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Life stories — not sermons — guide Gilead Church in Chicago

A bartender pours a drink during a Gilead Church service at a Chicago gay bar on Feb. 17, 2019. RNS photo by Katelyn Ferral

CHICAGO (RNS) — In the purple upstairs lounge of a Chicago gay bar, JB Lee takes the stage in front of his fellow congregants to tell a life story: the time he, a self-described “Asian bro,” got high in Europe.

Ignoring the advice of a wise Dutch coffee shop purveyor, Lee explains, he and a friend ate a marijuana brownie in one sitting — a choice that fueled a crazed bicycle ride, grocery store orange juice binge and much vomiting.

He eventually ended up alone on a street curb, confused and shivering.

“At that moment, a stranger saw what was going on, took off her coat and covered me with it,” Lee said. “She called the ambulance, and the rest was history.”

As the bar church crowd cheered, the Rev. Vince Amlin proclaimed: “the word of God for the people of God.”

“The word of God for the people of God,” the congregants repeated.

JB Lee tells a story about a trip to Europe to the Gilead Church congregation during a service on Feb. 17, 2019, in Chicago. RNS photo by Katelyn Ferral

Decidedly irreverent and unconventional, Lee’s story is the centerpiece of what Gilead Church is about: connecting people’s everyday, true-life stories to the God they believe continues to work through them.

Here, life stories are treated with the same reverence other Christian traditions show Scripture. They are inherently spiritual, regardless of what they are about, said Amlin, who co-founded and co-pastors Gilead with Rev. Rebecca Anderson.

“Every story is a God story — not just the ones that seem like ‘oh I would tell this story at church,’ the shitty stories, the sexy stories, the failure stories, whatever they are,” Amlin said. “(That) life is sacred. That God chose to take on human life. That said something about human life.”

The practice of storytelling is the core of Gilead’s progressive theology, presented each week by different members of the congregation.

The stories, told in first person in front of a microphone, are layered between traditional church rituals — Communion, benediction — and less traditional ones, such as poetry readings, alcoholic drinks, and pop-song sing-alongs.

During the service last month where Lee told his story, the congregation sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and Cher’s “Believe,” among others.

The church has sermon themes that rotate and often involve input from the congregation: “Choose Your Own Adventure” was a recent theme in which a discussion of faith was laid out for the congregation like steps in the “Oregon Trail” computer game.

Gilead, which launched in May 2017, said its intent is to translate the teachings of Jesus in a new way for those who have eschewed church, especially young adults — many of whom continue to exit mainline Protestant congregations.

Gilead Church congregants meet outdoors near their garden. Photo by Jason Colston, courtesy of Gilead Church

The church’s Sunday night services, along with a slew of parties they are hosting this year, all aim to create community where people can share their unvarnished lives, ask hard questions and develop their faith.

“We are open and affirming, anti-racist, local, organic, slow-church, just peace, free range, real butter Christians,” according to the Gilead site. It has also printed the phrase on church T-shirts.

“It’s loud. It’s profane. It’s somewhat brash. It’s also really emotional… we hope we are hitting on something that is real for people,” said Amlin in an interview. “We are sharing true stories from our lives and that stuff hits hard.”

Gilead, which has about 50 attendees each week, is growing at what is a “Pentecost moment” for the mainline Christian church at large, Amlin said. It is a blend of denominations: Amlin is ordained in the United Church of Christ, while Anderson is ordained in the Disciples of Christ.

The concept for Gilead grew out of an annual dinner group Amlin and Anderson formed after meeting in divinity school at the University of Chicago. Both preachers come from creative backgrounds — Amlin with a degree in dramatic writing and Anderson with one in playwriting. They also teach storytelling workshops together on the side.

“We specifically saw ourselves as part of something that was already happening in our denominations but also more widely,” Amlin said. “It wasn’t like, ‘oh, we’re going to start something that is better or different from everything that is happening,’ but more like ‘there is this energy to do something new.’”

