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Schrader: This pastor broke new ground in DeKalb

Published: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 11:47 p.m. CDT
(Barry Schrader for Shaw Media)
With plans to retire soon, from, the Rev. Linda Slabon poses recently in front of the entrance to the sanctuary of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 158 N. Fourth St., DeKalb.

When the Rev. Linda Slabon and her partner Toni Tollerud arrived 26 years ago to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb, they were still “in the closet.”

There were only 10 members in the fledgling congregation, which since has grown to 79 members, with another 30 regular visitors who participate in some way.

Slabon reflected on her long tenure at UUF as she prepares to retire later this summer. Both she and her spouse had been married and divorced before they found each other. Toni already had three children from her first marriage and now they hope to spend some time with the “grandbabies” and travel extensively. She said they are both committed to counseling and social transformation.

In addition to her divinity degree, Slabon has a master’s in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker, while Tolerud is a licensed professional counselor. They say they may return to open a private practice in the area.

Although she was raised Lutheran and received her religious divinity degree from Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology, she decided to become a Unitarian minister because “they supported, affirmed and celebrated gays and lesbians as clergy.” While ministering to her congregation, she has reached out to the LGBTQ community, many who may have been marginalized and also to educate people on racism and injustice.

She has embraced a congregation that has played an active role in the broader community – people like Clark Neher, Dan and Maylan Kenney, the late Helen and Jim Merritt, school board member Howard Solomon and County Board members Sue Willis and the late Frank O’Barski, among others.

These people are several examples of those who “have put their faith into action,” and she sees their activities as a “very powerful thing for a small congregation” as she reflected on the goodness they have contributed.

Asked about her own activism, she cited one example where they organized a march and rally at the DeKalb County Courthouse when Illinois finally passed a law allowing gay couples to form a legal union. They had nearly 200 participants witness the ceremony uniting 10 couples who had been issued civil union licenses by the county clerk. Of course, later gay marriage also was legalized in Illinois. Slabon explained that they exercise faith in action, dealing with issues like racism and immigration.

Looking ahead at the challenges facing her successor, who has not been selected yet, she sees the need for forming coalitions with other faith communities, “building bridges as we face transitions in our culture,” even with those who have typically seen Unitarians as outside of their beliefs and experiences because their spirituality is not based on the Apostles Creed and not Biblically based. “We need to talk about some of the fears and anxieties in other religions in our culture as well right now – Jews and Muslims are under assault.”

She added that there is a need to serve humanity with less resources. “The old 1950s and early ’60s model of a church where you have multiple staff, lots of volunteers and big buildings is no longer the norm.”

Slabon seemed to be speaking to me in a recent sermon I attended, when she said, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike … yearn to learn … collaborate and engage with leadership and decision-makers. Practice body politics – put your body and your money where your values are.”

• Barry Schrader can be reached by email at barry815@sbcglobal.net or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.

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