Grace Episcopal, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Grace Episcopal, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Grace Episcopal
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 October 2009, 10:00am

The building

Set next to the huge Donahue Building in the Printers Row section of Chicago's South Loop, the church occupies what was once an industrial building. The sanctuary and church offices take up the top two floors, and the ground floor functions as a community facility. The sanctuary is top-lit with a large encircling screen within the double-height space. Bare brick and wooden structural features give the building a friendly, urban look as a loft should have! However, many passers-by might not realize this was a church unless they were walking slowly and read the notices. This is the congregation's sixth church and has been occupied as such since 1985 (ironically, the fifth church has been converted to office space!).

The church

They strive to minister to their community, as exemplified by the building's attempt to blend well into its surroundings. Among their many ministries is the Night Ministry, which serves soup and sandwiches without judgment to the needy of Chicago's streets. In partnership with the Lutherans, they sponsor a South Loop campus ministry, serving the thousands of college students living in the area. The Grace Place Playgroup is run by parent volunteers and provides a fun, safe and casual environment where infant and preschool children can play and interact with each other. There are two communion services each Sunday morning as well as "Grace in the Evening," a service of silence, light, chant and communion.

The neighborhood

Once home to the printing and publishing industry, Printers Row has seen gentrification in recent years, with the old commercial buildings being converted into residential lofts. The neighborhood still has the feel of being occupied by urban pioneers, though the South Loop is definitely moving up in the world with smart condominiums as well. As I walked from breakfast to church, several strangers greeted me on the sidewalk: a sense of an urban village survives here. The influx of college students has injected a much-needed youthful flavor into the area, with many student-friendly bars and restaurants lining Dearborn Street.

The cast

The Revd Ted Curtis, vicar, and a number of dogs. The preacher was the Revd Ellen K. Wondra, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Seabury-Western Seminary.

What was the name of the service?

Communion with Music for the Feast of St Francis.

How full was the building?

About 60, and when we formed a circle for communion there was barely room for everyone.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered on the ground floor, I was welcomed immediately: "Hi! I'm Ted. Welcome!" I immediately knew Ted was the vicar. "We will start upstairs in just a moment," he added, as he was besieged by several excited dogs and their owners.

Was your pew comfortable?

The benches were comfortable and had been arranged in an inclusive circle around the small altar.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The annual pet blessing had taken place just down the road outside the old Romanesque pink granite Dearborn Station, one of Chicago's few remaining railroad stations (now converted to retail and office space). The vicar led the procession (if that's the right word for a single file walk with sniffing) of dogs to the church. People kept feeding the dogs treats and petting them, and they seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere enormously. I petted a few nice pooches and then went upstairs to the sanctuary, where I was quite alone for a couple of minutes, although one or two excited yelps could be heard. In due course everyone filed in, many bringing dogs with them, and the service started almost immediately. I wondered how the dogs would take to holy communion, but most were as good as gold.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome on this wild Sunday!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

I had helped myself to the excellent service sheet that contained everything we needed, including the hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

A grand piano.

Did anything distract you?

Throughout the service, a black Labrador beside me glanced longingly at a sultry collie nearby, but his good manners (and judicious use of the leash by his owners) kept him on his best gentlemanly behavior. But his pining glances were clearly an affair of the heart.

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

The service was a relatively conventional Episcopal service, without servers or undue ceremony. Though the shape of the service was recognizable, several modifications had been made to the liturgy. Sections were borrowed from the Iona Community and Lutheran Book of Worship. This mix of the familiar and the new was mostly refreshing. However, a versified version of the Nicene Creed by the Canadian hymnodist Sylvia Dunstan struck me as a little too pat in its rhythms and rhymes. The peace was very extended and involved everyone greeting everyone else, not with just a greeting but with chat (and on this day greeting dogs too). I felt it disrupted the flow of the service. The blessing included the words: "May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

9 – Clear, direct, accessible and thought-provoking.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Dr Wondra had been billed on the church notice board as a "cat lover," and I feared we were in for a sermon about St Francis feeding the songbirds. Not a bit of it. She acknowledged the sentimental image of St Francis and urged us to think rather of the rich man who gave his clothes to the homeless and turned his back on a life of luxury. This chimed in with the parish appeal for woolen scarves to give to the homeless who came for breakfast there. Nor did she fail to point out that our companion animals were only one part of the animal kingdom on which we relied; many were killed for human food.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The silences. When I arrived and sat by myself in the quiet top-lit wooden room. And after the sermon, when even the dogs respected the need for collective contemplation.

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

"All things bright and beautiful" which, as hymns go, is perhaps my least favorite!

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

I was greeted by my neighbors and the woman in front, who chatted briefly and repeated the invitation to coffee that the vicar had made from the lectern.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Fair traded and robust.

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

8 – if I lived in Chicago, I might well adopt it. I found it to be a warm and welcoming worshipping community with a strong sense of both fun and purpose.

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


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

Standing for communion in a circle of 60 humans and 20 dogs.

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