An in-depth essay and oral history of Chicago’s First Congregational Church and its radical Christian past. Note: Long statements by church members are indented for clarity.
I grew up in the church. Born and raised. I am the third generation in my family that has been a member of the Primera Iglesia Congregacional de Chicago or First Congregational Church of Chicago (FCC), a deeply-rooted institution with a long history of activism in Chicago and Puerto Rico’s independence movement.
My interest in documenting the history of this deeply-rooted institution and loci of community activism was sparked during my undergraduate career as a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where I took a Puerto Rican studies course with professor José López. As anyone who’s been to Chicago’s Boricua community knows that López is a profound Puerto Rican educator and community activist. He recognized me in his course, and said he knew my family through the church. He said he knew my grandmother and when I mentioned this to my mom, she told me she took a high school summer course with him. From that day on, I was struck and became intrigued to learn more about my cultural heritage and the involvement of my family and church in the community.
In the course I learned about the Puerto Rican liberation movement and about the FCC’s involvement in community programming. I was proud to learn so much about my church and how much it and my family was apart of something so important. In my adulthood, my involvement at FCC and in its social activism matured. I have been involved in council meetings, programming, and participated in several demonstrations from petitioning for Oscar López Rivera’s release to marches for immigration reform and against violence. In reflecting on my involvement, and having a place to share it, like La Respuesta, I was inspired to write this piece and collect stories from other members on their personal involvement at the FCC and the legacy it holds for the Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. My church is small in membership but has had such a great impact, making it uniquely radical.
Some Background Information
“‘Viejo’ always respected the church and its legacy. I think a lot of people think that the legacy started when he came to church and its really important for us to remember that we respect what others built before us so we can have this now and protect it so others can enjoy it.” – Liza Torres, church member.
The First Congregational Church (FCC) is located in Chicago’s Northwest side, in Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican community. As mentioned, the church is a Chicago landmark that has historically supported radical social action and provided sanctuary to underserved populations. The church was made most significant to Puerto Ricans in Chicago during the 1960’s, when Rev. Jose ‘Viejo” Torres became pastor and led the church to participate in many social justice movements. In 1963, the church became apart of United Church of Christ (UCC), a national christian denomination. The UCC was a fairly new denomination founded in 1957 with its origins in evangelical and congregationalist beliefs. These beliefs were in line with Rev. Torres’ pastoral leadership and once the church joined they had the benefits of being part of a national organization and could receive funding to support the church’s missions.
Where it all started
The history of the First Congregational Church of Chicago dates back to the 1800′s. It was formed after a group of wealthy white members from a presbyterian church broke away because of their beliefs against slavery. These members set a precedence for the church that their responsibility was missionary work for marginalized communities. At that time, they were one of the few churches to provide sanctuary and protection for free enslaved African peoples. The original building is also one of the oldest buildings to have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In fact, after the fire, the building housed City Hall administration and one of the head members of the church participated in the first Chicago Board of Education meetings. Furthermore, the church also helped in founding the Chicago Theological Seminary, a nationally recognized and respected school of higher learning in which many students attend to study and become pastors.
In the early 1900’s, the original building suffered a fire and joined the “Union Park” church, one of it’s mission churches located near downtown Chicago on Ashland and Washington Avenues. According to the history provided on the church’s webpage, some members believed the fire was purposefully set because of the church’s stance against slavery.
“Ogden Avenue is named after a member of the church. When the city of Chicago burned in the Chicago Fire they housed their city hall in that church. So the church and people there were always very political and socially active. But again they were advocating anti-slavery because these were very wealthy people. They were industrialists and so for them anti-slavery also meant they’d have more people to work in the factories and so [that] was part of their drive as well. It fit well with their beliefs. They didn’t necessarily house slaves at the church but were part of the underground railroad and helped transport slaves to Canada.” – Nidza Torres
The church up until the 1950’s focused more on internal programming and less on radical social activism. The FCC and the surrounding community was changing as well. During this time the area’s racial demographics shifted from ethnic whites to include an influx of African-American and Puerto Rican migrants from their places of origin and from other parts of the city. Urban renewal programs pushed many of these populations out of the downtown area towards the West Side of Chicago. One such program was the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, my alma mater.
“When I was a little girl in 1964 I came to the church. The church at that time was a center. It was called Casa Central Evangélica. I remember Casa Central being across the street on Ogden Avenue and Washington. They became a center sponsored by Chicago’s Missionary Society. José (your grandfather) met my father ['Viejo'] there [which] was before Casa Central Evangélica became to be part of the church. The mission was important because during the ’50’s there was a big migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. and they lived where circle campus is [UIC]. The missionary society started seeing that; they needed lawyers, housing advocacy, medical care, and support.
