My first impression of organized religion was fairly discouraging. My mother attempted to take my autistic brother and me to Sunday school when we were wee folk. We were turned away by many churches as my brother was deemed to be “potentially disruptive” and we certainly wouldn’t want anything like that happening in the house of our Lord, amen. I remember this was one of my first memories of feeling indignation, which is a strange sensation to feel as a youngster. My tiny mind couldn’t grasp being judged by people who didn’t know us at all….and didn’t God make my brother exactly who he was? Why would He deem him unworthy of hearing Bible stories and being part of all the hoopla that the people who took over Sunday morning TV went on and on about? Why were we excluded automatically for something that was completely out of our control? My mother explained that it wasn’t God who was judging us, but the mere mortals who were in charge of the churches that didn’t get it. At which time, my immature, completely confused mind came up with “Well, screw them then." (Turned into a bit of a recurring theme….)
Fast forward to my teenage years. I met my first gay friends in high school and I recognized that most religious organizations did not accept their lifestyles, often proclaiming them as “evil”. My somewhat older, slightly wiser mind said, yet again, “But God made these people this way! And they are the nicest people I know!” Welcome back, indignation. The only other exposure I had to church was when I spent the night at my Catholic friends’ houses….I ended up at the Sunday morning service, sitting in the pew while everyone else took communion. Now I was indignant AND excluded. Not a fun combo. But at that age, I felt excluded and indignant in a lot of other arenas, not that unusual in my tumultuous adolescence. In my twenties my only church visits were when my friends got married, which almost always involved middle aged know- it-all ladies shushing me. At that point, it was official. Religion, church….we’re through. And bullshit from folks like Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist nutcases continued to seal the deal.
As I grew older and (hopefully) wiser, I met lots of folks who opened my heart to concepts I’d previously rejected. Many members of my ex-boyfriend’s family are religious and they have proven themselves to be some of the most kind, tolerant and accommodating people I’ve had the pleasure to know. I’ve never had a problem with spirituality (defined as: of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material, you’ll notice that higher powers not mentioned, just an idea that there is something bigger and brighter than what we understand as regular folk)…in this current climate of war, injustice, economic lopsidedness, and Kardashian worshipping, I’m grasping at anything that provides comfort and peace and keeps me from getting hammered and kicking garbage cans. A friend and I recently had a heavy discussion about spirituality/religion in terms of it being a source of inspiration and motivation that NO ONE can take away from you. This last part is a big deal in my book. I firmly feel that happiness is derived from our connection with the rest of the world, however, our romantic relationships and friendships are dependent on other people…you cannot control the rest of the world’s behavior or feelings, regardless of the nature of your relationship. They can decide to leave you or treat you in a manner you find to be unacceptable and there’s nothing to be done on your part but suck it up and drive on. In an attempt to continue my quest to open my mind and my heart to concepts that provide solace that aren’t dependent on others, I agreed to attend a church service this last weekend.
I had a great deal of time to kill before the service started at 5:30 pm. I opted to go to Big Star to have some lunch and people watch. If you haven’t been to Big Star, it is a fantastic place with top notch tacos, a stunning selection of single barrel bourbons, and classic country and rock played on a turntable. They have mastered the oxymoronical concept of an upscale honkytonk. As the place does kick ass, it is where the cool people of Chicago go to see and been seen. Tattoos, piercings, heavily made up high heeled hottie girls, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day cranked to vinyl perfection. I ordered some fish tacos and a margarita and took a look around. As I am someone who often drinks and eats alone, I’m pretty accustomed to sitting quietly and taking it all in. But I was very aware, that although I was surrounded by Chicago’s coolest cats, I was most definitely alone. After finishing up a fine repast, I decided to meander over to the church and wait outside for my friend as it was a beautiful afternoon.
Urban Village Church has their Sunday evening service in Wicker Park. I arrived early and was greeted by many encouraging signs outside….one read “Church that is INCLUSIVE! Gay, straight, tattoos, suits, Cubs fans, Sox fans”. Okay, I already dig the humor. I sat on the steps waiting for my friend, reading a book. Every person that went by to go inside stopped and said “Hello!” or “Hey, how’s it going?” or something similar, in a genuine, sincere, no weird vibe sort of way. Inclusive, indeed.
We found spots inside when the service begin. Started with some “gathering and singing”, very pleasant hymns, followed by some interpretive dance that the usually haterish me would have been judgmental of, but my heart had already grown three sizes under some sort of off season Grinch clause. Some discussions of their small groups (They have a running group! A LGBTQ specific group! Music! Couples dinners!) Some scripture (read by a guy named Madrid St. Angelo, you know a guy with a name like that means business), then to the main entrée sermon. Trey Hall started with the word of the day: hermeneutic. Defined as the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text. As a self proclaimed word nerd, I was pretty jazzed to start on this note. Trey explained it as a portal, a way in, a key to understanding and connecting to the scriptures. Then he launched into the topic of the day, FOOD. You had me at hello, Mr. Hall. Interesting discussion of a Michael Pollan article about how we are all fascinated/transfixed with watching people make food on the television, yet people are cooking less than ever. We have no time to cook, yet we have time for television, a puzzling state of affairs in our processed food laden, socially disconnected world. Discussion of cooking for the hungry, the power of cooking and eating together, food blogs of interest, all fascinating topics to this non-religious yet somewhat spiritual super foodie gal. Followed up with more singing, the Eucharist, and some plate passing and we were out. I have to say that even as a skeptic, I felt a powerful sense of community, an authentic friendliness, a feeling of NOT being alone, in stark contrast to my hipster lunch. Surprising and delightful. I left the church with a sense of calm, like my brain had taken a much needed hot and soapy shower.
I received a handwritten card from one of the pastors of the church a few days later in my mailbox. Not promoting anything, just thanking me for attending. Call me old fashioned, but a handwritten anything in this day and age knocks my socks off. Am I a religious nut now? Hardly. Will I go back? Not regularly, but probably so. Would I go to other churches? Sure. I can see now that there are people who are striving to make religion accessible and inviting to ALL people….that’s a concept I can get behind. And if you want to talk food, I say HALLELUJAH.
On another note, I am currently in story writing school on Tuesday nights, which is taking up all my free time and writing energy….I hope to post some updates about that in this space if my head doesn’t explode from having homework for the first time in decades. Thanks to all who support my nonsense from near and far. I couldn’t do it without you.