to stay right with God. As long as I focus on that, I don’t worry about what may be ahead. I appreciate the confidence that the gospel provides for me. Another aspect I appreciate is the no-nonsense approach to qualify for Church membership—no drinking, no smoking, and agreeing to pay tithes.”
Public health administrator and Relief Society president Cathy Stokes is also a black convert. She comments on that “no-nonsense” appeal. “One of the reasons I think the Church is attractive to black people is the high correlation between what it says and what it does. Despite all of the experiences that blacks in our country have gone through, we still believe in the American Dream. We long for the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ with ‘liberty and justice for all.’ When we see the Church in action we say, ‘Well, here’s something that really works the way it says it does.’ I think the sincerity of the Church is compelling. There is the expectation that we will pay tithing, live within the bounds of the law of chastity and fidelity, and keep the Word of Wisdom. There is no facade.
“It is appropriate,” Sister Stokes continues, “that this church in its historical American setting welcomes all—like the Statue of Liberty. In the Church, it is important for all members to learn to live and work and worship together.”
Although most of the ward is made up of quiet residential neighborhoods, there are some high-crime regions within the boundaries. In that respect, it is not unlike most other large cities in the world. “Crime, gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, illiteracy, unwed parenthood, discrimination—we deal with every problem of urban society in the ward, either directly or indirectly,” Brother Mayhew says.
Hattie and Victor Soil deal with these issues daily in their professions. Brother Soil, currently first counselor in the Hyde Park Ward bishopric, is a truant officer in inner-city public schools. Sister Soil counsels college students from deprived backgrounds. “The Church has helped me develop an appreciation of people from varied backgrounds, races, and cultures,” says Sister Soil. “I have learned that we have many things in common and that we can learn from each other. The gospel teaches me compassion. It has given purpose to my life.”
“Before I joined the Church,” Brother Soil says, “I felt a sense of isolation and alienation that I m afraid still plagues many. Now I have a hope for the future, and the strength to make decisions. I want to share that hope and strength with others in my community who need it desperately. The principles of the gospel can be powerful in combating the difficulties of urban life. We need to take into account that the means of instructing our members should vary in different locations. In urban wards, the problems unique to the city need to be considered. Certainly the Lord can reach people wherever they are. We shouldn’t alter our message, but the approach should be appropriate.”
Bishop Thomas Rugh, a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Chicago and a pension fund account executive, says, “We have faithful members who are devoted, hard-working, and community-minded. Some are caught in what I see as a gridlock of poverty and unemployment. We have a way to benefit people in these kinds of difficulties through mechanisms like employment specialists, homemaking meetings, and ward service projects, but these mechanisms have to be put in their place in an urban environment. That hasn’t fully happened yet; right now there are unemployment problems in the ward, and I’m frustrated by them. There is a great future here. We want to benefit the lives of our fellow Chicagoans and to spread the restored gospel.”
Members have been creative in extending hands of fellowship and integrating cultures to enhance the “unity of the faith.” Socials bring crowds for authentic “soul food.” (Though the fried chicken, cornbread, and macaroni disappear in a hurry, the hungry can usually find seconds or thirds of the greens and tripe dishes.) The youth wrote and starred in a stake roadshow about the conversion of a black family called “A New Day Dawns on Chicago’s South Side.” (See New Era, Oct. 1982, p. 41.) Primary opening exercises often include activities and songs of God’s love for all of His children.
Black history contributes an exciting new stock of uplifting stories to bolster the common commitment to the gospel. For a sacrament meeting talk honoring Independence Day, Lenora Soil, eleven years old, cited Harriet Tubman, a prime mover in the “Underground Railroad” during the pre-Civil War abolitionist era in the United States as an example of courage. At a fireside, Hattie and Victor Soil shared their personal perspectives on the Civil Rights movement in the United States and related those experiences to their eventual conversion to the Church.
Sister Mayhew comments: “We meet as two different worlds coming together, learning about each other. It’s exciting. It’s awkward. It’s hard. It’s rewarding. All at the same time!”
Exciting, awkward, hard, rewarding, and crowded! While the ward awaits building of its chapel, the congregation meets in the three-story duplex. To accommodate the burgeoning population of converts, local Saints, and the seasonal influx of students, sacrament meeting is held in two main rooms, one “live” and one with the meeting on closed-circuit television. Three other rooms offer sound and serve as “quiet” rooms for restless children. Sunday School classes meet in every cranny, from kitchens to storage closets.
“In Chicago, where several million people have never heard of the restored gospel, those on the South Side who have actively embraced the message are pioneers in every sense of the word,” says former stake president Glenn A. Pond. “The trials that early Church pioneers faced are being relived in some ways by our black brothers and sisters. They often have great social and community adjustment in joining the Church. They have to have great emotional and mental strength to stand firm for their faith. They display exceptional personal qualities, leadership potential, and great love for others. It’s a wonderful time to be here.”