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Grace Commons Loses its Talisman

A random Sunday in October of 2006. I sat at one of my usual haunts, the quirky little brick-and-wood spot addressed at 1741 North Western Avenue in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, wondering where the hell World Can’t Wait had trotted off to this time. It was the second time this had happened – I had been given one address by the political group and told they were meeting there that Sunday, and they went someplace else without me.

So I was sitting there, nothing to do, not willing to make the return trip home because I had just dragged myself a half-mile while getting licked by the bitter winds. My health was already getting under the weather. Fortunately, no one seemed in any hurry to shove me out the door. The first person I saw was Nanette; now, I knew Nanette strictly nominally as the friendly hipster artist who was also the acting barista at the Monday jazz shows that flowed into the World Can’t Wait room’s thin walls. I thought I had a fairly accurate read on her through our brief drink and pastry exchanges then. She clearly had to be one of the many people in the building connected with the Near Northwest Arts Council. Had to be. Had that vibe.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked me that day.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t think I was in any condition to turn down an offer of tea.

Nanette brought me the tea and, as she turned to leave, casually added “Oh, we’re having a prayer service at 5. You’re welcome to come if you like.” I could swear it was an afterthought.

Whatever, though. I wasn’t planning to head out anytime soon, and I had nothing better to do. A prayer service might be good for a few yuks, at any rate. Why the hell not?

Well… My life was changed for good after I left. I couldn’t describe what about the service hit me at the time, and I still can’t. I walked into the service room flying high on some 18 months of declared, anti-religious atheism after getting pissed with two different dogmas. I thought I was done. Instead, that Sunday invitation turned out to be the beginning of a whole different path which I’ve been walking ever since. It was my welcome to a unique spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and it quickly became one of my life’s centerpieces. My involvement there made me a better person in a few ways, some of which I’m certain I don’t know about yet.

Anyway, of all the qualities I attached to Nanette the way I saw her then, Presbyterian Minister was among the last on my list. I figured the initial prayer service I attended was some kind of novelty thing; not a weekly meeting. Nanette, though, said she ran services like that every week, and when I returned the next week, Nanette, me, and a handful of other people sat down in a small room. You know what the service was? The small lot of us sitting down, eating dinner, and talking about the various questions and problems we all had about scriptures. I finally got to ask about all the problems I had with the two different religions I had followed in my life to that point, and had used to hammer fundamentalists afterward. It was the first time anyone ever took my questions and comments seriously. The congregation of Wicker Park Grace wasn’t there to crush opposition to religion by insisting that I just believe, or that I wasn’t reading something properly; the earliest form of the church that I knew there was just as confused, angry, and misfit as I was, and just as eager to get to the bottom of the scriptures they were familiar with.

Nanette never tried to stand pat with testimonies and reaffirmations of faith. In fact, she was the one leading us through some questions and into even more questions. For a working class kid raised in a staunch literalist religious atmosphere, this was unheard of, and it was because of this that Nanette managed to do something no other Minister I ever met had managed: She got through to me. She made me think. She challenged everything I thought I knew about religion previously, through both my experience following two different faiths and then turning my back on them both.

The new way I discovered of looking at religion had a remarkable and unexpected effect: It made me appreciate the positive aspects of the religion I was raised practicing again while managing to reinforce my atheism at the same time. I wasn’t the only person at Wicker Park Grace who started to wonder if there could ever be such a beast as a Christian Atheist. Christian Atheism or not, though, all the barriers that mentally kept me from questioning in the past finally broke down, and I began to appreciate the fact that I could be a perfectly flawed human being and still be a halfway decent person.

I had had several Ministers in my past, but Nanette is the one I consider my first real Minister. She managed to find a new life for my weather-worn soul and prevent a third form of unofficial religious dogma from taking hold of it. I learned that I liked asking questions about the big issues of religious faith and upsetting the natural order, and Nanette gave me the first real outlet I had to do that.

