Long-time minister leaving historic Austin church

June 16, 2014
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Third Unitarian Church is undergoing a transition as Rev. Brian Covell ends his 11-year tenure this month.

Covell called it an appropriate time to leave, as his wife’s job with the U.S. Department of State will take the couple to Washington, D.C., then to a position overseas.

Covell was first drawn to Third Unitarian because he wanted to do an urban ministry.

“[Chicago] is an extremely diverse context with many cultures interlapping. It’s a very good place to do social justice ministry,” Covell said.

He’s seen the Austin neighborhood affected negatively by the housing bubble bursting and the recession. There has been an increase in vacant homes and lots in the community, he said.

But there is a committed core of individuals at Third Unitarian who are deeply concerned about the community, Covell said.

The church of around 85 to 100 members has been on the corner of Mayfield Avenue and Fulton Street, on the border of Austin and suburban Oak Park, since 1936.

It is one of the few churches that remained in Austin during the white flight, said Oak Park resident David Boulanger, who’s attended the church with his wife Mena since the 1970s.

White flight was a nationwide phenomenon where white city-dwellers moved to the suburbs to escape the influx of minorities. Austin was hit hard as schools, grocery stores and churches left the neighborhood starting in the 1960s.

Since they’ve been at Third Unitarian, the Boulangers have seen a lot of change in the community and have noticed improvement during Covell’s tenure.

There had been issues with people loitering on the corners around the church and Covell worked successfully with the police to clean up those corners, Boulanger said. Covell also fostered an ongoing dialogue with neighboring Oak Park’s Unity Temple.

Covell increased participation in the church with community improvement in a few key ways, Boulanger said.

The church has a daycare for the community in the basement and has worked with the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, which holds its meetings at the church.

Perhaps the biggest community outreach, said Boulanger, is its Austin scholarships. Earlier this month, during its 40th annual ceremony, the church awarded $14,000 in scholarships to 14 college-bound students from Austin.

Funds were raised by area congregations, including Third Unitarian, Unity Temple in Oak Park and Winnetka Congregational Church.

Boulanger said he hopes to see this community involvement continue – even increase – in coming years.

“We’d like to see it grow. Our vision is to reach out and get more of our suburban partners to give [to the scholarship],” he said.

Boulanger would also like to see the community garden the church started seven years ago under Covell expand.

The church recently hired an interim minister, who will start a two-year stint on Aug. 15 – in line with the start of the church year. Jennifer Nordstrom will come to Third Unitarian from a church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“She’s done a lot of work with multicultural organizing and speaking. She’ll bring a lot of youthful ideas and energy,” Boulanger said.

At her congregation in St. Paul, Nordstrom led a multi-racial, multi-faith series designed to bring together her congregation with two other congregations of different faiths.

Covell said he hopes the next leader of Third Unitarian will be able to increase and stabilize membership numbers.

“Between 80 and 100 people, can we sustain the work in Austin, in the community?” he asked.

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