CHICAGO (RNS) — There was an accordion player framed by twinkle lights in the doorway of the church and a fire pit on the sidewalk outside fighting back the cold and darkness of a windy, mid-November evening in Chicago, occasionally sending up a shower of sparks.
The Rev. Rebecca Anderson, co-pastor of Gilead Church Chicago, had imagined the overall mood of the evening would be “bittersweet, like sad clown” or “tiny apocalyptic carnival.”
But the dozen or so people masked and distanced in the glow of the fire and twinkle lights were surprisingly cheery, exchanging greetings from afar, for an event pitched as The Beer Release at the End of the World.
It’s hard not to be joyful seeing friends face to face, however briefly, during this time of pandemic, said the Rev. Vince Amlin, who co-pastors the church with Anderson.
“What this year has taught me as a pastor is the tenacity of the community that we’ve been part of forming,” Amlin said.
“People keep showing up, and it doesn’t matter how cold it is and how apocalyptic. People are hungry for togetherness, for meaning, for witnesses to their lives, and that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
The beer release party was hosted Wednesday night (Nov. 18) by Gilead, which describes itself as a “progressive, inclusive, creative community of Christian faith” on the city’s north side.
Church members stopped by throughout the evening to pick up the wreaths they’d ordered for the coming Advent season — OK, so they were actually cardboard drink holders filled with Advent-themed beers and topped with a green ribbon and white candle to light on Christmas Eve.
That felt about right for 2020, especially days after Chicagoans headed into a stay-at-home advisory amid a dangerous increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“Taking the tradition of the wreath and making it beer feels Gilead — and 2020, when you need these high ABV (alcohol by volume) beers to mark the end of surviving another week and getting a week closer in Advent to the end of this calendar year,” Amlin said.
Gilead didn’t set out to become a “beer-brewing” church, according to Anderson. The pastors had envisioned a “storytelling” church, building its services around the practice and making its first core principle: “Tell true stories.”
But a member of the team that launched the church nearly four years ago suggested partnering with a homebrewer or microbrewery to create a Gilead beer that might help get the word out about the new congregation, which is supported by both the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ.
It worked: The church’s first beer release party on St. Patrick’s Day 2017 landed it on The Today Show.
It also fit into the new church’s values, like making things from scratch, and another core principle: “Throw great parties and make real friends.”
Since then, Gilead has thrown a beer release party every year as a fundraiser.
In more normal times, the church also meets in bars and practices what Anderson called a “theology of parties”: The good news should feel like good news, she explained. Jesus himself took heat for being a “party guy.” And the Bible is full of stories about God throwing a party or offering a quiet meal when it’s needed, according to the pastor.
“We are pretty invested in party theology,” said Anderson. “In a culture where loneliness is endemic, parties seem like a kind of low-bar entry point to community in some way.”
This year, the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced that community, like so many other congregations across the country, to rethink how it gathers.
Sunday night services mostly have been on Zoom since March, Anderson said. The pastors knew right away they couldn’t host a party this summer with stories and toasts.
But they still wanted to try to do something special for Advent, the liturgical season observed by many Christians leading up to Christmas, and they once again turned to beer.
“Advent is famously about marking time, and we are in this period of marking time with the pandemic,” she said. This year, Advent begins Sunday, Nov. 29.
Gilead partnered with Chicago’s Burning Bush Brewery to create an Advent wreath marking the four weeks of Advent — not with traditional candles, but with three purple-labeled bottles of beer and one pink.
The beers are seasonal brews at Burning Bush, opened by the Rev. Brent Raska last winter after the dwindling Presbyterian church he pastored in suburban North Riverside closed.
Raska has found a lot of overlap between his roles as pastor and brewmaster, both drawing on his passion for fellowship, conversation and giving back to the neighborhood. It’s about building community, he said, not evangelizing.
“A lot of especially 20-, 30-somethings might never walk into a church, but they’ll walk into a brewery,” he said.
Many of his beers — Sermon on the Malt, an English mild ale; Red Sea, a red-hued raspberry kettle sour; Forbidden Fruit, an apple ale; NCT (New Chicago Translation), a Czech-style Pilsner — take their names from the faith. So does the name of the brewery, which is inspired by Moses’ life-changing encounter with a burning bush in the biblical book of Exodus.
“The fact that God showed up and was there in the community and was faithful to his promises, I think, says a lot about our faith and community,” Raska said.
The “wreaths” distributed Wednesday evening outside Bethany United Church of Christ, another church Anderson and Amlin pastor, included three bottles of Comfort, Comfort, which is a blood orange and honey Double IPA renamed by Gilead for the occasion. They also included an Imperial Stout named Brood of Vipers after Jesus’ words calling out hypocritical religious leaders in the Gospel of Matthew.
The latter, according to the description on Gilead’s website, “packs a punch, calls it like it sees it, and celebrates the joy of burning down what needs to be burned down.”
Like a pandemic, Advent is a little apocalyptic, a time when Christians not only remember waiting for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but also look forward to his second coming.
For Gilead, though, it’s mostly about the party, bittersweet though it may be.
“It’s much more about the gathering and being together and taking any excuse for any scale of celebration when that is so hard to do right now,” Anderson said.