Diverse future a blessing for Illinois hometown

by Bill Tammeus

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As I left the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church here, I ran into a crowd of folks arriving for the 6:30 p.m. Mass in Spanish.

And I knew immediately that the future had found my hometown northwest of Chicago.

When I was growing up here in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, the only Spanish-speaking people in town were seasonal migrant workers hired by area farmers. Indeed, Woodstock in the 1950s was, with the exception of one family, all white. Black or brown faces were as rare as hens' false teeth.

In my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, which I came here recently to speak about at various events over a weekend, I devote a chapter to the way we handled racial matters and the civil rights movement (slowly and often badly).

But today, Woodstock has grown from roughly 7,100 people in 1950 to three times that number, and the census includes not just a large Spanish-speaking population but also African-Americans and people with Asian roots. If Woodstock once was reluctant to appreciate or even acknowledge the diversity of the world, that diversity has found itself at home here now.

The folks at St. Mary also tell me that Mass in Spanish is offered at a few other Catholic churches in the region. And although St. Mary offers a daily 7:30 a.m. Mass in English, its weekday offering in Spanish so far is limited to once a week, on Thursday evening.

But if current demographic trends continue, that almost certainly will change.

As Catholic leaders are well aware, the American Catholic population would be in significant decline were it not for immigration, most of which is coming from Spanish-speaking countries. So it behooves congregations such as St. Mary to welcome Latinos and to find ways to meet their spiritual needs.

I found it reassuring that St. Mary seems to be doing just that.

As I note in my new book, when I was a boy here, the town seemed racially isolated and -- as residents no doubt thought -- also insulated from change. It was a foolish conceit, but to move beyond it meant letting go of some practices that almost any city or village in the country would find embarrassing and inexplicable today.

For instance, in 1956, '57 and '58, my Boy Scout troop performed minstrel shows that required us Scouts to put on blackface, tell Rastus and Remus jokes, and sing such songs as "Old Black Joe." I have the program for the 1956 show, and on the back of it, my photo is included in the troop's group picture.

The only reason I didn't actually perform in that minstrel show -- after practicing for it -- was that just before its presentation, my family moved to India for two years so my father could be part of a University of Illinois agriculture team.

By contrast, when I came back here last fall for a high school reunion, I attended a football game between my alma mater and a new high school in town. One of my classmates pointed to a black kid on the sidelines and said, with some pride, that the boy was his grandson, given that his daughter had adopted two African-American kids.

So this is the new Woodstock. And this is the new St. Mary Catholic Church. And although no doubt there are cultural and racial tensions below the surface in this attractive exurb of Chicago, it's clear that the old ways of thinking and of living are rapidly passing away to make room for a more robustly diverse population in which whites and blacks and Latinos and Asians and others all can learn from one another.

Indeed, Woodstock is starting to look like my own extended family, in which, besides us Eurocentric white folks, you will see African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans and Korean-Americans.

It's a beautiful thing.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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