The name “Gilead” comes from the Bible and is a place in the Old Testament where a special healing balm is made and where a man named Jacob wrestles with God. The church similarly hopes to be a place of healing, where the wounded can be made whole.

The Rev. Rebecca Anderson addresses the Gilead Church congregation during service on Feb. 17, 2019, in Chicago. RNS photo by Katelyn Ferral

Throwing parties is one way Gilead hopes to become that place — attracting people who don’t go to church to connect them with people who do.

“Practically speaking, it’s a low-bar entry point to Gilead,” Anderson said.

But to be clear, the main point is fun. Because fun is Christ-like, too, she said.

“Jesus was kind of a party guy. He got invited to a lot of shit and said yes,” she said. “It’s just another expression of how we do church. In the Christian life, one of the fruits of the spirit is joy.”

A key perk to starting a new church from an old faith tradition is finding new paths to that joy, Amlin said.

“We don’t have to do things that we’ve always done,” Amlin said. “If we don’t have to do anything, what should we do? What’s fun? What’s exciting?”

Last month, the church rented a Chicago Transit Authority elevated train car, brought in a DJ, a caterer and threw a party as the train looped throughout the city.

Last summer the congregation brewed beer and had a release party for it: a Sex-Positive Summer Wheat Ale and Balm of Gilead Indian Pale Ale, a reference to the medicinal balm created in the Bible.

It is planning a dance party for Easter.

To kick off Lent? A fort-building party, naturally.

“We’re going to build forts, right after you give up forts for Lent,” Anderson tells laughing congregants. “It’s sort of a Mardi Gras fort building situation.”

Gilead Church members ride a CTA train around Chicago. Photo courtesy of Gilead Church

The church’s party initiative is funded, in part, through a grant from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary near Evanston. Garrett, which received $1.5 million from the Lilly Endowment, is funding 13 churches across the city with grants of up to $30,000 who are trying to attract young people and address issues of loneliness.

The five-year initiative is being rolled out in three phases and will be completed in 2021. The first phase centered on listening sessions with millennial churchgoers, which revealed some common concerns among them, said Jennifer Moe, the assistant director for the program.

“Young people have all of these skills and abilities, and they’re out there doing all these things with their work life, whether it’s artistic pursuits or activism or being entrepreneurs… (but) they feel like when they go to church, there’s no place for them,” Moe said. “The church sees them as valuable for just doing helpful work but not the main work of the church.”

Anderson said Gilead engages young people but emphasizes being a place for everyone, regardless of age, background, sexual orientation or doctrinal beliefs.

“Gilead is a ‘more is more’ community, so that actually, as a staff, we like to say, ‘if you’ve been told that you’re too much, Gilead is perfect for you!’” said Anderson.

The congregation is unapologetically Christian but, unlike more conservative evangelical denominations, does not require members to align on a set list of doctrines. The impetus, rather, is on being a space to ask questions, to wrestle.

“I am less about converting people than I am about saying if this stuff is beautiful or meaningful or lifesaving to you, it is yours for the having,” Anderson said. “We want to be a church by and for people who have been made to feel that the church is not for them.”

That environment is what drew Lee, this week’s storyteller, to Gilead. The 33-year-old dentist grew up in a conservative Korean-American Christian church. He became disenchanted with the tradition after seeing hypocrisy and abuse of power within the church. Gilead has helped grow his faith and find community, he said.

“It’s a place where even if you have a lot of questions, it’s OK,” Lee said. “It’s a place where questions are welcome and you don’t necessarily have to have some kind of conclusion. Doubts are encouraged.”

Anderson agrees. Gilead helps people develop muscles for seeing God, whether it’s in Scripture or in the world, she said.

It is working out its faith, one story at a time.

“It’s one translation,” she said. “It’s not for everyone, but the folks who it is for, this is the language of how they hear the Gospel.”

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