Pastor Juancho Campanaño, of Wesley United Methodist Church in Naperville, says integrating Black History Month into his Sunday services during February is part of a larger plan.
“It’s about building community,” Campanaño said. “We hope that the congregation will take into heart that our community is not complete unless we do our best to demolish and remove all barriers of inequality based on race, culture and even faith.”
The celebration of African-American history began as a week of honor was spurred by Harvard historian Carter G. Woodson in February 1926. Known as Negro History Week, the timing was chosen to encompass the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
With the help of the Civil Rights movement, the week caught on so well that it became an annual celebration that extended to the entire month. In February 1976, exactly 50 years after the initial Negro History Week, President Gerald Ford officially acknowledged the month of February as Black History Month.
Campanaño says acknowledging the contributions of black Americans within the church is important.
“We have been singing negro spirituals and songs that are composed by and familiar to black Americans,” Campanaño said. “We are also putting together a video of some of the great leaders of the black community that we will play as a part of our time of thanksgiving and prayer. Then we are challenging the congregation to think more about bridging the gap between all people.”
The pastor acknowledged that Naperville isn’t the most diverse town in terms of race. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, the town’s population of 141,853 people is 76 percent white, almost 15 percent Asian, about 5 percent Hispanic or Latino, and less than 5 percent black. He hopes that, starting with this year, the church and the community will make consistent efforts to build equality throughout Naperville.
Long-time church member Marjorie McIntosh says Wesley UMC’s support of the African-American community is significant in Naperville.
“In the 1950s our pastor Bob Gordon, upon the urging of Wesley member Woody Linn, appeared before the Naperville City Council, along with a group of Naperville ministers, to persuade the City Council that African-American students of North Central College should be allowed to swim at Centennial Beach,” McIntosh said. “The council got the message, and the youth were allowed to swim at Centennial Beach.”
McIntosh says the church was integral in welcoming African-American teachers and students to Naperville and North Central College during Black History Week celebrations, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the campus in the ’60s.
This Sunday, Campanaño said he will “highlight the many contributions of black Americans, how we can learn from them, and continue moving towards peace and equality as a community.” And he said he will continue to challenge his congregation to love their neighbors as themselves.