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Chicago church honors legacy of accessibility

Posted: April 22 2022 at 02:47 PM
Author: Anne Marie Gerhardt, Dir. of Communications

Ucrp Steps

The front steps that lead to the sanctuary at the United Church of Rogers Park in Chicago are crumbling making the entrance to the building hard to access.

The concrete steps leading up to United Church of Rogers Park's (UCRP) front doors are crumbling. An accessible ramp built more than 40 years ago is deteriorating and no longer meets city codes. The front entrance's dilapidation is more than an eyesore, but church leaders say it's a barrier to the church's longstanding mission to be an accessible place for all.

"We believe that making our physical space more accessible and welcoming will have a spiritual impact on our community," said Rev. Hope Chernich, UCRP's co-pastor. "God's grace is made real through the material world. Welcoming our neighbors into a beautiful and accessible space is a testimony of God's love for Rogers Park."

For several years, church leaders have been planning and preparing to find a way to make the repairs. In March 2021, they launched the Uplift Accessibility Campaign to raise $300,000 to cover the costs.

"The project will create a new state-of-the-art entrance on our southwest corner, build an interior accessible ramp to our library and classroom, and make space for a mechanical lift to take people to our main floor for worship services," said Chernich. "These changes will open much-needed access to our sanctuary and community services."

UCRP has been serving the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago's Northside since 1872, and the original three-story building was built at the corner of Morse and Ashland in 1905. The church has been a vital part of the Rogers Park community and has a legacy of being committed to accessibility.

Ucrp Ramp Dedication

Rev. Tom Grey (center) and UCRP members gather outside the church to dedicate the wheelchair ramp completed in September 1979.

The Rev. Tom Grey served UCRP in the 1970s after it merged with the Congregational congregation and when many city churches were struggling to survive as suburban churches were growing.

"The previous pastor made an assessment that the congregation would not be able to sustain ministry in the building," said Rev. Grey. "But I saw it as a church in a city neighborhood that was just waiting to be used for ministry with the community."

At the time, the building's structure presented many accessibility obstacles, especially for people using a wheelchair, said Sue Davies, who joined the church with her husband in 1974 as a young family just starting out in Rogers Park.

"The church dining room and kitchen were located on the third floor with no elevator access," said Davies, who said while it gave the congregation a view of Lake Michigan, it was difficult to access. "The problem was people had to climb two flights of stairs to get to meeting rooms and three flights of stairs to get to food or coffee."

Another lack of accessibility was getting into the front of the church. A long set of solid concrete steps with no handrails led up to the church entrance. Then, to make matters worse, there was no level way into the Narthex and Sanctuary, Davies added.

Rev. Grey, Sue Davies’ husband Tom, and a friend of theirs Tom Hickey, who generously donated his architectural skills pro bono, (coincidentally, all are named Tom), came together and began making plans, which included a new elevator, wheelchair ramp, and consequently the expansion of the storefront thrift shop.

Rev. Grey said the project was not a hard sell and required no committee meetings because of the three Toms’ excellent planning and presentation, which the church embraced.

"Once it started, the pieces just started to fall into place," said Grey. “It was a tangible project to say that we are alive and well at 1545 Morris and in ministry to the community we are in."

The construction changes opened doors for many groups to meet and new members to come and worship – and to this day, the building provides a safe haven for the community and physical space to gather. UCRP hosts the Care for Real food pantry, Transformative Law Center, Refugee One, a daycare center, yoga classes, depression groups, AA and NA groups, and more. Ministries include an after-school program, a summer program, a learning garden, Community Feast, the New To You Thrift Shop and inclusive spaces for worship and spiritual growth.

Past meets present needs

More than four decades later, United Church continues its mission of serving the constantly changing Rogers Park neighborhood. Today's leaders say they continue to be inspired and supported by the congregation who had the forethought to make the building accessible to all in the 1970s. In 2022, members of the former congregation donated $50,000 towards the campaign to honor the initial accessibility work.

Ucrp Leaders 2022

Current members of United Church of Rogers Park stand cautiously on the deteriorating front steps leading to the church’s main entrance. A capital campaign will help create a state-of-the-art front entrance and make the church more accessible and welcoming to all.

UCRP leaders say the donation gave the campaign a great boost and say it’s not only a reinvestment in the physical structure of the building but will bear fruit for generations to come.

"(The project) will allow people to enter the building in all seasons of their life," said Rev. Lindsey Joyce, co-pastor at UCRP. "All of us go through seasons of more ability and less ability. If you just had a baby and need a stroller, come into the building recovering from illness or surgery, or are disabled and use a walker or wheelchair, not only are we saying are you welcome and want you in our building – it's actually possible. It's so critically important to who we are."

Rev. Grey, who is retired and living in Washington State, says the congregation's concerns today mirror what he heard when he pastored at UCRP. He believes the Uplift campaign is an investment in the future and says he's happy to see his former church keeping the mission alive.

"Making the building accessible gives you access to your neighborhood, and your building becomes the ministry," said Grey.

The Uplift Accessibility Campaign is close to reaching its goal but still needs to raise the last $70,000. The committee is looking for individuals or organizations to donate to help complete the project. If you would like to help or learn more, visit

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