Wicker Park Grace grew and eventually moved to a different building, establishing a new form as Grace Commons. But people have this funny way of moving on, and Nanette was eventually installed as the Minister of a whole new congregation. Grace Commons moved yet again soon afterward, its members moved into areas of Chicago more difficult to reach – and sometimes out of Chicago altogether – and everything that Grace Commons established started falling apart. The last time I managed to get to Grace Commons, services had become bi-weekly affairs with attendance on par with the first services I ever attended there. A couple of my friends there remarked to me last year they weren’t sure of Nanette’s ability to be a full-time Minister to two congregations.

That turned out to be a good guess, because Nanette is stepping down, and Grace Commons is losing its talisman. As the Minister of Grace Commons, Nanette installed a core ethos of hospitality and welcomed everyone, regardless of their background, and was beloved for her easy, outgoing, and personable style of teaching. She oversaw Grace Commons as it turned from three people in a coffeehouse to a formalized establishment with a personality of its own. Without her, Grace Commons is taking a congregation-run course, and I can’t say I know what’s in store for it. But I think I can speak for all of the old regulars from Grace Commons when I say: Nanette, we love you.

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Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The plaster cast felt like a glove, and it was about as tough. If I had molded it into a more grabby shape, I probably could have played hockey in it. I couldn’t help but make fun of the absurdity of a solid, hard plaster cast of my own right arm. It was to be exhibited on an artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, some kind of Jesus-related thing I had never heard of until a couple of weeks previous. Over the preparation for the exhibit, I also helped mold and paint little crosses.

The Stations of the Cross wasn’t a concept I had any kind of attachment to, at all. It sounded like another bit of Christian dogma my pastor had not bothered to teach me about in confirmation class. At least, I didn’t remember being taught anything about it. Considering that I hated confirmation class and had been seething quietly through what I considered an elaborate initiation ritual which would allow me full membership into my church’s wine and wafer club, I was concerned with getting just enough info to pass the final than actually learning anything. Confirmation class was a course I spent two years sitting through, after all, when no one I knew could offer a remotely satisfying answer to the question: WHY am I being denied what is obviously a very important sacrament of Christianity until I listened to my minister’s blah blah blah-ing for two hours every freaking Tuesday for two freaking years? Apparently I had missed a commandment somewhere along the line. Thou shalt have no other gods. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt take a two-year course to determine thine communion worthiness. Yeah, sounded about right.

Well, my inquisitiveness took its toll. Seven years after my confirmation, I had ditched Christianity entirely for a whole new religion. Three years after that, I ditched religion entirely. One of the instigators of my religious walkout was that everyone was dying for me to be able to perform rituals and recite passages on command, like some kind of dog/parrot genetic mutation. I was – am – an atheist, in large part because of these unbending dogmas I was being taught, and in even larger part because I had a bad habit of asking just where these rituals were written out in the Bible. The people I was questioning had an even worse habit of telling me the church does it that way because the church has ALWAYS done it that way. Grace Commons, my faith community in Chicago, was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled into it because here, at last, was a community which was challenging the very fundamental core of religion. The questioning of old religious tenants didn’t keep them from partaking in some of the rituals, though, so I saw no harm in partaking in the preparation and execution of the Stations..

Grace Commons being Grace Commons, they needed to give the Stations of the Cross an artistic spin. I was game and, truth be told, a little eager to see if I could get away with a little bit of stealth blasphemy. We created 15 stations with our own metaphorical spins on the traditional imagery. In the third station, in which Jesus fell for the first time, we created a drawing of a cross being pushed over by a montage of images of the world’s suffering and injustices, and propped back up with another montage of positive images of things which prop people in times of need. The tenth station, in which Jesus is stripped, was a board covered with red paint and black fabric. The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, was a hand drawing of Jesus and Mary consoling each other.

I had a grand old time creating the exhibits. While creating the little clay crosses, I was given artistic license to create them however I saw fit, long as they were crosses. So I made a bunch of kooky-looking traditional crosses, some Celtic crosses, and one slab of clay on which I carved the word “CROSS” in large, commanding letters. I painted them however I saw fit, and I also created a weird little mold of my hand. Still, while I was doing these things, it was more out of my enthusiasm for being a creator than out of any attachment I had to Christianity. I had no feelings toward the Stations of the Cross one way or the other. As far as I was concerned, they were just another unwritten faith tenant the church had culled from the air in order to control the masses by promising some extra brownie points with God. My mother was more excited for my participation than I was. The Stations of the Cross had been something she knew while growing up as a Catholic. She was more appreciative of rigid religious observances and routines than I was, even though she’s a bit of a religious upstream swimmer herself.

