Mayor Dean Koldenhoven knows that most in his small Illinois town oppose the sale of a local church to a Muslim organization. As tensions rise, and the city council approves a “buyout,” Koldenhoven faces a decision.
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Dean Koldenhoven has the large, weathered hands of a former bricklayer, the long, distinct name of his Dutch ancestry, and the colorful bolo ties of a man who likes to do things his own way. Koldenhoven enjoyed being mayor in a city with a small-town atmosphere, where people know each other by their first names. Many people in Palos Heights, Illinois referred to him simply as “Mayor Dean.”
After many years of working in construction, Koldenhoven was appointed to serve as the city's zoning commissioner. He knew the construction trades, and had a straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. After eight years working with an increasingly divided city council, Koldenhoven ran for mayor. He was elected in a close race: the margin was just 156 votes. But, Koldenhoven joked, “It only takes one vote to win."
In March 2000, Koldenhoven started hearing some talk around Palos Heights, rumors mostly: “word on the street” was that Arabs were going to buy the Reformed Church of Palos Heights. It wasn’t clear who exactly these people were, but it was clear from the rumors that they were not welcome in Palos Heights. Koldenhoven began receiving phone calls and letters from concerned citizens. They asked: “What are you going to do about this?”
Palos Heights, Illinois is a small bedroom community in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, with a population of just over 12,000. Bordered by a forest preserve, the small city is a grid of leafy neighborhoods with neat, upper middle-class homes. Many of the city’s residents are of Dutch ancestry, affiliated with the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed church; in addition, a large and active Catholic parish serves the city’s Irish-American population. Unlike many cities in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, including neighboring Bridgeview with its large Islamic Center and School, Palos Heights was not known for its diversity: in the year 2000, of the eleven houses of worship in the small city, all were Christian.
In the city’s official publication, View from the Heights, Koldenhoven wrote a Christmas message to the city:
Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have been worshipping in the eleven churches that are in the Palos Heights city limits. It has been a very enlightening experience. Although we all worship in a different manner, we have one thing in common, we all worship the same Lord Jesus Christ, whose birthday we celebrate on the 25th of December. I find it amazing that as a town of 12,188 people, we have eleven churches, what a blessing!
The Reformed Church of Palos Heights was one of the five churches situated along the city's main thoroughfare of 127th Street. The Reformed Church's ties to the city were long and deep: some residents say that the plans for the church existed before the city was incorporated in 1959. Palos Heights was home to other Christian Reform institutions, including Trinity Christian College and the Back to God Ministries, a local media group. Many kids growing up in Palos Heights came to the Reformed Church for some of the city’s recreational programs: with its central location and large gym, it was a natural fit.
Under the leadership of Pastor Peter Semeyn, the congregation at the Reformed Church had grown to over 800 parishioners. Their beloved brick church building had become too small, and after much consultation, the Reformed Church community made the difficult and emotional decision to put the property on the market. Before doing so, the church leadership inquired with the city of Palos Heights to see if the library or the recreation department could use the church building. After many meetings and an informal feasibility study by the Parks and Recreation Department, the city chose not to pursue the purchase. The space wasn’t ideal for their needs, and the city didn’t have the budget to renovate the church property. After a year and a half of informal explorations, the Reformed Church of Palos Heights hired a realtor and listed the church for sale.
They received three bids and accepted the highest one. The Al Salam Mosque Foundation offered a purchase price of $2.1 million. As was common in major real estate transactions, it was contingent on funding; more unique, perhaps, was the contingency that the buyer would receive written verification from the City of Palos Heights that the building could be used as a mosque and a school. The Reformed Church signed the contract on March 15, 2000.
1. Mayor Dean Koldenhoven hears rumors of “Arabs” buying a local church and local community members opposing it. He is asked “What are you going to do about this?” How might he respond? What are the risks of doing nothing?
2. What do we know about the village of Palos Heights, and how might this inform this dispute? Koldenhoven’s Christmas message to the city includes references to religion. Is this appropriate? Why or why not?
3. With a signed real estate contract between the church and the mosque foundation, is there any role for the Mayor or city council—or local citizens?