Church roots in Chicago lead to an urban frontier

The Church has long, strong roots on the south side of Chicago.

Since about 1912, south-side Latter-day Saints have gone on to prominent roles in Church and public arenas worldwide.And now, with membership sky-rocketing - more than 300 percent within the last 14 years in the city's Hyde Park Ward - the Church finds itself pioneering an urban frontier.

The Hyde Park Ward, located in south Chicago, is one of few places where there is a direct interface between the long-established Church and the young developing Church, said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve.

Elder Oaks, himself a 16-year resident of the Chicago area while a student and later professor at the University of Chicago Law School, spoke at the recent dedication of the new Hyde Park Ward meetinghouse.

"There are lessons being learned [in Hyde ParkT that are important elsewhere," he commented. "We learn by watching to see what serves the needs of the people here best [to help us in other similar areas where the Church is growingT."

Hyde Park Ward Bishop David Beer said the unit has grown from 75 active members when the branch began in 1976 to today's active ward membership of 250.

Forty-five percent of ward members joined within the last three years, he added. More than half the members are African-American, and the presidencies of nearly every quorum and auxiliary are racially integrated.

Uniting such a diverse group in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," can be challenging, he added. Ward members come from many ethnic backgrounds and economic levels. They have varying levels of education and speak several languages, including American Sign Language.

Some have never been beyond the city limits, and others who come to Hyde Park for the first time are literally right off the farm. Some are descendants of the handcart companies. Others are weeks old in the gospel.

Cultural differences, Church leaders find, work both ways. Members with long-standing connections to the Church have difficulty understanding when they hear unique phrasing in prayers and accents they can't quite make out. New converts come from a wide variety of backgrounds and find that LDS services, activities, and vocabulary are not what they are used to.

The ward does not aspire to be a melting pot where differences give way to sameness, Bishop Beer remarked. Instead it wants to emphasize the unique strengths of each participant. Longer-term members develop spiritual strength by sharing and teaching those who are just learning what it means to be LDS. New members teach by example their own lessons on humility and receptivity to the Spirit.

"It is a wonderful thing to bring together people who come from different backgrounds," Bishop Beer remarked. "When that happens, assumptions are bared and we see what is cultural and what is truth, what is tradition and what isn't. We learn together what the simple truths of the gospel are, and we unite in celebrating them."

The ward's rapid growth has brought physical challenges as well. To adjust to the overcrowding in a building purchased for a population of 100, separate simultaneous sacrament meetings (including one conducted in American Sign Language) were held on three different floors of the building.

Classes met in every corner, even closets. Some remodeling was done a couple years ago when a baptismal font was installed in the basement to replace the huge, plastic-lined plywood box that served as a baptismal font for several years.

But on Dec. 6, 1992, Elder Oaks dedicated the new Hyde Park Ward building, a long-awaited occasion. The structure, designed by Chicago architects, accommodates the burgeoning membership and is accessible to handicapped members. Ward alumni from 12 different states returned for the event. Even some who had been part of the University Ward in the 1930s attended.

The Hyde Park Ward's roots go back to the University Branch organized early in the century. That unit, meeting in several locations in the course of the years, became the University Ward and met in an old mansion in the 1960s and 1970s in the Beverly section of the city. When more and more members began moving to the suburbs, stake leaders decided to divide the congregation.

The Hyde Park Branch was organized on Jan. 4, 1976, with Peter B. Johnston as branch president to a congregation of 75 active saints. The unit took its name from its location in the neighborhood surrounding the University of Chicago. Serving a core of affiliates with the university, the branch met in a former two-flat apartment building. During the summer when the students left, the branch population dropped dramatically.

"In the early years, university students were the largest group of members, most of them married graduate students, many with small children," said Richard Popp, Hyde Park Ward historian. "Many of the branch's programs focused on meeting the needs of students who were far away from home and who were temporarily poor even if they were preparing for well-paying careers after they graduated."

The 1978 revelation on the priesthood opened up missionary efforts in many predominantly African-American communities surrounding Hyde Park. Church leaders point out that the majority of the communities are tranquil, well-maintained, working class or middle class residential neighborhoods.

Television and magazine promotionals for the Book of Mormon have had a big effect on missionary work in the area. Missionaries have found enough receptive people within the ward boundaries that an entire zone of the Illinois Chicago Mission has been created to serve the area.

Practical programs as well as spiritual support are goals of the ward, Bishop Beer remarked. Leaders take into account the needs of people who must rely on the public transportation system.

The ward organized a Literacy Committee to tutor all ages who need help with reading and math skills. Employment specialists help with job placement and basic work training. Ward leaders regularly deal with such fundamental needs as food, shelter and clothing.

A group of members independently organized a summer camp for inner-city boys called "Summer Quarters" where ward youth learned gospel principles while working a farm for two weeks in the Illinois countryside.

Like all Latter-day Saint pioneers, members of the Hyde Park Ward face their urban challenges following the scripture in Romans 12:5: "So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another."

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