The big day came, and I walked in fully prepared to make a few observations and maybe crack a few jokes. Basically, I was expecting to be at least mildly underwhelmed. I had never been particularly moved by the religious displays I had seen everywhere growing up, after all. Maybe it was just a result of the fact that everything about the killed-for-my-sins idea seemed was so distant, or that the questions I had surrounding the entire doctrine had wrecked it for me, or that I had been numbed by the imagery, but the common images always left me with a rather blase attitude. Well, my visit to this display felt a lot different. It WAS different, in a few ways. Instead of the redundant imagery of Jesus going through his crucifixion, the imagery in the Grace Commons Stations felt current, relevant. The focus of the Stations were rarely on Jesus, and few of the Stations featured his likeness at all. I saw the first Station (the condemnation of Jesus) with its portrayal of mob violence, and it clicked. My sense of cynicism had departed by the second Station, a painting of a man grieving the loss of his firstborn child, a metaphorical representation of Jesus being given the cross he had to bear.

Each Station was questioning me, and leaving me challenged; challenged about my ideas of injustice and sin; challenged about my role in fighting them; challenged about how I might have been a contributor. Many ideas which I held to be black and white in the past were being stirred up and tinted in grey. My mind searched for answers and coherent thought with each display as I moved along, and I began to withdraw into myself in a way I had done very few times in the past. By the 14th Station, a display of Jesus being placed into the tomb, I felt drained and somewhat broken down. Station 14’s display was that of a ghostly white face, against a white background, with a translucent white shroud covering it, inside of a pitch-black room lit only by a small flashlight which was there only to illuminate a real prayer, written by a Jew during the Holocaust, asking for the captors to be forgiven of their sins.

Station 14 was the point where I finally tore up. I choked up and fell silent and, in dire need of a breather, I returned to the area where the service had taken place. My thought had now overwhelmed me to the point where everything was now blending together and being replaced by a raw, unnamed emotion. As a handful of others slowly filed into the room after me, all I did was sit and watch the candle flames perform their silky tango. It was a half hour before anyone was able to say anything, and it was only once everyone had processed what we just saw that our usual post-service chirpiness started filling the room.

The traditional pictures of the Crucifixion had never affected me. Having seen them since a very early age at which I wasn’t able to understand what they were, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be affecting pictures of a suffering deity, and so I never had any feelings toward them one way or another. And now I was sitting here, with a series of images seemingly disconnected from the event, moved in a way I had never been by anything religious. Of course, it wouldn’t send me running to dunk my head into the baptismal font, but after many years of religious instruction being hotly questioned and abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel like something was finally working.

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.

Zen Master

“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 5:15

That was the Bible passage presented to me by my minister at my 1995 confirmation. I liked it; it had a really cool ring, and it seemed to have a cloaked message about how I was going to go on to become a great religious leader or something. But I also wondered just what the minister saw in me that he thought it fit to bestow that passage on probably the most stubborn confirmand he knew during his long ministership. I had, after all, probably set a record in the number of parent/minister meetings he set up. I was the one who ignored the workbook, colored on my sneakers, forgot what essays I was supposed to be writing, avoided listening to the tapes of classes that got made for absentees, once wore sneakers on acolyte duty, and tried to forge his parents’ signatures for assignments. This wasn’t what anyone could call casual mischief, either; I was doing it out of a contempt for the very idea of getting stuck in a weekly two-hour class for my invitation to the wafer/wine club. Although church membership was the ultimate reward for putting up with the Reverend’s extended sermons, I didn’t see it that way; I saw it as the right to take communion every two weeks and nothing more. I wasn’t shy about my bewilderment in having to do this, and I constantly presented the question of just who the hell thought up this stupid idea. The eternal answer never changed: That’s how its always been done. It’s tradition. Because we said so!

