Ray and I exchanged glances. So much for uneventful.
A few minutes later, the pilot rang out again, “We’re running low on fuel so we’re going to have to go to Indianapolis.” A chorus of groans was heard throughout the cabin.
Summertime is a risky season for flying to the Midwest. You never know when a storm may rear its ugly thunderhead and ruin your travel plans. That’s why we decided to tack on a few extra days to this weekend trip back to our old stomping grounds. What if bad weather delayed our flight and we didn’t get there on time? Thankfully, the storm subsided as quickly as it started and the plane landed in Chicago without incident. Crisis averted. Seat belts fastened. Tray tables up.
Ray and I planned this trip to attend a retirement party for the pastor of our former church—actually Ray’s former church. I was never a member. I attended services and sang with the choir but having never fully embraced organized religion I was reluctant to “belong” to any institution of worship.
Ebenezer Lutheran Church is located in Chicago’s Andersonville. It’s pretty much your “churchy” looking church built over 100 years ago by the Swedish immigrants who lived in the neighborhood. It looked pretty much like any other church except for one small thing—a small GLBT rainbow flag sticker on the lower right side of the marquee.
In the 70’s, Andersonville had become rather tired as far as neighborhoods go. By the late 80’s, a large lesbian and gay population developed and before you knew it, colors got brighter, buildings got refurbished and real estate prices went through the roof. I know I’m generalizing here but the GLBT community seems to have a knack for transforming an old depressed neighborhood into a whole new state of fabulousness. My friend Holly used to say, “Oh, honey, whenever I’m looking for a new place to live I always follow the rainbow flag.”
I was not too surprised to see that this church was open to gays. Lots of urban churches were opening up to us unholy deviant homos—kind of in a way that I would assume Jesus would if he were here on this earth today. Jesus seemed like the kind of guy who was open and accepting to everyone. Sure would love to have a conversation with him.
Ray had grown up in the Lutheran Church. Attending services was comfortable to him. After moving to Chicago, he started talking about finding a place to worship. One day we just happened to walk past Ebenezer and saw a rainbow flag on the marquee. We came back that Sunday. I took a deep breath as I walked up the front steps. This was not my thing at all.
The interior of the church was different than I had seen in other older churches—of course my experience with church interiors comes from visiting Europe. Older churches are dark in an intimidating Gothic way. The lighting is low and all the wood is stained in deep brownish-black colors. This was quite the opposite. It was white inside and had blue stenciled accents that gave it a slight Swedish flair. It was bright and cheerful. Instead of scary dead Jesus nailed to a cross, there was friendly alive Jesus with his arms opened up as if he wanted to hug you.
As we took our seats, I looked around. No one really stood out. The attire was casual. I couldn’t tell who was gay or straight. I could tell who I hoped was gay. Sadly, even in church, I’m a horndog. The one thing that did stand out was the drum set next to the piano. That piqued my interest.
As the service started, three men came out from the side door. One sat at the drums, another at the piano and another one produced an upright bass. The drummer started first. He was playing with brushes—my favorite sonic percussive experience. The bass and piano followed suit. Was Vince Guaraldi in the house?
To our surprise and delight, it was Jazz Sunday. The choir came walking down the center of the church singing in perfect harmony as they took their places next to the musicians. I was blown away.
During the service, Pastor Paul Koch gave his sermon. I don’t remember exactly what it was about but I do remember that he said the words gay, lesbian and transgendered just a casually as one would say Jesus, loves and you. Toto and I were definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Ray was excited. I was freaked out. This church did not tolerate the GLBT community nor did they accept it. Ebenezer Lutheran embraced it.
After a few visits, Ray decided to become a member. He completed some classes and was accepted as a member becoming active on committees and participating in church events. It’s no secret that I am turned off by organized religion—especially Christianity so being the commitment-phobe, I elected to hover off to the side. I did eventually join the choir but kept membership at arm’s length.
John Elmquist was the man playing the bass that first Sunday. He’s the church’s musical director. While Pastor Koch’s accepting words captured my attention intellectually, John’s musical talent and choir direction hooked me spiritually.
Almost every Sunday, there was something unconventional in the music. Sure we sang traditional Lutheran hymns, but we also sang Bob Marley. On occasion the pipe organ would get played but then there would be an African talking drum or a Tibetan singing bowl. It was amazing. The choir also recorded albums!
After joining the choir, word got out that I had a karaoke setup in the basement of my house. I was always sheepish about mixing church life with my personal home life. I wasn’t exactly sure just how accepting these people would be in my basement studio with a fully stocked wet bar especially since I start dropping f-bombs after a few belts. After some prodding, I gave in and hosted a karaoke party for the choir. Note to self: If you ever want to have a successful karaoke party—invite your church choir.
