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Packers fans protest fire department’s Bears-themed fundraiser held by church

One group of local football fans say they have had enough of the region’s devotion to the Chicago Bears so they say will not support a team-themed fundraiser despite its intended beneficiaries – Crown Point first responders.

Wearing their Green Bay Packers jerseys and cheesehead hats and carrying signs espousing their undying support for the team, the group of about 15 recently protested the upcoming Bears and Badges fundraiser outside Off Square Sports Academy, where the event hosted by First United Methodist Church of Crown Point takes place.

“What about us Cheeseheads?” Frieda Fenstermacher of Crown Point asked. “We’re all for the Fire Department, but we demand equal time.”

“We are sick and tired of it. Don’t they know there are other teams in this area? If anything it should be with the Colts. Every year it’s Bears and Badges,” Brenda Mowry of Crown Point said.

The Bears and Badges fundraiser takes place April 5 and this year features appearances by former Bears quarterback Jim Miller and wide receiver Dennis McKinnon, a member of the Bears 1985 Super Bowl team. The goal is to raise money to purchase automatic electronic defibrillators for the Crown Point Fire Department.

The protesters are part of a group of football lovers — but non-Bear fans — who belong to Crown Point United Methodist Church. They say they are tired of all the attention paid to the Bears, which isn’t even an Indiana team, and would like the event to be more inclusive so Packers and Indianapolis Colts fans can all feel welcome.

Fellow protesters Don and Annette Hart of Crown Point and Paul Sills and Jeremy Dykhis, both also of Crown Point, all agreed. They said the church has a party around the Bears every year and they would like to see the church’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Wilkens, recognize he has a divided congregation.

“Where’s the Packers dinner? It’s always the stinking Bears,” Sills said. They say the dinner makes them feel ostracized in an otherwise welcoming church.

Passing motorists honked, some in what appeared to be support, while others could be seen pointing and laughing. A delivery driver walked into the side of his truck while watching the protest after he left an adjacent building.

Carla Smolek of Crown Point said she has been a Packers fan for almost five decades after marrying a man from La Crosse, Wisconsin 46 years ago. She has no qualms about showing her team support both in her attire and in her home.

“I get tired of hearing about the Bears,” Smolek said. She demanded change.

Wilkins responded to the controversy with incredulity. As a diehard Bears fan who readily admits to “bleeding blue and orange,” he said that as a church, we love all people, even those “misguided in their football affiliations.”

He tried to talk to protesters, who would not listen.

“While we respect their feelings and their rights to voice them, this event is geared toward saving lives of our community residents by providing AEDs for our fire department,” Wilkins said.

“The fact we can do so by highlighting two Chicago Bears greats is admittedly just a great perk,” Wilkins said.

The pastor said he is hopeful the protest and controversy will not negatively impact the fundraiser.

“We’d love to invite everyone, even those may have other sport affiliations to come have a great time,” Wilkins said. More information about the fundraiser can be found at bearsandbadges.net.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com