In my two years, I was one of only about three confirmands through those classes who went on to be a Sunday regular. I wasn’t outwardly religious, but on the inside, I was very conservative about my faith. I tried like hell to suppress my naturally inquisitive personality, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and left the church for a whole new religion, a process which became pretty familiar to me at the outset of the 21st century. In the ensuing years, I switched religions three or four times. Add one more if you count my conversion to the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam, which is probably still the one I feel the closest connection to. (Yes, I’m counting Atheism.) My soul, as you can assume, became an unsalvageable wreck. In 2006, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I became embroiled in the political and artistic counterculture when I joined an organization whose stated goal was to round up enough support to impeach George W. Bush. That group wasn’t religious, but its primary meetup joint was a gallery owned by an art group on Chicago’s West Side and shared by a lot of small businesspeople. They held jazz nights every Monday while we were in the back room, and the jazz was always drowning out whatever point the leader of the group was trying to make. The building was also very hot, and the back room we were in was hotter, so I would usually creep out of the meeting once or twice a night to order a pastry and a root beer from the barista in the front, cool off a bit, and catch a few spare notes from the band of the week. I got to be acquainted with one of the regulars, Nanette, in the way one usually finds acquaintance with a regular server or grocer: We exchanged friendly words, and she knew what my usual order was. Nanette was basically a nonentity who seemed to be clearly affiliated with NNWAC, the Near Northwest Arts Council, who held our building. A very friendly and welcoming nonentity, but a nonentity nonetheless. And she got me on a path that changed my life.

The story from there is one I’ve told a million times. My group’s lease ran its course and it was forced to alternate meeting spaces, leading to a mix-up one Sunday where I showed up at the wrong place. Not wanting to immediately face the stiff late-October breeze again, I took up Nanette’s invitation to a prayer service which was starting soon. Expecting my participation at the time to be a one-shot deal ending in a polite disinclination to future services, I was drawn back when I learned that this peculiar Christian group didn’t revel in common religious dogma. Instead, they challenged it, and were very pointed about doing so. Nanette turned out to be an ordained minister whose little church wasn’t part of NNWAC. (Although, for the record, the church believed in and supported NNWAC.) At this church, I finally found an outlet where the people took my questions and doubts seriously and didn’t offer single-serving answers about just believing or spending extra time with the good book. I also think they made me a better person, to a very large extent. At least that’s how I see it, anyway; Nanette herself once told me she saw a gradual change in the way I looked at religion.

The church, Wicker Park Grace (now known as Grace Commons), was my introduction to a rising branch of Christianity called Emergent Christianity. (Some circles refer to it as Red Letter Christianity.) Along with a cadre of new sports teams to cheer for, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago city grid, and a weather-toughened ability to ride a bicycle in the worst of conditions, Emergent Christianity and my newfound religious questions were among the most important things I brought to Buffalo from Chicago. Even though I live in the fucking suburbs, far away from civilization, and therefore can’t visit any of Buffalo’s one or two Emergent churches, my newfound outlook on religion is getting to be far more important than I expected when I returned.

Emergent Christianity explores original languages, cultural contexts, and histories of the original scriptures in a way that traditional religionists either can’t or don’t want to think about. The result is frequently an interpretation that challenges, offends, and frustrates the Christian orthodoxy. To get an idea of just how new and comparatively radical Emergent Christianity is, consider that its ideas – which include theologies like the Kingdom of Heaven not being a place we go when we die, the book of Revelations being an angry satire of the Roman Empire and not a preview of the end times, and the idea that one doesn’t even have to believe in any gods in order to be a good Christian – tend to baffle and piss off a generally open-minded populace in Chicago, a 21st century megalopolis. Even the atheist groups there – one of which I belonged to for a couple of years – hate Emergent Christianity because it turns a lot of their common arguments against Abrahamic scriptures into nonfactors.

