St Sabina’s, Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Illinois, USA

St Sabina's, Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Five Pints
Church: St Sabina's
Location: Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 October 2008, 11:15am

The building

A huge 1930s Gothic church, built when Auburn Gresham on Chicago's South Side was an Irish neighborhood. The interior has been beautifully transformed to reflect the African heritage of the majority of its worshippers: you immediately notice the African carved sanctuary furniture, including wooden sculptures, bright African altar vestments and furnishings, and a large baptistery. Most eye-catching is the huge image of a black Christ rising in the hands of God filling the Gothic reredos, above which is a huge neon sign spelling Jesus.

The church

St Sabina's is a very active faith community, with an array of ministries, including youth, Bible studies, an employment service, elders village (old people's flats), school, safe houses for foster children, etc. They have been dedicated to and hugely instrumental in the community re-generation of Auburn Gresham, which has taken its share of knocks over the years, but definitely seems like a neighborhood undergoing renewal.

The neighborhood

On Chicago's far South Side, Auburn Gresham was originally settled by Irish immigrants seeking jobs on the ever-expanding railroads. But as African-Americans settled in adjacent neighborhoods and the population of Auburn Gresham continued to grow, racial tensions increased along with the swell of cars and noise, and the Irish moved away. By 1970 Auburn Gresham had become a predominately African-American community, beset by urban blight and the civil and racial strife that hit the city in the previous decade. Today it is still a slightly grubby, blue collar, black neighborhood, but with a mix of residential, light industry and small businesses along the main streets that give it the feel of a neighborhood recovering and regenerating.

The cast

The Revd Dr Michael Louis Pfleger, pastor of St Sabina's since 1981, was celebrant and preacher. Father Pfleger is a well-known, even controversial, figure in the city. He is outspoken on issues of drugs, tobacco and alcohol billboards, racism and gun crime. He has robustly defended Jeremiah Wright (former pastor of another South Side church, Trinity United Church of Christ, where Barack Obama worships). Whenever a child dies in a shooting in the area, Father Pfleger leads local people to the government center in downtown Chicago, to protest. Father Pfleger's biography is extensively detailed on St Sabina's website. He was assisted by a deacon with the most regal set of dreadlocks I've ever seen. There were servers clad in African patterned tunics; the ushers, too, were smartly attired. The Spirit of David spiritual dancers moved into the sanctuary as the opening worship songs built up, led by the Levites Choir and St Sabina's musicians.

What was the name of the service?

The Faith Community of Saint Sabina's Celebration of the Eucharist

How full was the building?

Over half full at the start – there were probably about 700 there by the end.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher at the west door gave us a warm welcome as she handed us an orange sheet for us to write sermon notes on.

Was your pew comfortable?

Large, polished, wooden and generously upholstered.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It felt busy: people were coming in and greeting each other exuberantly, while others sat quietly waiting for worship to begin.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Lift up your praises to Jesus!" spoken by Father Pfleger as the procession moved down the central aisle and approached the sanctuary.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No mass book or hymnal – just the orange sheet, which also gave details of the scripture readings. Many had brought their own Bibles in which they followed the readings.

What musical instruments were played?

Electric organ, keyboard, violin, trumpet, saxophone (the saxophonist doubled as a flautist) and two drum sets.

Did anything distract you?

Just the sheer energy of what was going on around me: the Spirit of David Dancers, Levites Choir, and musicians all performing at the height of their talents were a sight to behold, with the congregation swaying, singing, clapping and shouting out praises. My jaw hit the ground as it all got into full flow.

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

To describe it as high-energy is an understatement. It was like I've never experienced before: liturgical Catholic meets black Pentecostal – on steroids! A mixture of both the formal and the informal. Mind you, these are good Catholics – they know their liturgy, but they weren’t constrained by staying glued to the text. No chanting, but fulsome singing with a strong gospel side, led by the Levites Choir and band. I detected a little singing in tongues at points. Lots of swaying, clapping, shouting and crying out during the singing, and lots of interpolations during the sermon. Candles and bells, but no incense. Heartfelt and extempore prayers without any waffle. People appeared happy the whole time. The congregation seemed riveted, but in a laid-back sort of way. The celebrant used an extempore eucharistic prayer that nonetheless remained very faithful to the prescribed liturgy. We joined hands across the church at the appointed time and were encouraged to share the peace with those around us.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

50 minutes.

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

10 – Father Pfleger wandered away a lot from the lectern, which was set at the front of the nave, and used a hand-held microphone. He began by welcoming everyone listening via live streaming internet around the country (including those in prison), and led a standing ovation to honor the Revd Jeremiah Wright (Barack Obama's former pastor), who was sitting, attempting anonymity, at the back of the gallery. A white man, Father Pfleger preached like a black Pentecostal, at one minute intimate and tender, the next booming so loudly and with such passion, I worried the arteries on his neck would burst. It was the loudest sermon I have ever heard, and certainly the most effective style I have witnessed. I noticed he got through at least two cloths to wipe the sweat from his face. At one point he broke off to lead us in a song which the musicians picked up on quickly, and he would get us to repeat his phrases to our neighbor. This was quite simply the best sermon I have heard for a few years ... and I've heard too many!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father Pfleger preached on Mark 2:1-12 (Jesus heals the paralytic man lowered through the roof on a stretcher). He referred to the forthcoming Presidential election and said, "We've got to come together to tackle the issues that are killing us," such as gun violence, food lines, absentee fathers, and racism. People came to the house in Capernaum hungry for Jesus, but they were fed to tackle the issues paralyzing people outside the house. When we are going through hell, do people see us declaring our victory or being a victim? There's nothing out there facing us that we can't change with faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The whole three-hour experience was as near to heaven as I could imagine. The music was spine-tingling, the sermon was rousing and totally applicable to the daily struggles of the hearers. There were no hymn books or screens; we just went with the flow, and people knew the shape of the service, including the eucharistic liturgy.

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

There was a team of bulky "stewards" clad in dark suits, with earpieces and discreet lapel mikes, who followed the procession in and kept an eye on the congregation as the service went on. I noticed some were joining in exuberantly with worship, but nonetheless, their hulking rather unnerved me each time I caught sight of one.

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

The service was concluded by Kimberly Lymore, associate minister, as Father Pfleger left after the eucharist to be a guest at the opening of South Side neighbor Louis Farrakhan's new Nation of Islam mosque. The church emptied quite quickly (perhaps people had other things to get on with after spending three hours in worship!) but I got chatting with a church member and went down to the shop and refreshments stall in the hall under the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We bought tacos with cheese and salsa and some fruit juice, which was very welcome at 2.30 in the afternoon.

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

10 – A compelling experience of joyful worship with a eucharistic community committed to putting God’s word into action in their daily lives to bring transformation in the community of Auburn Gresham and beyond.

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

Absolutely! These people were serious about their faith and its impact on the world around them.

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

The immense energy and joy of both people and priest – a white man who preaches like a black Pentecostal.

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