Holding on to the past
Brewery flap reflects city’s struggle with religious roots
Thursday, June 28, 2012
CHICAGO — Would-be brewery owners Russ Sher and Tom Inghram knew they faced a tough sell when they stood before the City Council in Zion, Ill., a former prohibition town designed more than a century ago to be a “Christian utopia.”
Still, the businessmen were stunned at the swift negative response from commissioners in this blue-collar suburb north of Chicago, where they had hoped to bottle craft beer in a historical building, a former lace factory.
“I don’t think people are ready for something like this,” said one commissioner, moments after Mayor Lane Harrison asked the men if they were aware of the “sensitivities” involved.
As in other Chicago suburbs, Zion leaders struggle to provide services with less money, dealing with shrinking budgets, employee layoffs and declining tax revenue. But officials also remain beholden in some ways to the city’s colorful, religion-centric past.
Called “Mayberry-esque” by one business investor, Zion is home to residents who can still recall praying twice daily when a bell tolled. They live on streets named after biblical figures and landmarks, such as Gabriel, Hebron and Ezekiel avenues.
And in trying to balance a community’s history with modern economic development, perhaps no issue is more fraught with controversy than alcohol sales. In Zion, liquor has been sold under strict parameters since voters ended the local prohibition in 2004.
Zion was among the last suburban holdouts as a dry community. Even Wheaton — college alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham — overturned its prohibition on alcohol in 1985 after much controversy.
Other formerly dry suburbs, like Park Ridge, have continued to wrestle over whether to loosen alcohol regulations to lure new business.
“We don’t want bars, we don’t want mom-and-pop liquor stores,” the Zion mayor said of the brewery proposal. “That is why the reception was cold.”
Yet ever since the 1998 closing of Zion’s nuclear power plant — once dubbed the “golden goose” by Harrison — officials have tried to replace the millions in lost revenue. They have enjoyed mixed success, aided by the addition of alcohol sales that opened the door to chain restaurants and a hotel that caters to Zion’s largest employer, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center.
But Zion, population 24,400, struggles to balance its long-held traditions with pressure to bring in new tax revenue, perhaps the best way to explain the fits and starts that have marked the brewery proposal, which is still in play.
“We have tried to modernize but still keep our history,” said Delaine Rogers, former economic development director. “People, like it or not, realized we need to be competitive.”
Many commercial buildings and houses sit vacant in Zion, abandoned because of foreclosure or after businesses failed during the recession. The city is mired in litigation over a failed attempt to build a permanent baseball stadium for the Lake County Fielders, with finger-pointing from all sides.
Meanwhile, an influx of newcomers — some of whom are unfamiliar with Zion’s quirks — don’t always appreciate the city’s unique history, said Alice Marshall, a retired city historian, who is no big fan of the new liquor law, either.
“In my opinion, we are going through a major change and transition right now that is very serious,” Marshall said. “We have lost a lot of money. The changes that have come in the past 10 to 15 years have not necessarily done Zion any good.”
This is a place, after all, that at one time sought to declare itself free of sin. Women were not allowed to wear pants. Spitting, cursing and using tobacco were prohibited. For decades, “if you were in town smoking, they would pull you and put you in jail,” said Tim Morse, secretary for the Zion Historical Society.
The city’s founder, John Alexander Dowie, a self-proclaimed “divine healer” who opposed modern medicine, leased land to residents with stipulations attached, Morse said.
“You couldn’t drink, smoke, raise or eat pigs, open a brothel or practice as a doctor. You couldn’t eat shellfish,” Morse said.
As recently as 2004, some restaurants began serving pork, letting go of the Old Testament-related prohibition, Rogers said. She recalled the heated fight to overturn the alcohol ban.
“I was called Seed of Satan and Daughter of Beelzebub,” said Rogers, recalling the fiery reaction. “You take it in the heart it’s intended. People are very, very protective of their history.”
Eight years after the alcohol ban ended, the topic remains controversial.
On June 19, two weeks after their brewery pitch was shot down, Sher and Inghram were invited back before the City Council. They heard from a staff member that the mayor and four commissioners might reconsider their proposal, as long as they would also promise to open a restaurant downtown. There, they could sell beer, even market a honey-flavored hometown brew in honor of the school mascot, the Fighting Zee-Bee, said Sher, former owner of Flatlanders Restaurant and Brewery in Lincolnshire.