“Casa Central was created to respond to the social needs of Puerto Rican immigrants in Chicago. As the years passed, the Missionary society, talking to the First Congregational Church, decided to open up for Hispanic membership. They said ‘ok’ but we didn’t get to go into the sanctuary, we were at the chapel. In 1963 the Hispanic church was founded and the founders were Don José and Doña Agatha and there was room for food pantries, a doctor’s office, and many other social services. Casa Central moved into the First Church but as a separate entity, however, many perceived that it was part of the church because it was housed there. So my father was the first pastor to pastor that new Hispanic membership.” – Nidza Torres
Living up to a legacy
“One of the driving factors [for us was that]… the church was part of the Underground Railroad. They did not necessarily house them there but the members of the church were part of the train that moved slaves to Canada. That made us more adamant about social action because it wasn’t the present but our past history, so as we identify with the congregation as FCC, we knew that was part of our history, making us proud and strong to move on during the different struggles in order to provide for the poor at that time. During the Cuban migration wave, refugees came to the Chicago and Casa Central started ministry for them as well.
“My father used to interview each of the refugees to see how he can help connect them to services. During that time he met a man who studied medicine and my father helped him to go through the processes needed to obtain his license to practice in Illinois. Another was a baker and ‘Viejo’ helped him open up a bakery. That was ‘Viejo’s’ culture because my father came from a very poor church in P.R. He was part of the Iglesia Evangélica de Cristo and when he came out of seminary, he built two churches in Puerto Rico and ministered to them. He advocated for members to get loans and helped them to be self-sustained. Therefore, that became part of the mission of the church members.
“The Primera Iglesia [FCC] started with fifty members. When Casa Central got a new director, Álvarez, a Cuban descendant, it began ministry with the Cuban population to create Primera Hispana on Kimball. Then Casa Central split from the church to become it’s own entity on Division Street (now Paseo Boricua).
“The church during the early ’70′s, during the Black Power movement, many Black churches in the area began taking over small churches. They would go in and take them over night…. What they would do is break in the church and over night place a new pastor in the office. Many of those baptist churches didn’t have documentation to prove they owned the church and they tried to do that to us. Viejo walked in one day and the glass was broken and his office had been turned into a nursery and they changed everything around. When the police were called, they couldn’t decide who were the members of the church. Because the church had documentation and minutes saved, they sued the First Congregational Baptist Church… In the end, with the Community Renewal Society, F.C.C. gave them the building and we kept the endowment of thousands of dollars from previous F.C.C. wealthy members, who also left money for Chicago Theological Seminary.
“Then we ended up on Hamlin and Grand [Avenues]. Before then we were on a storefront on Lawndale and Grand [Avenues]. We provided programming to youth like after school tutoring, summer programs run by youth members, and took kids to Bridgmann for camping experiences and got involved on the National level.” – Nidza Torres
Support for Puerto Rico’s independence
“We are pastored to be on the side of the marginalized, the meek, and the oppressed.” – Liza Torres, church member.
“My attraction to the church was their social and political agenda,” spoke Rev. Luis Quiñones, member of FCC since 1986. Rev. Quiñones worked as an organizer for a community social service initiative called, Centro para desarrollo comunitario y liderato (CDCL), in which they developed programming based on the social and economic needs of the community, like health, education, employment, election of Latina/os in school council, etc.
Rev. Quiñones discussed with me the importance of social action for change, stating that reality must be connected to spirituality. In talking about the Puerto Rican liberation movement, Rev. Quiñones stated that he believes in Puerto Rico’s independence and that when he arrived in Chicago from Puerto Rico, he was happy to connect with a church who had a pastor passionate about the issue. He currently serves as associate pastor of the church and leads the church’s AIDS ministry.
“In the 70′s my brother [Carlos Alberto Torres] goes underground, along with Haydée [Beltrán], his wife, and Oscar [López Rivera]. So no one knew where he was and what started was the persecution of the members of the church by the FBI. They decided to visit every member of the church to see what they were up to. Many members became afraid and left the church… I was in Mexico when my brother was underground and they thought I was with my brother. When I came back they raided my house. They were aggressive and intimidating.
