Brown: A church comes down, but its work goes on
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Edison Park Community Church stood for 87 years at the corner of Oketo and North Shore avenues before it was razed this past week to make way for four new single-family homes.
Churches come and go in a big city, though lately more seem to be going than coming.
What makes the passing of this church notable is the beautiful way its members have chosen to go out — spreading the seed of their charity like a great elm tree in its dying days.
Edison Park Community had 300 active members when the current pastor, Rev. Katherine Karch, was a kid growing up in the neighborhood in the 1960s.
Even at the point Pamela Lasch joined the church in the late 1980s, she recalls needing to arrive 15 minutes early for 10 a.m. Sunday services to avoid having to sit in the balcony.
But by the time Karch took over as pastor 11 years ago, membership had dwindled so low the expectation was she would be shutting it down within the year.
An aging congregation, with many members having moved to the suburbs, was the most obvious cause, coupled with fewer people everywhere going to church.
Still, three-quarters of a century of baptisms and funerals, Bible studies, spaghetti dinners and Cub Scout meetings had laid down strong community roots. And under Karch’s stewardship, the church brought in enough new members to cling to life.
It was at one of those funerals — after the death in 2013 of church custodian Tom Vollman — that I became acquainted with the friendly Edison Park congregation.
Vollman supplemented his income by boarding dogs — including my spaniel mutt Gilbert — in his church-owned house next door. Gilbert loved sleepovers with Vollman.
Then, maybe five years ago, the congregation sold the house to help pay the upkeep on the church, and Vollman moved into the church basement — and brought along the dogs.
I still get a kick out of the image of Gilbert howling along with the hymns during Sunday worship services, as I’m told the dogs often did.
After Vollman died, the high cost of operating the old brick structure finally caught up with the church.
“We couldn’t pay the bills any more,” Karch says.
So last year they put the church building up for sale. A housing developer bought it.
By the time the doors closed in February, the church counted only 30 members, and barely half were there to see it happen.
Yet the sale of the property created an odd reversal of fortune for the church.
The once dead-broke congregation suddenly was flush with cash — $650,000 in net proceeds.
And that’s where I think it gets beautiful.
You see, Edison Park Community is part of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination in which each church is individually owned by its members.
That means that the church and its assets belong to the congregation.
That $650,000 was their money to do with as they wish. You can see how that might give people ideas.
But Karch says there was only one central idea considered from the start.
“What they have chosen to do is donate that money to not-for-profit charities to further God’s work,” she says.
When church members get together Sunday, they plan to cut the first check for $100,000 to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
The food depository likes to say every dollar donated provides three meals for a needy individual, which means Edison Park Community will be funding 300,000 meals.
More donations are being finalized. There’s even talk of a possible donation to an animal shelter in Vollman’s name.
Church members still have their church, just no building. They have converted it into the seeds of a better future.