The turnaround seemed contradictory, but a restaurant would fit within the city’s current liquor ordinance. Opening a brewery, though, would require a change in the zoning ordinance, a less palatable pitch in a city where residents were once known to complain about beer-battered fish on a menu, Rogers said.
But later that day, the brewers’ proposal was dropped off the council agenda after some behind-the-scenes questions posed by commissioners. An hour later, it was back on the agenda, Sher said, clearly perplexed.
Finally, the businessmen were referred to the Planning and Zoning Board, which would review their original request to rent space within the former lace factory. The 385,000-square-foot brick building was one of the first businesses Dowie opened in Zion, which was incorporated in 1902.
Dowie’s early designs for the city are woven throughout Zion’s fabric, and they have continued to court controversy over the years.
“He would roll over in his grave because of the liquor. Other than that, I think he’d be fairly impressed,” said Commissioner Jim Taylor, citing the city’s attempts to preserve buildings such as Dowie’s original home, the Shiloh House.
By 1903, Dowie had attracted newcomers to his Christian utopia from Southern states and elsewhere around the world, with many hoping that he could heal them of disease. He had gained notoriety for his faith healing during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and found an international audience with a publication, “Leaves of Healing.”
He opened a wood-frame hotel where new residents lived until their houses were built. The hotel is long gone, but a gold dome was salvaged and is about to be repainted by a local business, Coral Chemical Co.
In 1990, city leaders were forced to drop the Zion corporate seal, which included a cross, a dove and a crown, after a federal court found it to be an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.
Well-known atheist Rob Sherman took the city back to court over the seal last fall, after city Commissioner Shantal Taylor resurrected it in an ad for a community event.
Taylor promised Judge James Zagel she wouldn’t use the seal again. She continues, though, to frame her personal vision for Zion within a Christian context.
“I really believe that great things are going to happen in Zion again,” said Taylor, opposed to the brewery. “If we go by a saying, ‘History repeats itself,’ then Zion is in for one heck of a repeat because this city was created to bring the God of gods glory.”
Muslims part of Zion’s history
“Divine healer” John Alexander Dowie designed the city of Zion to operate as a Christian theocracy in 1900. Everything started with his church, from land sales to government, schools and social services.
Over the decades, new churches splintered off, and officials were forced to observe laws requiring separation of religion and state.
But in an odd twist, Dowie’s “Christian utopia” also attracted attention from the founder of a Muslim sect in India, who in 1902 challenged Dowie to a “prayer duel” in response to perceived insults against Islam.
Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, wrote to Dowie twice, inflamed by the Zion preacher’s writings in his international weekly, “Leaves of Healing.”
Ahmad claimed that he was the only real Messiah. Dowie claimed that he was Elijah the Restorer, a messenger sent by God.
Whoever died first would lose the prayer duel, Ahmad proclaimed to newspapers worldwide.
In short, Dowie lost. He died in 1907, impoverished and kicked out of his own church.
Since then, the Ahmadiyya have used Dowie’s downfall to bolster their contention that their founder is the true “divine person who was appointed by God as the Reformer of the age,” according to a booklet compiled by followers.
“The prayer duel was the outcome of one man’s hostility towards others,” said Naser-ud-Din Shams, general secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Lake County, in an email responding to questions.
“When those ‘others’ are people of God, then it is tantamount to hostility towards God. We believe the Hand of God responded to Dowie’s ignorance, and his end can be judged by the court of international public opinion.”
The Ahmadiyya opened a mosque in Zion in 1982 and claim about 200 members. They often send tours through the Shiloh House, Dowie’s historic home. They enjoy a reputation as a peaceful, generous people who are involved in Zion civic events, city Commissioner Shantal Taylor said.
The community, with 200 branches worldwide, recently launched a campaign to promote peace, focusing on the Zion prayer duel as a warning against ignorance.
Several Zion historians dismissed the Ahmadiyya’s claims about the significance of the prayer duel, describing it largely as a one-sided challenge that Dowie ignored.
“Dowie acknowledged it in the sense that there is one comment in his ‘Leaves of Healing,’ “ said Tim Morse, secretary of the Zion Historical Society. “He never named the guy. If you didn’t know anything, you wouldn’t know it was him.”
Morse has reviewed the Muslim group’s materials about Zion history and concluded that “for the most part, it’s pretty accurate.”
“When they get to the prayer duel,” he said, “that’s where we part ways.”
— Chicago Tribune
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