The woman at the mic is recounting the story of how she lost her virginity after the age of 40. She’s described her discovery of masturbation within the confines of her evangelical childhood home. Now she’s narrating the flirting that turned into sexting that turned into a late-night hotel room, the relief of a decades-long itch, and the realization of the goodness of her own body. When she finishes, someone else stands and prompts the congregation: The word of God for the people of God. They respond: Thanks be to God.
This is Gilead Chicago, a church that “makes beautiful worship, shares good food, and tells true stories that save lives.” Those stories aren’t always about sex. So far some have been about running the sound board at a talk radio station in rural Georgia, having Thanksgiving dinner with a stranger, leaving an abusive husband, getting arrested with a car full of weed, and being the only person in a Pentecostal family who doesn’t speak in tongues. What each of these stories shares is that it’s true, that it’s told in the first person, and that we believe it’s sacred. We believe it’s part of God’s story.
Three years ago Rebecca Anderson (MDiv ’10) and I began dreaming about starting a new church in Chicago. We wanted to create a congregation that spoke to people who had never been part of a church or who left or got pushed out a long time ago. Rebecca was part of the Chicago storytelling scene, seeing and doing shows with groups like 2nd Story, The Moth, and Do Not Submit. She noticed that almost every night of the week in Chicago one can go out to see strangers tell real stories from their own lives. People stand in line, pack into tiny back rooms of pubs, and scramble to get their names in the hat to tell and hear true stories.
That sparked the idea for a church that treats its congregants’ stories as sacred stories. The Church has always been a space for storytelling and testimony. We wanted to broaden how those practices are understood, to expand the notion of testimony beyond “how I got saved” stories and to treat people’s life stories with the same care and respect as scripture. (Thus the very church-y response after each teller.) We believe that helping people recognize God’s presence in their lives both demystifies the narrative of scripture and remystifies our own lived experience. It invites people into the sacred story not only as readers or listeners but as tellers of, and characters in, what we believe is an ongoing story.
The story of Gilead is just beginning. Last summer Rebecca left her work as Associate Pastor at Glencoe Union Church and I moved from the United Church of Gainesville in Florida. After a series of events in the fall that included a stand-up comedy fundraiser and a garlic-planting party, Gilead started holding monthly preview services in January at the Peckish Pig, a bar in our home neighborhood of Rogers Park. As a church of makers that was born in a bar, we brewed a batch of Balm of Gilead beer as a thank you for our donors and got a little media attention from it—including a spot on The Today Show during Holy Week! In May we launched weekly services, and starting July 9th we'll be worshipping at the Red Line Tap every Sunday at 5pm.
Everyone who comes to Gilead has a chance to have their story told. While there are usually two tellers who share longer-form narratives, each person receives a prompt on their way into worship that serves as the starting point for their own short story. Services have included prompts like “I set out into the unknown when...” and “I came back to life when...” These prompts are then read throughout the service, weaving the lives of those gathered into the liturgy. In just a sentence, the stories manage to pack a punch. They are often funny and sometimes heartbreaking. And, we hope, they are always a reminder to those gathered that the stories of their everyday lives are indeed the word of God for the people of God.
- Larkman, Connie. “Chicago new church start attracts national attention before first worship service.” United Church of Christ. April 7, 2017.
- Perry, Julien. “Chicago Church Teams Up With Brewery To Make Communion More Fun.” The Fresh Toast. March 10, 2017.
- Rice, Linze. “Baptized In Beer: This Rogers Park Church Brews Its Own Small-Batch IPAs.” DNAinfo. March 9, 2017.
- “TODAY visits the church that holds its services in a pub.” NBC. April 11, 2017.
|Author, Vince Amlin (MDiv ’09), is co-minister of Gilead Chicago. Gilead is a congregation of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). All are welcome, including people of every age, race, ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.|
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe here to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.