One recent evening, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan made a surprise appearance at the celebration of life/funeral service for Rev. Claude Wyatt, founding pastor of Vernon Park Church of God.
Why surprise? Well, Minister Farrakhan's presence was not noted in the printed program we received walking into the sanctuary.
Notably, the program did feature the Rev. Dr. Clay Evans, listed first in a list of four reverends to give "remarks" about Claude Wyatt, (and then there were five; keep reading), who founded Vernon Park, now on South Stony Island Ave., in his family's Altgeld Gardens' living room over a half century ago.
Like Louis Farrakhan, Clay Evans is famous for his work on behalf of African Americans, though not nearly as well known among whites.
Along with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clay Evans founded Operation PUSH; he is a frequently recorded gospel singer,, and he was the founding pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church, a large, successful church, host to dozens of South Side civil rights meetings and rallies back-in-the-day.
At those rallies and meetings back-in-the-day, and before they both retired, you'd frequently see Clay Evans, alongside Claude Wyatt's wife and co-pastor, Addie Wyatt. You'd get to hear both speak while, for the most part, Claude Wyatt stood quietly by their side.
In fact, Addie is the famous and outspoken one in the Wyatt duo.
For over half a century, Addie spoke powerfully: First, on behalf of Altgeld Garden residents; then, as a civil rights and labor union leader; then, as a leader of women; then, as a leader of Harold Washington's campaigns for Mayor of Chicago.
But Louis Farrakhan far outstrips both Addie Wyatt and Clay Evans in fame, (and probably fortune, too).
For Minister Louis Farrakhan, "The Charmer," according to his biography on the Nation of Islam website,, is known worldwide.
Worldwide, The Charmer is reviled, too. Reviled, particularly among Jews, for his frequent and vociferous anti-Semitic remarks. He has made these remarks for decades and as recently as a few weeks before Claude Wyatt's funeral service.
So, when this Jewish girl from the North Side walked into Vernon Park, and looked up to the pulpit and saw The Charmer, her heart stopped. Then, I drew a deep breath and waited for Louis Farrakhan's (surprise) turn.
Clearly, this celebration of life was going to be (a big) first in my Chicago life of four decades and counting: A big first since the first time I was on South Stony Island Ave. three decades ago, to attend an Operation Breadbasket Saturday meeting, Operation Breadbasket, the predecessor to Operation PUSH.
I wondered: How could he; how dare he show up at Vernon Park when it is a place of peace, not of hate.
In fact, if I were a Christian, I might consider Addie the princess and Claude, the prince, of peace.
For, in 35 years of knowing Addie, 30 of knowing Claude, and three decades of visiting Vernon Park, neither I, nor my husband, have ever heard a hateful word there. (Of course, Steve and I would attend the celebration of life of this prince of peace: For Claude Wyatt had given us--many times--the opportunity to celebrate life, to celebrate life together, together as white Jews and black Christians in Chicago.)
On one of these visits, I was even asked by Rev. Willie Barrow, Claude and Addie's friend and civil rights comrade and Vernon Park member, to speak from the Vernon Park pulpit: I, the Jewish girl from the North Side.
But, on this most recent visit to Vernon Park, I looked at that pulpit from which I, a Jew, had spoken and saw Louis Farrakhan, that Jew-hater--no prince of peace, he; no partner in the fight to eliminate racism, he; no partner in efforts to create bonds among Jews and African-Americans, he.
These days, Steve and I drive by Louis Farrakhan's Stony Island Mosque Maryam most Sunday nights. Returning from Michigan, heading to Lake Shore Drive, we drive right by, and we learn what's been doing this week in the Nation of Islam.
In days past, I imagine I saw Louis Farrakhan off in the distance at mayoral campaign events for Harold Washington. But, as far as I can recollect, Louis Farrakhan was never there (when I was there) in a speaking role. How could he have been a good choice, when Harold Washington so needed the (few) whites in those audiences, (whites disproportionately Jewish), to vote for him and beg their friends to do the same.
But, on this evening, I heard Louis Farrakhan preach a sermon I can get behind: Louis Farrakhan preached peace.
Unlike the others who made remarks about Claude Wyatt, unlike even Clay Evans, also known for his serious turn-of-mind, Louis Farrakhan didn't talk about Claude's generosity, nor about his style, (Claude was a noticeably elegant dresser), nor, really, about Claude's work--started when he was barely out of his teens himself--helping troubled Altgeld Gardens teenagers choose a life of something other than drugs and destruction.
Instead, Louis Farrakhan preached: Look inside yourself; look inside yourself to find the strength and inner peace to make the right choices for yourself and your community. Do like Claude did: Help create a peaceful world.
On this evening, Louis Farrakhan spoke softly, in measured tones, with nuance, and with no hatred. No firebrand here. Did he see Steve and me, perhaps the only white faces in the room? Did he see those two whites, those two whites who look so stereotypically Jewish?
So, what lessons do I draw from the celebration of Claude Wyatt's life?
Well, there is the obvious one: Even Louis Farrakhan can speak kindly. That's sure important for all of us to know.
But, the most important lesson of that spring evening, for me, goes something like this:
When so much of religion is just show; when so much of religion is male authority figures telling their (mostly-female) congregations, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise, to accept what (little, in most cases) this life has offered up, to be greatly thankful for (just) another day, sometimes, sometimes, real words of wisdom do emanate from those pulpits. That's sure important for all of us to know, too.
In fact, in every (religious) corner--black, white, or otherwise--in every corner of America, in every corner all over the world, we could use more sermons like the one Louis Farrakhan preached that evening in honor of Claude Wyatt.
Most especially, on every corner in every Chicago neighborhood, not just Louis Farrakhan's that evening, we need, as Louis Farrakhan said, more peaceful behavior; more leaders like Claude Wyatt, leaders who encourage peacefulness and kindness; we need more of what Louis Farrakhan was that one spring evening on the South Side of Chicago, when hatred was, thankfully, outside (Louis Farrakhan's) door, too.
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