Hands across the boulevard, the next chapter

Oak Park Temple joins New Mount Pilgrim MBC in D.C.

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Members of Oak Park Temple and New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago took a trip to Washington D.C. last October, which also served as a spiritual journey for all involved.

Fifteen members from each congregation flew to the nation's capital on Oct. 12, spent time at the Holocaust Museum and attended a Shabbat service at Congregation Micah. The guest speaker that night was a Palestinian man who spoke about reconciliation efforts. Oak Park Temple's rabbi, Max Weiss, called the timing "fortuitous."

On Saturday, the group spent the better part of the day at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, after which they had dinner and processed what they had experienced.

The next day they went to a service at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal church in a D.C. suburb, and flew back home in the afternoon.

Reactions to the trip were universally positive and often emotional.

The Holocaust Museum featured an actual railroad boxcar which had been used to transport Jews to concentration camps. Marc Blesoff, a member of Oak Park Temple, remembered, "Walking inside it, touching the wood, imagining the bodies literally stuffed together inside; the crush of terrified humanity.

"The next day we went to the African-American Museum. I saw drawings of the below-decks hulls of the slave ships — hundreds of people packed in next to one another, row upon row, layer upon layer upon layer. What other species does this?"

Rev. Marshall Hatch who pastors New Mount Pilgrim Church and his wife Priscilla co-chaired the trip with Rabbi Weiss and his wife Leslie. Hatch and Weiss met at a Leadership Network meeting in Austin.

After going through both museums, Rev. Hatch observed, "It was quite a cross-cultural experience. We saw a lot of similarities in the [tragic] histories of the Jewish people and the African-American people and in the experiences of discrimination and persecution."

Rabbi Weiss said he knew about the "broad strokes" of African-American history but, "At the museum I heard stories that allowed history to enter my heart in a different way. I don't think I was really aware of the extent that slavery created racism as opposed to racism creating slavery. I never had thought about it in that way, and that was really heart-opening information"

Sue Blaine, a member of Oak Park Temple, saw history repeating itself these days, when she commented, "I continue to be unpleasantly surprised about how some people in authority positions can demean, hurt, and/or kill those they view as inferior."

She admitted to being surprised when one of the younger trip companions from New Mount Pilgrim said he hadn't known much about the Holocaust before the trip. 

"I thought that since teaching about the Holocaust is a mandatory unit in Illinois history class everyone would know about it," Blaine said. "Then I thought about Civil Rights and how I had assumed when I was growing up that since there were laws saying we all had the same rights, we actually all did have them. As an adult, I'm acutely aware that wasn't true for many years, and isn't true today either."

Getting to know one another was the primary goal of Rev. Hatch and Rabbi Weiss. On a trip to Israel they had taken together, they started asking what they could do to bring their particular faith communities together and decided that nothing does it like travel. 

They acknowledged differences in their theology and traditions but those did not become barriers to embracing the other.

"My inability to pray in a particular vernacular [e.g. in Jesus' name]," Rabbi Weiss explained, "doesn't mean I can't appreciate the devotion and the faith of another person. The more deeply I go into Judaism the more I am called to the world."

Blaine said they felt like pioneers as the first Jewish group to attend services at Ebenezer AME Church.

Warren Riley, one of the ministers at New Mount Pilgrim, said of the trip, "The cross-cultural experience was amazing. The differences in our faith traditions were irrelevant, and friendships were formed from having just one weekend together."

Riley shared some of "what has evolved." He has participated in two Passover seders and had Jewish friends over to his house for both Christmas and his birthday. "We laughed," he said, "and had a wonderful time. What an honor to be invited into their homes."

Rev. Hatch saw some similarities in the two worship experiences — a common love of music and a passion for social justice rooted in memories of the past. He saw the trip as one more action toward the goal of tearing down the "wall" that exists along Austin Boulevard between the Austin neighborhood and the western suburbs.

He added that some of the members of New Mount Pilgrim drove over to Oak Park Temple last weekend in a show of support and solidarity in the wake of the Chabad of Poway Synagogue shooting in San Diego on April 27. 

"What a tremendous blessing this trip was," Minister Riley said, "a wonderful opportunity to learn, if you were willing to open your mind and love people who suffered and were persecuted just like we were."

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