First United, Oak Park, IL (Exterior)

First United, Oak Park, Illinois, USA

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Mystery Worshipper: Misericord,
Church: First United
Location: Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 September 2013, 11:00am

The building

Dating from 1917, it is the work of the architects Holmes and Flinn (later Patton, Holmes and Flynn), an early 20th century firm that designed many buildings in the Chicago area. Author Ernest Hemingway was baptized in this church. It is in the American Gothic Revival style, with transept arms ending in half-octagon spaces. One of these is used for the choir and organ console, and the other acts as a transition space at the doors leading to the social hall and entrance from the parking lot. The west doors (actually south-facing) open out to the famous Unity Temple by Frank Lloyd Wright, which was Wright's first public commission and the last surviving building from his Prairie period.

The church

The congregation had its beginnings in 1863, when thirteen devout souls (including the grandparents of Ernest Hemingway) gathered in a wooden schoolhouse. Out of that meeting grew two congregations, one Presbyterian and one Congregational, who merged in 1975 to form First United Church. The present congregation seem like a vital and lively bunch of main line Protestants, enjoying their sociable and socially-conscious community. The two parent congregations were long-time champions of social justice, and today First United continues that advocacy by (quoting from their website) "empowering people by changing structures rather than providing charity alone, to open the path to long-term well-being." A member, speaking to me following the service, noted that a recent increase in the number of the children in the congregation was driven by the growing number of gay and lesbian couples in the area having children.

The neighborhood

The people of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, are keenly aware of their architectural history and quality of life the village affords them. Ernest Hemingway was born and raised here (although Oak Park was part of the town of Cicero at the time). Of Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "So many churches for so many good people to go to." In addition to Unity Temple, First United also has Grace Episcopal Church as its neighbor one block to the west. Lake Street, on which the church sits prominently, is a retail and business corridor, with restaurants, movie theater, and the Lake Street elevated train (CTA) right there.

The cast

The Revd Kent Organ, interim lead pastor, officiated. He was assisted by the Revd Rob Leveridge, associate pastor for membership and congregational care, and the Revd Marylen Marty-Gentile, associate pastor for children and family ministries. William Chin, director of music ministries, and Michael Surratt, organist, were in charge of the music.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Worship

How full was the building?

Around 300 people in the pews, so close to half filled. The building seats around 1000 when the balcony is available; it is currently draped off as work is happening on the south-facing rose window. Without the large balcony, the remaining pews accommodate about 600. There was a nice mix of old and young.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. Ushers were most welcoming and cordial passing out the service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard old wood pews, with fairly heavily-padded seats.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was quite chatty and sociable, rather than the quiet-prayerful (or sometimes just under-caffeinated) pre-service hush found in many churches.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone!" were the first words following the prelude. That led into a more extended greeting and spoken announcements.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal plus the service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. A large-ish pipe organ filled the wall behind the clergy seating and pulpit.

Did anything distract you?

I would have to say no, although I judged some of the interior appointments to be less than successful (for example, a hanging cross composed of five white boxes and possibly lighted inside during evening services). There were a number of children around me who were as perfectly behaved as one could hope for, including three blond girls looking very much like younger versions of their mother.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was a main-line Protestant hymn sandwich (no communion this week). It got a little clappier toward the end with the famous Lilies of the Field "Amen" (complete with claps).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Pastor Kent Organ was very effective and seemed comfortable speaking to this congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was a solid liberal theology – social gospel message relating to the reading from Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. His main point was that we are all in this together, and that the recent increase in income inequality is not Gods will for us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

They did nice traditional hymns and did not seem prone to incorporating praise bands or contemporary music. Their website also indicates a fairly full calendar of concerts of sacred music and jazz. William Chin is a very active conductor of several ensembles outside this church choir, and brings those ensembles to perform in the space.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Nothing was objectionable or even irritating. I would have to revert to my criticism of the white box cross as the only thing I would change.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Well, as I moved toward the west transept doors to the social room, a lady with a deacon name-badge engaged me in conversation. Then a couple of other members joined us at the coffee hour. They didn't seem too disappointed (well, maybe a little) when I told them I was just visiting and that I generally attend another church across town. Conversation and greeting strangers came easily for them. Younger families with children to wrangle seemed more preoccupied, as you would expect.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Decent urn coffee served in china cups (which is a nice touch, preventing styrofoam cups being thrown in a land-fill). There were cookies, but I didn't try one. I heard that by tradition they serve no alcohol in the building, which eliminates most wedding receptions.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – Very nice place, but I would miss more Anglican music and communion at every service. Its not what I am used to, but it suits many people quite well.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Sure. First United Church seems to be fulfilling its mission quite well, maintaining worship and parish life and keeping a large 100-year old building and grounds in beautiful repair. Friendly and gracious neighborhood churches like this one (even though bare of statuary and images) are very significant parts of the quality of life in Oak Park, even for those who never walk through the doors. On the other hand, if all the mega-churches in the country folded tomorrow and were demolished, almost no significant art or architecture would be lost.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I left with the general feeling that this was one traditional Protestant congregation that didnt need light jazz combos or gimmicks to compete with mega-churches.

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