I first met Bill Leslie in a grungy pizza parlor after a DePaul University basketball game. I was surprised to find an overweight white man who dressed carelessly, talked too loud, and laughed uproariously at his own (bad) jokes. This was the minister of Chicago’s La Salle Street Church?
Out of curiosity I attended La Salle the following Sunday and ended up staying there for 13 years. I got to know Bill well, especially after my wife accepted a job directing one of the church’s outreach programs. Bill talked too loud in the pulpit, too, and laughed at his own oft-repeated jokes, and he occasionally slaughtered the English language. But he was our pastor, and we grew to love him. This summer, when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 60, Janet and I joined many other Chicagoans in grieving the loss.
Bill Leslie served the same church for 28 years, and what a time it was. The congregation met in a building whose stones can tell the history of Chicago: German-speaking Lutherans laid the cornerstone in 1882, and Italians, Japanese, and Appalachian whites all took turns in the building until hippies and then yuppies moved in. When Bill became pastor in 1961, the church stood midway between the richest and poorest communities of Chicago. Two blocks to the East lay the Gold Coast, average income over $50,000; two blocks to the West lay the Cabrini Green housing project, average income under $3,000. While studying the prophets’ words on justice, La Salle caught a vision of being a “bridge church” between the two neighborhoods.
After several years of commuting from the comfortable suburb of Wheaton, Bill Leslie heard God’s call to join the community. It was 1968, the worst time possible for such a move. After Martin ...1
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