MOKENA – Circulating online these days is a meme stating how to keep Christ in Christmas.
Instructions include feeding the hungry, forgiving the guilty, welcoming the stranger and loving enemies. Four years ago, Todd Koper of Mokena found a church that he feels emphasizes these precepts and added it to his roster of three other churches that feed him spiritually.
Just as the Biblical prophet Micah considered Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, as insignificant among the clans of Judah, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, located in a poor neighborhood in Harvey, really can’t compete with today’s megachurches. Nor does it try.
On a good day, the church boasts 15 to 20 people at Sunday services, with another 15 to 20 people on the membership roster that rarely attend, Koper said. Sixty percent of those members are black, he said.
Surgeons and engineers in expensive suits worship beside brethren who use food stamps and wear torn dungarees, Koper said. Furthermore, St. Clement’s embraces the LGBT population, hosts an annual June water blessing that contains Christian and pagan references, and has a 20-year-old weekly food pantry that feeds 100 families a week, Koper said.
According to its website, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church also distributes clothing on the fourth Wednesday of the month and conducts a 15-minute weekly radio outreach program at 12:45 a.m. every Thursday on WBGX, AM 1570.
It’s the food pantry that drew Koper into this church. Most of the families the pantry serves average four to eight people each, Koper said. That translates to a handful of church members dispensing huge amounts of food.
“This is not simply a bag of rice and a can or two,” Koper said.
The pantry began in equally humbling circumstances. Several women in the church saw a need and brought food from their own kitchens to distribute. As the pantry grew, it partnered with a large food depository, Koper said.
Koper feels the energy pervading the church every Tuesday, which is food pantry day, is truly awe-inspiring. Although a few recipients do walk in and out the door, others stay in the church or sip water outside in warmer months, Koper said.
There are discussions; there’s fellowship, he added.
“Every now and then there’s a little incident where someone has to step in and say, ‘Hey, now,’” Koper said. “But a lot of the time it’s just good positive people in the community getting along.”
Koper, who studied theology and social work at Lewis University in Romeoville, said he began “church-shopping” four years ago when he discovered St. Clement’s.
“I was wanting to figure out and express my relationship with God and where I fit in,” Koper said.
It’s not that Koper was dissatisfied with other churches. He’s also involved with St. Stephen’s Church and Faith United Presbyterian Church, both in Tinley Park, as well as St. John’s United Church of Christ in Mokena.
Koper said his experience with all four churches has helped develop him spiritually, and he is profoundly thankful for the opportunity to experience worship in many different formats.
“I’ve met some wonderful people in these communities who have encouraged me and helped me to grow,” Koper said. “I see a lot of wonderful work both these communities are doing.”
It was the way St. Clement’s transcended racial and economic barriers that appealed to Koper. Certainly, St. Clement’s has its challenges. Three weeks ago, its pastor, the Rev. Rod Reinhart, just 63, died unexpectedly in his sleep. And, of course, it always needs more donations to fund its ministries.
But Koper said he has grown spiritually at St. Clement’s. God may be calling him to ordination, but the growth runs far deeper. Koper said he is more mature, more disciplined and more discerning in his approach to certain issues.
Koper also said he is more helpful and supportive to the “lonely hearts of this world.” He more clearly sees God working in his own life and more fully realizes God’s presence and love.
“I’ve experienced God’s healing touch,” Koper said.
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