“People thought that because they were the FBI that they had to open their door and tell them things. So they were educated about their rights.” – Nidza Torres
“The church has historically sponsored and has been a sanctuary for political prisoners”, states Norma López, a fifty year member of FCC, and who is also my grandmother. Norma became a member in 1962 soon after migrating from Puerto Rico because it was the only Spanish speaking church in the area. “The church used to be on Washington and Ashland which used to be a Puerto Rican area.” In speaking about her personal encounters with some of the political prisoners, she reported, “I had a personal connection with them, they were my friends and members of the church.” Norma stated this, but at that time, you didn’t talk about it. “People were scared at that time.”
“Our church was targeted as a ‘terrorist’ church and members started leaving because they were afraid,” stated another member, Marisol González, daughter of Norma. Marisol has been a member for forty years.
“Fear is a tool used to tear communities apart,” stated Lillian Ferrer, thirty year member of FCC who commented after being asked about the decreased momentum the church has had over the years in relation to the Puerto Rican political prisoners. Lillian became a member following the day in 1979 when political prisoners Lolita Lebrón and Rafael Cancel Miranda arrived to Chicago and visited the church upon their release by presidential pardon. “I came because of that.”
“Upon the release of [political prisoners] Lolita Lebrón, Dora G., and Jaime Delgado, I wrote a song for them called, ‘A New Day,’ and performed it for them at the the church,” said Martin Anderson, an FCC member for over fifteen years. He reported that he grew up in the Catholic faith and in early adulthood, began to question his faith. He stated that he couldn’t understand at the time, “How could God allow such injustice?” Martin grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area, and he also taught at the Pedro Albizu Campos High School. He is currently a seminary student and works as an administrator at a public school in Chicago. Martin leads the music ministry and evangilization committee.
“The Nationalists brought Puerto Ricans hope that things can change and get better. They also taught Puerto Ricans to be proud and showed them the importance of the work that needed to be done to help the Puerto Rican people.
“That became the momentum to bring this issue to the national association, the United Church of Christ. We learned we were part of the national body in which we participate in creating proposals and attending decision-making meetings. At that time many of the Latino churches and other minority groups weren’t being recognized as part of the UCC body. FCC was one of the churches who united with other Latino congregations to walk out of the national conference meeting and threatened to break away if they weren’t recognized and funded. – Nidza Torres
Women and the church
“You can’t tell the history of the church without talking about the women. The woman of Primera run the church.” – Norma Torres, church member
The women of the church have always been the driving force to carry out the church’s mission. My grandmother, Norma López, is truly a matriarch, not only to her own family, but to all the kids in the church even if they weren’t her grandchildren. Norma, along with Alejandrina Torres, also a former political prisoner, and many of the other women of the church, developed christian education programming for the youth and took them on retreats out of state. They also taught classes for adults and formed sisterhoods with one another, such as the “Damas.”
The ‘Damas’ are a group of women that formed after frequent gatherings for bible study and continue to be a thriving ministry in the church. Many of the members reflected on the role that women played in the church. Liza, in reference to having busy parents running the church, said, “The mothers of the church were like extended family and the nurturing we needed as children was at church. Church was like our place.”
“I think the church, when it comes to [its] development, is multi-generational. It didn’t matter how young you were or how old you were, everyone can develop. Church was a place where you can grow. For a lot of the mothers it was a safe space where their children could run around and do whatever programming, and it freed them up to kind of develop themselves. Because when you contribute, you find worth. It wasn’t a place where you needed to know the most canticos or bible verses by heart – that was important if you did – but it was never a huge source of spotlight. In our church whatever talent you had whether it was arts and crafts, knitting, or ceramics, or whatever, there was a space for you if you had the time to give it.
“Your great grandmother taught needlepoint and crocheting to young women in the church. We had classes like typing, secretarial, English as a second language, GED classes, and even cooking classes.” - Liza Torres
“In the ’80′s Alex [Alejandrina Torres] went to jail and became a prisoner of conscious. My brother surfaced and was arrested. So… another mission of the church was to do a collection every Sunday to send to the prisoners for their commissary. At the end of the ’70′s, cuando salieron los Nacionalistas [The 1979 group of political prisoners mentioned earlier], they came to our church for dinner and the people who made the dinner were Lalin, Celia, Amelia. She was so proud to make the arroz con gandules for Lolita Lebron, Rafael Miranda, all of them. The people in the church really held their Puerto Rican pride. They understood the importance that they were prisoners of war, and that we as Christians have a responsibility to tend to them.” – Nidza Torres
Times are changing
When Rev. ‘Viejo’ Torres retired, a new pastor, Rev. Jorge Morales, was called to serve for the next ten years. Rev. Morales, who was a previous president of Centro para desarrollo comunitario y liderato (CDCL), and pastor of San Lucas, another sister church of the UCC also housed in Humboldt Park. Those who’ve spoke on his ministry talked about how the dynamics of the church changed, along with its deciding body and the ministry programming for the community was closed (i.e. food pantry). However, during his pastorship he created a not-for-profit daycare program and SELF’s after school program. The programming shifted to become separate entities of the church, extending employment for some church members, including his wife Martha Mendoza, and bringing in others outside of the church. Martha headed a program called West Town Humboldt Park Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative (HPIRI), a very successful program that brought in millions of dollars. Local community leaders took over the program from the church, to continue it and build more health programming through networks with major hospitals. Rev. Morales would serve as pastor for the next ten years until retiring. He currently serves as Illinois conference Minister for the UCC, the first Latina/o to hold this position.