My views on religion were seen as weird and offbeat in Chicago, but the beauty of a large-scale multimillion-population city like that is people see the freaks as nothing more than the kook on the corner. The misfits and offbeat are seen as facts of life, and the better part of the greater populace even looks at them as colorful accompaniments who are welcomed into the city’s multi-personal tapestry. Chicago doesn’t totally LIKE everyone who creates his own drumbeats to march to, but it knows how to deal with them and even grow a little from the experience. The trouble with Buffalo is that it’s not the world-class city it used to be. Although the city has improved since I lived in Chicago, it still adheres to a more rigid way of life and still has trouble accepting anyone who doesn’t conform to a much narrower definition of the normal. Buffalo doesn’t respond well to things it sees as challenges to the greater lifestyle, and it sees challenges in things as simple as riding bicycles.

In matters of religion, Buffalo is still very much a witch hunt town. South Buffalo is such a hotbed of Irish Catholicism that my family was seen as odd just for being Protestant, and Protestant is the most common Christian denomination in the country. I think this story tells how religion plays an important role in a proper South Buffalo identity: In February of 2008, I stopped in a sports bar in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks north of The Loop, to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play against the San Jose Sharks. The Blackhawks weren’t serious contenders quite yet, but they were newly reloaded with players like Martin Havlat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. They were playing that season with the main purpose of letting the league know that, after years of performing doormat duty for Detroit, they were fed up and not going to play dead anymore. I was interested in that particular game because the team was having a ceremony to welcome two of their alienated legends – Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull – back into the fold as ambassadors for the team. The team was in a thick hunt for a playoff spot which they eventually missed by just two or three points. As I drank Rolling Rock, watched the game, and chatted up fellow puckheads, I took notice of a few older folks who entered the bar around the start of the third period and watched the rest of the game out. The older folks began talking Sabres, and I immediately identified them as Buffalo natives. They happened to mention that they were relatives of Patrick Kane – himself a South Buffalo native – and were at the game but left because it was starting to run a bit later than they expected. When I mentioned that I was born and bred in South Buffalo myself, they asked what street I grew up on (Rutland, where they knew of) and what family I belonged to (they didn’t know my family, since my father is from rural New York and my mother is from Long Island, my family has no real roots in the city), and tellingly, what parish we were affiliated to. I said the closest parish was Saint Thomas – again, they knew exactly what I was talking about – but that we were members of Salem, in McClellan Circle. They weren’t quite as familiar with that, and when I mentioned that it was a Protestant church, it closed the topic.

In Buffalo, what I’m doing is heresy which itself is worthy of crucifixion. Old dogs are of course notoriously difficult to teach, but in matters of faith, they are perhaps more stubborn than in anything else. The more religious faction of Buffalo’s old guard sees itself as the last hanging thread between the Christian morals of a decent person and the anarchistic outbreak of society because of those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior. And here I am, questioning and critiquing everything they believe, calling bullshit to the cherry-pickers’ faces, and challenging them to defend their archaic dogma. What I’ve learned, though, is that there is a small contingent of people who agree with me are are having trouble reconciling fire-and-brimstone Christian faith with humanity. And if the conversation steers toward religion, I’ve turned into some kind of sponge which they use to absorb all of their problems and questions about what their pastors tell them. Often, these aren’t people I see often, and sometimes its happened with people I didn’t even know. Within minutes in a discussion about peoples’ problems with religion, I’ve formed a connection with the other person. And I don’t mind doing it.

Vines bring life to certain plants, and I’ve been bringing life to peoples’ questions if they’ve been too timid to ask them in the past. Maybe my old minster was on to something after all; gradually, I’m becoming the vine.

Coming Home

I had a case of the severe nervous jitters yesterday as I sat on the North Avenue bus, waiting for it to slowly weave its way westward. It was probably the most absurd case of nervousness I’ve ever experienced; I was going to my little Chicago church, Wicker Park Grace – the name is now Grace Commons – knowing full well that I wouldn’t be kicked out. Hell, for all intents and purposes, Grace was my home. Everything else I had ever known in Chicago was merely an extention of it. Even my apartment was little more than a spot to sleep and hang my ever-expanding hat collection.