For Ray and me, Ebenezer became part of our lives. I went to services and tried to keep an open mind. Ray worked on committees and helped with repair projects around the church. (Yes, Andersonville was becoming rather affluent but this 100 year-old church, like many other churches, didn’t have a lot of money for upkeep).
Over time, Arizona beckoned and along with friends, colleagues and neighborhoods, Ebenezer got left behind. We tried to find something similar to fill the void in Bisbee but we soon realized that Ebenezer was in a class by itself. You don’t really know what you have until it’s gone.
My pessimistic views on Christianity slowly returned and after a horrifying bought of Sarah Palin in the presidential race, I had quickly become a foaming-at-the-mouth critic of all things Christian. Then, just as I was eagerly dismissing my views toward Christianity, just as my agnostic ideas started leaning towards atheism, Pastor Koch decided to retire. I could just reach over and slap him for it.
During his last sermon at Ebenezer, Pastor Koch spoke of how much of a rebel Jesus was. He reminded us that Jesus accepted all people and in doing so was considered abrasive to the contemporary society of that era.
Many years ago, it was Paul Koch, who opened up our church to the GLBT community. He was the man who was considered abrasive by the church and the community. Long-standing members left because of this but that didn’t phase him because he was exemplifying the man who’s life sparked all of Christianity—Jesus. A spiritual ton of Jesus bricks rained down on my head. My mind was reeling. I was going to have to rethink this whole thing.
After the service, I was speaking to an active member of the church who is lesbian. I brought up my experience to her. She told me that many straight people in the church came specifically because of the rainbow flag on the marquee. They wanted to belong to a church that, like Jesus himself, accepted everybody. A lot of the GLBT community came to the church because of the straight members. They didn’t want to belong to a church that was exclusively gay. “Maybe Christianity and I could get along” I thought.
My biggest struggle is the intellectual conflict I have with the Bible. Adam and Eve, creationism, virgin birth, rising from the dead and all the miracles that miraculously don’t happen anymore are a load of crap as far as I’m concerned. Then you have your blatantly hypocritical religious leaders who repeatedly screw people over and then simply wipe the slate clean with ®God’s Forgiveness as if it were just sprayed out of an aerosol can.
Jim and Tammy Bakker bilked millions of dollars from gullible believers for their own personal gain. We have seen countless examples where “men of God” are caught with their pants down like Reverend Ted Haggard who after it was revealed he was getting it on with another man stated, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”
Warring against the repulsive and dark part of your life?? Did it really feel repulsive when you were having sex with another man Ted? I beg to differ. If it did, you wouldn’t do it. Who in the hell performs repulsive acts over and over again for years? Does that mean Mr. Haggard has CRD–Compulsive Repulsive Disorder?
At the coffee hour after the service, I was discussing my struggle with a friend who admitted that she too shared some of my conflicts. There was so much clutter around Christianity that gave it a bad name and some of the Bible is so scientifically ridiculous that she eventually started referring to herself as “A Follower of Christ”.
I never thought of it that way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There was no sudden epiphany. I’m not all saved and I certainly didn’t get on my knees and repent but I did stay on my feet and rethink my spiritual journey.
I personally can’t follow Christianity mainly because over the years the Bible has been subject to translational error and the focus of its content seems to be governed by members of the Church for their own benefit. (Read Leviticus and then ask yourself if you’ve ever seen Fred Phelps in front of a Red Lobster holding a God Hates People Who Eat Shellfish sign.)
A Christian friend of mine once compared Jesus and the Bible to an oyster. “You have to dig through the muck to find the shiny pearl” he proclaimed. That being said, I realized that perhaps I can relate to the ideas and teachings of Jesus Christ. He basically told us to love one another and seemed to be more concerned with the downtrodden (as opposed to the affluent Jesus-wants-us-to-have-wealth people with big hair and shiny white teeth).
I do believe in the existence of Jesus but since he was not a contributing writer to the Bible and the people who wrote about him did so many years after he was dead, I just can’t follow the entire Christian religion thing. It’s way too flawed.
As I was walking out of the church, I hugged Pastor Koch and his wife Sharon telling them that I had recently become agnostic and was on the brink of atheism but this trip to Chicago had brought me back around to look at the other facets of my spiritual journey. I wasn’t quite ready to give up the notion that there may be some supreme being out there.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find a happy medium with any organized religion…but I do know, underneath the brouhaha of all belief systems, there is a shiny pearl of truth.