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The Prodigal Agnostic

The Prodigal Agnostic

I had prepared a tongue-in-cheek lecture about The Sanctity of Convenience for the ministers of both churches I visited on my lone Sunday in Chicago. Both churches – Friendship Presbyterian Church and Grace Commons – were located in the far northwest sections of Chicago itself, making both of them a huge pain in the ass to get to. Friendship required me to take the Red Line south all the way to Jackson, which was the only place I could make an immediate transfer over to the Blue Line, which I would ride north for a half hour all the way to Jefferson Park before catching the Northwestern Highway bus, which only came along every 45 minutes on weekends. Yeah, I had to leave pretty early in order to get there by the 10:30 starting time. The most direct route was by Metra, but that didn’t leave until 10:30.

My friend Shawna had been installed as the minister at Friendship. Both of us were members of Grace Commons, and I was eager to see how Shawna’s ministry at Friendship compared to the unique worships I had come to know back there. Plus I just hadn’t seen Shawna in a long time, and I felt like a surprise walk-in would probably be in order. 

Soon after my return from that trip to Chicago, I heard it said that the best way to see how welcoming your church congregation is is to walk around the place pretending to be new. If that’s a good test, Friendship passed it with flying colors. I had barely walked through the door when I was greeted and welcomed by two of the parishioners before even seeing Shawna. After telling them who I was an why I was there, they were happy to take me to her. I hadn’t told Shawna – or anyone at all – that I would be visiting, so there was a genuine surprise in her voice when she looked up and saw me. 

We sat down for a few minutes before the service so I could get her semi-caught up. She had to cut that initial chat short; she was the minister, after all, and she did have a congregation to minister to. The church was in an old Metra station, and most of the regular parishioners had apparently decided to stay home and not risk competing with the ice storm scheduled to hit during the afternoon. Shawna is an artist, and she has also shared many of the same fascinations and frustrations with religion that I have. At one church she was briefly part of, she painted large colorful murals over the course of services which were later displayed in an exhibit at Loyola University’s art gallery. That made it a little surprising when I was presented with a service folder which went through a very traditional service layout, with hymns and prayers and responsive readings. There was even a sermon, and Shawna has never come off on me as the sermon type. After the service, she explained that a lot of her parishioners were older folks from two separate churches who would have bristled at anything too different from a format they had known and loved for years. 

Of the descriptions of my current situation and future plans, Shawna received the brunt of the details. She noticed a marked change in my attitude – probably a result of my frustration and rage – which was finally giving me an intensity and focus which she had never really seen from me before. I went over my feelings about Buffalo, which she could relate to because she felt much the same way about her native Iowa. 

I had plans for the early afternoon, but opted to ditch them when the CTA started trolling me. The transit people had apparently decided to up and ditch the train for 40 minutes, and so I had to wait that long at Armitage to go anywhere. By the time the train finally arrived, my faith in the CTA’s ability to get me to both places I was going within reasonable time was shot, so I scrapped my early afternoon plans and decided to just head straight up to the far northern end of Western Avenue. Friendship had an out-of-the-way location, but on the way back to my lodging, Shawna had filled me in to the fact that the Blue Line’s Harlem stop was only a few blocks away from her church. (Funny how the CTA website failed to mention that.) Grace Commons took me almost the entire distance north on the Brown Line, then even further north on the bus before I had to get off a little north of Devon and hoof it the rest of the way. By then, the storm we had been warned about all day had hit. And it was STILL an hour early, although that wasn’t such a big deal to me because I figured I could walk in and help get the space set up, like I used to. It was just my luck that the door happened to be locked, so I took shelter under the roof outcropping and waited for someone to show. That someone turned out to be the new intern, Sarah, who took me into the office where Nanette had been sitting all along. Needless to say, I suddenly regretted not ringing the doorbell.

The setting had an unorthodox feel by the standards of Grace Commons. My little Chicago church had merged with a second congregation, and Nanette was playing minister to them both. Grace Commons had taken up residence after it was forced out of its last home in the Rumble Arts Center, and it was a little jarring to see the place take up a new spot in a real church. Of course, that was because I wasn’t used to such a thing. I’m not religious, and I always thought part of the appeal of Grace Commons was the aesthetic atmosphere; the NNWAC building and Rumble Arts Center both had atmospheres which encouraged visitors to create and challenge a church orthodoxy which the regulars had largely rejected. The setting of an actual church came off a bit stuffy. The feeling was elevated by the fact that there wasn’t very much setting up to do. Everything had already been arranged, so there wasn’t much to do outside of sitting in Nanette’s office drinking tea, catching up, and letting Sarah get to know me a bit better. (She came off as a little suspicious when she first spotted me outside.) I told Nanette that Shawna had said hello, and said that the service at Friendship had been shockingly traditional. Nanette said that her own morning service was also very traditional.

Fortunately, the service at Grace Commons didn’t lose anything. That week Grace Commons was scheduled to do poetry vespers, in which poems were read and music was improvised. The poetry readings involved the parishioners now more than ever; instead of pre-assigning poems just before the service began the way we did back when I was still living in Chicago, we read around the room so people would be allowed to read as much as they wanted. It was saddening that more people didn’t show up. The ice storm was raging by the time the service began, and several people I was hoping to see didn’t bother making the trip. One person who did make the trip was Jay, a sometime-visitor to Grace Commons who I wasn’t able to see before leaving for Buffalo.

It was kind of odd seeing Shawna conduct worship the way she did, but Shawna herself hadn’t changed a bit. Shawna and her entire congregation all welcomed me into Friendship Presbyterian as if I was already one of their own – which, because of the theme and mission of the place, I’m sure I pretty much am. As for Grace Commons, I had been there since the old Wicker Park Grace days, and returning now always feels like a visit home.


About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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