Mystery Worshipper: Gwai
Church: First Methodist
Location: The Chicago Temple, Chicago, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 3 August 2006, 5:15pm
The Chicago Temple was dedicated in 1924 as an ambitious 26-story skyscraper, the tallest in Chicago at the time. As far as style goes, the architecture sits somewhere between skyscraper and cathedral. Floors five through 21 are rented out, and are mostly inhabited by law offices. This gives the edifice an interesting and somewhat unusual atmosphere. Also worth noting is the peaceful courtyard outside the building (a wondrous thing in downtown Chicago!) and a set of stained glass windows that details the history of the church. Once you get inside, on the lowest floor you find a very large sanctuary that can hold 1,000 people, while the top floor has the Sky Chapel where I attended service.
First United Methodist Church is the longest-standing congregation in Chicago and the headquarters of the UMC in the city. The congregation is therefore quite large and interestingly diverse.
The Chicago Temple is smack in the heart of Chicago's downtown. This is the area where you see men in suits jogging, old ladies jaywalking and traffic waiting. From the Magnificent Mile (shopping district) to the buildings near the law courts, it's one of the largest and certainly the busiest neighborhoods in town. However, it's certainly not one of the more religious neighborhoods, so The Temple and its steeple stand out against the backdrop of more modern architecture, with gigantic boxes of steel and glass.
Service was led by Cerna Castro Rand, associate pastor.
What was the name of the service?Evening Prayer Service.
How full was the building?
We had six people in a chapel that would be cramped if it were full with its official capacity of 30. Probably most of us came directly from work.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, actually every member of the congregation but one welcomed me. When I first arrived, I looked very authentically lost as I stood in the lobby and tried to figure out how to get to the "chapel in the sky." There were no signs at all (this will become a refrain) so it was quite fortunate that I met a friendly looking person who told me that I looked lost and said she was headed for the chapel, too.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were wonderfully comfortable: I sat on one portion of the arc near the back, with both plenty of space and a huge cushion beneath.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service, the atmosphere was quite friendly, but alternated between cramped and extremely exercised. We all met in the second floor lobby and rode up to the 22nd floor in an elevator. Here we alighted and pushed the button for a new elevator. It was very small and very, very slow, and took us up to the 25th floor. There were no signs to the chapel, but instead there was a staircase. It was the kind of staircase that claustrophobics probably have nightmares over: long enough to take you to St Peter, but skinny like an under-fed greyhound. There was some confusion over keys, but then we finally saw the chapel in the sky and it was worth the pilgrimage. Small, romantic and beautiful. I could see why tourists would come here so often.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
As soon as we all sat down, the pastor's first words were: "Has anyone seen the order of worship? No? We just replaced them! Oh well, we can do well enough without it."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The only books used were red copies of the New International Version of the Bible.
What musical instruments were played?
Not only did we not use musical instruments, we didn't sing!
Did anything distract you?
There was a gorgeous bas-relief in the front that must have taken eons to make. It showed Jesus looking out over Chicago (as I found out later, it matched the bas-relief downstairs of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem). Every important building from 1950s Chicago (when this was made) was there in full detail. Also, at the beginning of the service, the pastor asked us to turn off our cell phones, so of course it was her cell that went off. She protested afterwards: "I didn't know it could receive messages when it was off!"
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was quiet and worshipful.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon. Instead, we each began by reading a passage from the Bible. The passages varied from Corinthians to Isaiah, with Psalms in between. Afterwards, we did prayer requests. Although there were spaces in the formal order where people could have shared their own prayers, no one but the pastor did so.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One member had just lost his mother after a rough time and I thought it lovely that someone read verses particularly in memory of her. Also, during the generalized prayer requests, I mentioned that my husband had an interview the next day. The wonderful man who lost his mother promised to pray for my husband's interview. I was quite touched.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, it was pretty durned hard to get to the service! A friend of mine was supposed to join me for the service, but even though he was only one minute late, he never did find his way up to the Sky Chapel. Even if there had been signs, it took a key to operate that second, tiny elevator.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was difficult to look lost, since we'd all introduced ourselves beforehand. When the sermon ended, I was given an awesome tour of the chapel in the sky. They told me the history of the church and who had funded the Sky Chapel (the Walgreens, as in Walgreens Pharmacy). They also guided me around the different art work. In fact, one woman even opened up the stained glass windows and pointed out different buildings that matched the bas-relief.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As soon as my tour was done, we scurried out of the chapel and down the stairs. Then all of us crammed into that teeny, tiny elevator except for one (wise) man. It was all the more silly because the elevator was so slow that the one wise man who took the stairs had time to meet with someone about repairs or something on the way. And he still beat us downstairs.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The church is far away and I don't go for big. Still, if the normal services were as good as this one, I might well attend.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
A diverse group of caring people meeting to worship their God: yes, that is what I hope to see at a church. I was quite glad to be one of those people.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The bas-relief and the trek to the chapel stand out, but actually, I think I'll remember the beautiful service pretty well.