Looking Back: Edgewater in the '80s - Part 1

Vol. II No. 3 - SPRING 1990

By: Gloria L. Evenson

A good picture of Edgewater in the 1980s can be seen through the eyes of the Rev. Dennis W. Sawyer, who was part of much of it. Rev. Sawyer came to Edgewater in November of 1981 to serve as pastor of the Philadelphia Church at 5437 N. Clark.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Sawyer worked as a public school teacher in California (specializing in education of the emotionally disturbed child), did extensive church youth work and served as pastor of a church in Oregon before being called to Edgewater.

Preparation for his ministry, however, had begun much earlier. Almost as soon as he learned to walk, Sawyer was assisting his mother (a single parent) and a brother in the daily struggle to survive. He quickly learned the rewards and frustrations of responsibility, and of working with and being concerned for others.

In a June 10, 1989 EHS oral history interview, Rev. Sawyer described his first impressions of Edgewater: “I was just thrilled with the multi-racial aspect of the area - the fact that within four blocks on one street you have shops and people from 50 different nations represented. Senn High School is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as having the most diverse student body in the world.” Sawyer continued, “On Clark Street you can go either direction and find any restaurant you want - Persian, Lebanese, Chinese, Korean, Swedish or Italian.”

Sawyer also noted, “There was a great deal of need. Certainly in any city there’s a great deal of alienation, many people who have really fallen out of society’s favor and, once you get on the wrong side of that, it’s hard to get back in.”

Bringing the church and community closer together was a primary goal for Rev. Sawyer at Philadelphia. “When I arrived at the church,” he says, “there was a small pocket of Swedes and a lot of people from suburban areas coming in to church, but very few from the neighborhood. Since the church doesn’t own any parking spaces, if it was going to grow, it would have to grow by reaching the community.”

Outgoing, charismatic and witty, Rev. Sawyer was a perfect candidate for this outreach. He could often be seen moving among the aisles after church services, walking up to people and getting to know them. A stranger was not a stranger long. “If it (the job) was staying in an office and waiting for people to come in,” he says, “I’d probably change professions.”

To acquaint himself with the community, Rev. Sawyer joined one religious and one secular organization outside of his own church. He chose the Edgewater Clergy and Rabbi Association (ECRA) as his “religious” association. “I’ve been part of Evangelical groups and found that we used the same vocabulary and said the same thing in the same way,” he recalls, “and I didn’t grow much. But in a group as ecumenical as ECRA here in Edgewater, I was able to be challenged and grow.”

Upon leaving the neighborhood and his ECRA friends he says, “…every one of them wrote me a letter and said how much my life has affected their lives.

And it’s been reciprocal as well. Great men of faith - very different in doctrine, different in their approach to Christianity (we would have to agree to disagree on many issues), but men who love God and who love serving Him. They have been an inspiration to me.”

Rev. Sawyer claims he was “drafted” into his “secular” group, the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, by the late Ardell Nickels: “One day I was at my desk when the phone rang. Ardell said the Chamber had been held together by the same faces year after year and felt they needed some new blood. She asked if I would come in as President.”

Rev. Sawyer was willing, but the fact that the Chamber met evenings when he was committed to church activities was a problem. He suggested that Chamber meetings be held during morning hours instead. “That change just proved to be a stroke of genius,” he claims. “From the normal attendance of six, seven or eight people, attendance immediately jumped to 25 or 30. And now it’s normal to have a Chamber meeting of 60 or 70 people.

“We also began meeting in local restaurants on Clark Street,” he continued, “so the people could see the different restaurants from the inside and get to meet each other.” From there, many friendships, business connections and liaisons were formed. Rev. Sawyer feels this was a turning point for Andersonville and the Chamber of Commerce.