Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had an office at First Church in the mid 1960s during the SCLC efforts in Chicago.
By Former Pastor Orlando Redekopp
First Church of the Brethren put down roots in East Garfield Park in the mid-1920s. Through a generous gift from a Mrs. Fahrney, the congregation purchased the building at the corner of Central Park and Congress Parkway from the Presbyterians. Worship actually began in 1885 on South State Street, moving to Hastings Street in 1892. The current church home was dedicated in January 1925. Other Church of the Brethren institutions in the neighborhood, Bethany Seminary (1905) and Bethany Hospital, ensured a full house on Sunday mornings.
First Church played a vital role in developing additional ministry and worshiping groups. From 1908 to the 1960s, a Chinese congregation worshipped in the building. During the 1940s, the York Center mission began in Lombard. First Church purchased the building next door to house its growing youth ministry. Brethren in Chicago provided temporary housing to released people of Japanese descent interned during the World War II. During the 1950s, a Spanish-language group worshipped in First Church's chapel before moving to Douglas Park.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused action in Chicago in the mid-1960s, First Church provided the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office space. Dr. King also preached from the pulpit. During this decade Bethany Seminary moved to Oak Brook, taking with it a number of First Church members.
In the mid-1970s, just after the congregation celebrated fifty years in Garfield Park, the boiler burned out, the pipes froze, and the ceiling fell in, forcing the congregation next door into the youth-ministry house.In the late 1970s, after minor renovations, the congregation, numbering fewer than 30, moved back into the church building, using a Sunday school room for its sanctuary. In 1989, following a major eight-month renovation, services returned to the sanctuary after surviving thirteen years in exile. The building was rededicated in March with a day-long celebration. A community garden that sprouted on the corner north of the church was beautified in 2008 -- signs of renewed vision for the church and community.
The Bethany Brethren Community Center, which grew out of the historic relationship between the church and Bethany hospital, provided a variety of services for and activities with neighborhood children, youth and elderly from 1991 to 2006. Chicago Community Mennonite Church (formerly Oak Park Mennonite) began sharing worship space with First Church in 1998. Roca de Esperanza Mennonite Church worships there Sunday afternoons. The DOOR and Radical Journey programs housed at the church provide youth and young adults cross-cultural experiences in urban and international settings. Other forces for change such as Crossroads Ministry (dismantling systemic racism and building anti-racist multicultural diversity), have been housed at First Church.
In 2007 First Church held a series of visioning gatherings. Out of these came an awareness of our church's unique positioning and a sense of call to minister with young people in the church and the surrounding neighborhood. After a period of discernment, prayer and planning, Rev. Denise Plair joined First Church as Youth Minister in November 2008.
Choirs practice, community groups gather, volunteers tutor, gardeners glean, prophets and peacemakers bear witness and members sing and pray as the church continues to minister in East Garfield Park after more than 120 years as a believing community and eighty in the current building.