Spring flowerbeds readied for CARE. Members of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, St Nicholas Catholic Church and other volunteers prepare flowerbeds for CARE, the Community Animal Rescue Effort in Evanston. Pictured left to right are (front) Noah Demuth, Rose and Tilly Hallstrom; (middle) Karen Przpyszny, Trish Palmer, Aviva Tauman, Janice Cha and John Venti; (back) Drina Nikola (with shovel) and Terry Hoak. Not pictured: Eileen Hallstrom, Chris McManus and Karin Williams. Photo by Susan Fisher

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More than 530 volunteers from four diverse Evanston-based congregations prepared meals for needy families, entertained senior citizens, restored prairie lands, washed wheelchairs and shared stirring moments of communal prayer and reflection during Unity Weekend held April 19-21.

“This weekend’s great success is a testament to the positive power of community,” said Nancy Bashook, a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue who led the event’s organizing committee. “Both the hands-on projects and the opportunities for reflection strengthened each of us. Many forged new friendships, and together we fostered a greater appreciation of our common beliefs and commitment to social action.”

Volunteers of all ages from Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, St. Nicholas Catholic Church, the Second Baptist Church of Evanston and the Unitarian Church of Evanston completed 49 service projects in Evanston and nearby communities over the weekend leading up to Earth Day.

“We moved some dirt. We tied some branches. I like the feeling of accomplishment,” said Rosalie Murphy, a member of St. Nicholas, who worked on raised garden beds with her husband, Eric Selinger, a member of the Jewish Reconstructionist
Congregation of Evanston. “There’s nothing like working together on a project to bring people together,” she said.

Hundreds of participants also shared interfaith worship services and meals. Patricia Trafton, the Unity Weekend congregational lead for St. Nicholas Parish, experienced her first Jewish Sabbath service. “There is a lot of similarity between Judaism and Catholicism. I knew that, but to actually experience it was something else,” she said.

The weekend’s sponsoring clergy set the welcoming tone: Fr. Bill Tkachuk, Pastor of St. Nicholas Catholic Church, Rev. Connie Grant of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet and Rev. Mark A. Dennis Jr. of Second Baptist Church of Evanston.

“Unity Weekend 2013 proved that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message is alive and well in Evanston,” said Stephanie Quan of Evanston, the Unity Weekend leader for Second Baptist Church. 

On Sunday, 12-year-old Ben Bartol and his father, Stopher Bartol, joined a dozen volunteers, ages 9 to 80, to make blankets for sick children. While Bartol’s scissors sliced through the soft blue fleece, the buzz from nearby conversations in the synagogue social hall grew louder as acquaintances from different backgrounds found common ground.

A woman from the Unitarian Church, a couple from Beth Emet and a woman unaffiliated with a congregation prepared flash cards to help immigrants learn English and study for their citizenship tests. As they cut and pasted, the four volunteers shared stories from each family’s immigrant past.

 “It was very cool to see people from different religions coming together,” said Ben Bartol. “You don’t see that very often.”

– Submitted by Susan E. Fisher