Sometime during the ride, I took notice of an attractive young woman who got on the bus with a small child. This normally isn’t a big issue because good-looking woman are all over the city, but as I took notice of her profile, I thought, Amy? I’m blind as a bat and couldn’t get a good look from where I was sitting, so I tried to let the thought drift out of my mind; the person I was thinking of had become another economic victim and had to move to Nevada to get back on her feet. I started to rethink this when she got off the bus at my stop. I dashed across the street, and, still a little nervous about going inside, waited for the woman to go to the corner crossing and return to the front of the building. It was then that I got a good look at her, and…

“I thought that might be you! I spotted you when I got on the bus!” she said. As we conversed and caught up with old times, I wondered if she was a little nervous about her return to Grace Commons too. Grace Commons had been touting a baptism for weeks that was scheduled for that very Sunday, and Amy told me that it was her child, Felix, who was being baptized. Somehow I doubted she was quite as nervous.

My (totally irrational) fears were immediately laid to rest once I walked in, though, and I was treated like the prodigal son. I had done a lot of work for Grace Commons simply out of goodness and the obligation I felt to give back to it. Through my time in Buffalo so far, I’ve thought of it often and wondered if I had been forgotten. But the spirit of inclusion which had gotten me to return after my first visit there manifested itself again, and I was asked to light the candles just for old times’ sake. My friends – or at least the ones who were there – were thrilled to see me, and I had work in the cleanup process, just like when I was there every week.

It might seem like a little, foolish thing, but I liked that I was involved with the physical aspects of cleaning up after the service. It was the way my old friends in Chicago showed me that I would have a place there. I have an ego, and if there’s a large, important bit of work the place is trying to get done, I have a drive to feel like I made a tangible contribution when it’s finished. One of the most painful parts of my move was leaving all the work to be done, and there had been many weeks when I was almost a one-man show. When I overheard the minister, Nanette, talking about perhaps starting a rotation during the week, I felt knew then that my departure had been felt. If that didn’t give me that impression, the reactions of my old friends upon seeing me again certainly did. There were countless hugs and questions about my situation not born of courtesy, but from real concern for my well-being.

It was a lucky coincidence that I happened to go in on the week that Amy was baptizing her son. Since baptism is an important sacriment, it gave the work I did an added sense of importance. It made my contribution worthwhile, knowing I had helped out with it. It also turned out to be the final appearance of another friend, Noelle, who will be moving to Oregon soon.

Over our traditional potluck dinner, I discussed my life and my frustration with the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Chicago.

The real surprises came the next day. I had a hankering for a breakfast sandwich from Potbelly, so I went to the Potbelly I used to frequent in my messenger days, inside the Merchandise Mart. The woman who had usually taken my sandwich orders was still working there, and she spotted me right off and asked me how I was doing. Later, I went to the Dominick’s I once lived by and was recognized by one of the employees.

The reactions of everyone upon seeing me again gave me a sense of worth I never really felt when I was growing up. It’s sometimes very difficult to keep my depression in check, and at a couple of points in my life I’ve seriously contemplated suicide. But for all the times I’ve asked myself if there’s anyone in the world who would realize I was gone, seeing my Chicago friends again was a potent reminder of the fact that, yes, there are many people in the world who lead slightly richer lives because I happened to be among those whom Richard Dawkins calls the Lucky Ones – those who are lucky because, among the millions of others who could have been born in their place, we happened to be among those who made it into the world.

In the meantime, I’ve also learned how to be an ambassador to the United States without ever leaving the country. I’m staying in a hostel in Chicago, and it’s easy to meet a lot of interesting people in hostels. There are times when we take our country for granted, or forget that people from other countries may not have the viewpoints we might think they have. I met a group of Japanese tourists who asked me questions about the United States, the people, and how we see ourselves in the larger world. I gave the most concise and honest answers I could, and in discussions about politics, I tried to be as objective as possible; I even managed to shut off my ranting libertarian switch. I also tried to teach them a little bit about how to play pool and foosball.

