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Chicago Church Leads The Way As It Grapples With Race

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Since a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, communities around the nation have grappled with racism. In the mostly white suburbs north of Chicago, Floyd's death opened up some hard conversations. Monique Parsons has the story of one town where an historic Black church is leading the way.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: Reverend Dwayne Gary grew up in church. As a kid in Detroit, he served as an acolyte, sang in the choir, got his first paying job as a church custodian. He leads St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glencoe, Ill., a small town just north of Chicago.

DWAYNE GARY: This is my fourth church. We have a membership of 105.

PARSONS: He got here three years ago. Gary says St. Paul members welcomed him. The local clergy group made him their president. And in three years, the local police have stopped him four times.

GARY: One I got stopped for allegedly having expired license plate on a sports car.

PARSONS: His fiancee's Corvette. The plates were current.

GARY: Being pulled over for using a phone.

PARSONS: It was in his cup holder, he says.

GARY: And then my headlight being out.

PARSONS: It was out. He got that fixed. Then...

GARY: I was walking my dog.

PARSONS: They were heading home to the parsonage behind the church. Then Gary sees a squad car.

GARY: He pulls up, roll down his window and say, where you headed? If that was the welcoming message for me moving into the area, it opened up my eyes.

PARSONS: There's an historic Black community in Glencoe, and the town prides itself on being welcoming. The village government created an online welcoming and inclusive community pledge, and nearly 800 people signed it. But, Gary says...

GARY: Here in Glencoe, it's hidden stories, hidden feelings.

PARSONS: He's determined to bring these stories into daylight. He'd been looking for a purpose to rally his church. Maybe this is it, he says. So he shared his stories with village officials, clergy, the police chief. A lot of people are talking about Reverend Gary's Siberian husky, Comet.

SUSAN RICHMOND: The dog thing really trips me up.

PARSONS: That's Susan Richmond. She's 68. She works as a teacher's aide in the local schools. Her ancestors founded the church.

RICHMOND: OK, pastor.

GARY: Yes, ma'am.

RICHMOND: I'll see you tonight at Bible study on the phone.

GARY: Yes, ma'am.

RICHMOND: OK.

GARY: I'll be there.

RICHMOND: (Laughter).

PARSONS: Her great-grandmother's image is in the stained-glass window at the front of the sanctuary, looking out over Jesus's shoulder. As she grew up...

RICHMOND: Everybody socialized together, knew each other, worshipped together. The church was very much the center.

PARSONS: The church isn't as packed as it once was. What church is? As home prices soared, few families could afford to live in Glencoe. But people commute to St. Paul's from as far as an hour away, and ties here are strong. Eighty-five-year-old Nancy King is one of St. Paul's oldest members.

NANCY KING: When people would ask me, how long have you been in town? Oh, seven generations. How long have you been here? (Laughter) You know, so I mean, I was here first. You came to my town.

PARSONS: King's proud of her pastor for speaking up. And village leaders are listening. A citizens group focused on inclusion has met ten times since June. The village board did a diversity training workshop. The public safety director is taking it seriously. Cary Lewandowski says many view his force as caretakers, and they get anti-bias training. Still, a state study found that Glencoe police were 50% more likely to pull over a Black driver than a white driver last year.

CARY LEWANDOWSKI: The 2019 numbers - frankly, a little bit alarming 'cause it shows that we were stopping people of color more frequently than our data in the past.

PARSONS: Cary Lewandowski's looking into it and reaching out to historically Black colleges to recruit officers. All but four of the village's 36 officers are white.

Pastor Gary has inspired others to share their hidden stories, too. Maureen Valvassori is the head of pastoral care at the local Catholic Church. She's white, and she told Pastor Gary that her Black son has been racially profiled.

MAUREEN VALVASSORI: At the end of the conversation, what he said to me was, you're not alone anymore. I mean, he couldn't have said anything better. We're in it together now.

PARSONS: This outreach is energizing Gary's church. Hundreds watch his online sermons each week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

PARSONS: He helped lead an anti-racist car rally in June, and more than 400 families came.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

GARY: Come on. Let's honk your horns for justice.

PARSONS: Reverend Dwayne Gary says the hard conversations are a good start, but if Glencoe wants to be a place where Black families feel welcome, where he sees Black police officers and Black teachers, his white neighbors are going to have to rewrite the story.

For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons in Glencoe, Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.