Ecumenism among Arlington Heights churches

It is 49 years since members of churches in Arlington Heights organized our town's first interfaith service. They variously described their efforts as "breaking down the barriers between people of different faiths" and "building bridges of understanding and love among us."

As someone who had interviewed dozens of churchgoers in Arlington Heights, I knew that an ecumenical effort was necessary if there were to be any "bridges" between townspeople. I'd heard of grudges.

Gertrude Pfingston recalled parades of her youth. "Public schoolchildren in front. Lutherans in back because they were 'Duchies, high Kaiser kids, Kaiser Wilhelm kids.'"

Myrtle Lauterburg, always highly opinionated, told me that when she was young, if you were Catholic "they hated you. They were terrible at that time. The Lutheran minister forbade boys to go with Catholic girls."

George Dunton is quoted as saying, "There used to be a war between public and parochial schools in town. Whenever it snowed, there would be a war party from the public school on the front lawn of the Lutheran school. Oh, boy, what a snowball fight."

By 1966, some of this antipathy was mitigated, as was happening across the country. When Joan Grisell at First Presbyterian began inviting prominent religious scholars of different denominations to town, respectable crowds turned up at Recreation Park Fieldhouse to hear them.

So the dozen clergy and lay people who planned the first Thanksgiving-time ecumenical gathering at Arlington High School gym were building on a solid base. Nonetheless, the work done by the AHEAD or Arlington Heights Ecumenical Activities and Discussion, group was a genuine catalyst for change.

Not only was there the symbolic effect of the actual service. Leaders planned a whole month of activities which had an impact.

Kids from different churches worked together on service projects. They no longer indulged in serious snowball fights. People signed up for interchurch discussion groups, "Living Room Dialogues," some of which lasted 20 years, meeting monthly. They found out how much they had in common.

Ministers exchanged pulpits. And not only ministers. A Protestant who saw a Catholic woman in his or her church pulpit on Sunday morning could be startled into some softening of views.

Caravans of churchgoers were organized to take participants to different churches where they heard talks on the history and traditions of the churches they were visiting.

The actual Thanksgiving service was very traditional with the Arlington Heights High School Choir singing hymns and church leaders leading prayers and recitations.

It was very satisfying but not perfect. The Catholic priest who was scheduled to read the initial invocation took a good nap to prepare himself. Too good. He slept at home while the ecumenically inclined sang their hearts out at Arlington High School.

But all was forgiven. The next year he was appointed chairman of the second annual ecumenical service. No chance that year for a nap.

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