Our current Pastor, Rev. José A. Rosa, was called to serve our church in 2000. Rev. Rosa has been a pastor since 1974, starting out in Hatillo, Puerto Rico. He studied at the University of Puerto Rico, taking up mathematics and social justice issues. He worked as a high school math teacher for many years before finally being called to serve the church.
“Church was the first love of my life,” stated Rev. Rosa after discussing his passion to serve communities in need. Rev. Rosa was also one of the founders and president of the Ministerial Association. He also served as president for La Junta Hispano within the United Methodist Church caucus, which had a strong Latina/o presence with an annual budget.
Rev. Rosa came to Chicago in the 1980’s and, in reflecting on the church, stated, “I had heard about the negative image people had about Puerto Ricans.” He served as a pastor for a church in Logan Square (neighboring Humboldt Park), to a mostly Cuban and Puerto Rican demographic. He was accused of being “communist” because his sermons spoke on the reality of the community and the difficult conditions they were facing. He also preached in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence and justice for the political prisoners.
Rev. Rosa left back to Puerto Rico in the ’90’s to be with his father who was ill. During that time he pastored one of the biggest churches in his community and during the summers he would return to Chicago to teach at the Chicago Theological Seminary school.
On reflecting about the history of the church, Rev. Rosa was inspired by Rev. Torres’ personality and involvement in social and political action, but stated: “Church is a church, not a social agency.” He also stressed the importance of affirming prayer and convergence of community within a church with a strong frame on the mission of Jesus Christ.
“The church is not the same as 30 years ago. The church responds to a different reality,” he says when asked about the shifts in the social justice advocacy. There are many Puerto Ricans leaving the Humboldt Park area as a result of gentrification. The community now consists of mostly Mexican and other Central Americans with a large African American community west of the church.
On Diaspora Puerto Ricans, Rev. Rosa stated, “A historical project of the future is needed to help define who we are really and what are the major needs as a community. We need to improve financial strengths. How will we survive in 500 years if the population of Puerto Rico is decreasing? We need institutions that help with defining our identity because an ambiguous identity negatively impacts our mental health.”
Today, the FCC continues to provide after-school programming for local children in the area. Services are mostly in Spanish in an effort to continue its cultural identity. The church also helps community members by providing affordable housing within a building across the street and is active in the UCC through its yearly meetings and youth events.
Also, the FCC is working to be one of the first in the area and among the national Latina/o churches of the UCC, to be an “open and affirming church” that welcomes individuals who identify as LGBTQ. One of its newest members is an openly gay woman and the church has on several occasions provided space for her to give Sunday sermons and lead bible studies, a rarity among other neighborhood and national churches.
Primera, as most members refer to the church, has been a safe haven since it was founded. Many sought out this church for the way spirituality was practiced in a concrete way. The members who were born and raised in the church stayed for the similar reasons, but most distinctively because of the member comradery. Most of the members feel like church is a place to see family and share in the joy of unity and conversations con café after service. Furthermore, many members believe that to be Christian and follow Jesus, means to actively contribute time and building relationships to peacefully find resolution and uplift oppressed communities. As the community continues to face change, so will the church. Nevertheless, the history and cultural preservation will continue to encourage and fuel the church’s mission for the future.
I dedicate this piece to Norma ‘Grandma’ López whom I love and respect. She continues to dedicate her life to the church and embedded in me the values of family and fellowship. I would like to thank Doraliz López, Marisol González, Lillian Ferrer, Rev. José A. Rosa, Rev. Luis Quinoñez, Martin Anderson, Liza Torres, Rev. Nidza Torres, and Norma Torres for taking the time to sit and share their special memories with me.
Some of the original content has been updated since the article’s release for accuracy and relevance.