My Return to My First Church

Easter was a bit of an awkward day for me. I spent the night before watching The Ten Commandments and counting the number of scriptural inaccuracies (my computer exploded), dance scenes with beautiful women (my calculator exploded), and scenes which were a boom-chika-ba-ba and three articles of clothing away from being porn scenes (I broke the fingers I was counting on). I was nervous about my return to Salem Lutheran, the church of my youth. It was three or four years since the last time I set foot in the place at all. Since I last visited as a full member, it had been around eight years, two religions, two cities, and two forms of facial hair. I’m well past the point of no return these days, and trying to sit through a traditional church service at all now puts me at a level of discomfort which is rivaled only by the feeling I get when I’m in a high place.

My family’s friends, people who had unquestionably accepted me as one of their own back when I was confirmed, welcomed me back with open arms. It could have been enough to make me forget I was ever gone in the first place, but during the service I was struck with the familiar absurdity that helped drive me away from organized religion in the first place: The fact that, despite Christianity being an all-inclusive faith, I was not allowed one of its most revered sacraments – communion – without some arbitrary members only coat. As I was long removed from the church, earning the right to communion would involve months of confirmation class lectures again. Fortunately, I have no intention of reinstating my Salem membership, so the whole thing doesn’t matter.

It still came as a bit of a shock after my experience at Wicker Park Grace, which always practices the inclusiveness it preaches. I was always welcome to the communion table there despite having never gone through an official confirmation process, or in fact even being a follower of the religion preached there.

Salem holds an Easter breakfast, which was my purpose for showing up. After talking to most of the regulars who knew me, it was apparent my folks hadn’t spent a whole lot of time telling their Salem friends about my return. Everyone was surprised to see me, and more so to find out I would be staying indefinitely. Just like my first public appearance on St. Patrick’s Day, about half the statements that came out of my mouth were about how the economy in Chicago had tanked. Some asked the whereabouts of my sister, who will be moving to Ithaca from Brooklyn in a couple of weeks. No one had any idea that I wasn’t there just for the holiday.

I was lucky to see my old friend Melissa, who had apparently abandoned Salem herself a few years ago and only popped in every now and then. She said she was very frustrated with the lack of changes that occurred at Salem until the recent arrival of the new minister. After the service – half of which I spent helping clean up after the breakfast, something I was instinctively inclined to do per my old duties at Wicker Park Grace – I roamed the church grounds a little bit, and I ran into Melissa and my mother having a conversation about churches. Melissa was explaining that even though she was away from Salem for awhile, she couldn’t shake the fact that the people there knew her, and it was where she was raised and the place she considered her home.

In the respect of the people there who know me, Salem is definitely my own home too, and I certainly intend to take up the other members on their invitations to stop by every now and then. But the difference between Melissa and me is that she was always a lot more confident in her faith than I ever was in any faith. Of course she would consider Salem her own spiritual home. It’s silly, with all she’s been through, to wonder if she has ever questioned her faith. I know for a fact that she has. But her ideas on religion and spirituality apparently were enough in line with Salem’s for her heart to have never truly left the South Buffalo church.

My interpretation of Lutheran Christianity may be very different from the one Melissa picked up from Salem. I always received conflicting messages – was I saved through good works or through baptism? I also picked up the idea that questioning was a bad thing, and my confirmation class (in which the minister probably set his all time record for parent-minister conferences in regards to my attitude toward it) was always more focused on knowing what the teachings were rather than why they were. I had a somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward religion when these factors were all added up, even though I considered myself a good Christian. In the young adult and adult Bible classes, I was contentious and I exchanged barbs with the other people in it more than once. We had a pompous holier-than-thou discussion leader who always followed some of the wackier ideas propagated through the Christian media – in particular, he was one of those idiots who believed Harry Potter led to Devil worship. I really can’t consider Salem a spiritual refuge.

It was what led me to try to find a new place that accepts non-Christians when I returned to Buffalo. I really don’t consider it a home or a refuge anymore, just a nice pace to visit and talk to people sometimes. In the meantime, my contently troubled soul is still housed at Wicker Park Grace back in Chicago, which is one hell of a drive every Sunday. But it’s way over there that I can ask about things that disturb me, where I was around friends who are also spiritually orphaned. In nearly every sense, it’s still the place I consider my home.