Oak Park pastor who urged a ‘fasting from whiteness’ for Lent gets worldwide attention
Pastor John Edgerton said he’s encouraged by the conversations his idea has sparked.
At any other time, the attention would be on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple.
But in this season of Lent, the church directly across the street from Wright’s Prairie-style gem has stolen the spotlight in Oak Park. It has nothing to do with First United Church of Oak Park’s blocky stone steeple or its thundering pipe organ.
It’s about a sign, prominently displayed among the daffodils that reads: “Fasting from Whiteness.”
The sign was the creation of the church’s pastor, John Edgerton. Some of the more restrained criticism on the internet has referred to the sign as “wokeness gone mad” or reverse racism.
Edgerton said he could never have imagined the worldwide publicity his Lenten theme has generated.
“To say that this is surprising is the understatement of the year,” said Edgerton, an amiable Hyde Park native who looks younger than his 40 years.
He said he is fully embracing the conversations the sign, which went up Ash Wednesday, has sparked. It’s taken down at night, so it doesn’t “invite mischief.”
So what’s Edgerton up to? For the 40 days of Lent, the church — which has about 650 members — is removing all music written by white composers from services in favor of those written by African American and non-white musicians from around the globe; it’s part of the church’s broader “anti-racist” mission, Edgerton said.
He disagrees with those who might say the sign promotes division.
“The work of anti-racism in this country, the work of taking white perspectives out of the center and allowing other perspectives to have space – that work must come from the majority culture, from the white culture,” said Edgerton, who is white and whose congregation is majority white.
He says bringing in the voices and faces of non-white people is “in keeping with the reality of the global majority of Christians in the church. A small minority of total Christians living today and living throughout history have been white Christians.”
Edgerton said he still loves Bach, Mozart and other European composers.
“You don’t fast from things that are despicable. ... You don’t fast from things that are ugly,” he said. “You fast from those things that do tug at your heart.”
Edgerton came to First United in fall 2019. Before that, he was a pastor at a church in Minnesota and at Boston’s 350-year-old Old South Church. Among other things in his bio from his Boston days, it reads: “Three of John’s ancestors were tried as witches. Two were hanged. One was acquitted.”
Edgerton said his inbox has been crammed with several hundred emails that have arrived in recent days, most of which he hasn’t read. Those he has looked at run the gamut from “vulgar” to “supportive,” he said. He won’t repeat the vulgar ones.
High-profile South Side Pastor Corey Brooks this week on Fox News described Edgerton’s Lent message as “the worst kind of moral preening” and “nothing but hot air.”
“The Bible is about one thing only: the word. It’s not about who is Black, white or red. … That’s why faith in Jesus Christ unites so many people, and that’s why it’s been such a blessing to so many people,” Brooks said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The only pushback Edgerton has had from his congregation, he said, is from those who say he’s “not being bold enough.”
He said bouquets of flowers — even a giant plate of cookies — have arrived from local supporters.
The church will celebrate Palm Sunday this weekend; the service can be viewed online. Edgerton said he and other church members haven’t decided if they will take down the sign then.
“If people are curious about what sort of church this is, then I would encourage them to come to worship on Sunday — from anywhere in the world,” he said.