|Comment on this report, or find other reports.
|Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you'd like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.
|Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.
United, Oak Park, Illinois, USA
United, Oak Park, Illinois, USA.
Church (USA) and United
Church of Christ.
Dating from 1917, it is the work of the architects Holmes and
Flinn (later Patton, Holmes and Flynn), an early 20th century
firm that designed many buildings in the Chicago area. Author
Ernest Hemingway was baptized in this church. It is in the American
Gothic Revival style, with transept arms ending in half-octagon
spaces. One of these is used for the choir and organ console,
and the other acts as a transition space at the doors leading
to the social hall and entrance from the parking lot. The west
doors (actually south-facing) open out to the famous Unity Temple
by Frank Lloyd Wright, which was Wright's first public commission
and the last surviving building from his Prairie period.
The congregation had its beginnings in 1863, when thirteen devout
souls (including the grandparents of Ernest Hemingway) gathered
in a wooden schoolhouse. Out of that meeting grew two congregations,
one Presbyterian and one Congregational, who merged in 1975
to form First United Church. The present congregation seem like
a vital and lively bunch of main line Protestants, enjoying
their sociable and socially-conscious community. The two parent
congregations were long-time champions of social justice, and
today First United continues that advocacy by (quoting from
their website) "empowering people by changing structures
rather than providing charity alone, to open the path to long-term
well-being." A member, speaking to me following the service,
noted that a recent increase in the number of the children in
the congregation was driven by the growing number of gay and
lesbian couples in the area having children.
The people of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, are keenly aware
of their architectural history and quality of life the village
affords them. Ernest Hemingway was born and raised here (although
Oak Park was part of the town of Cicero at the time). Of Oak
Park, Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "So many churches
for so many good people to go to." In addition to Unity
Temple, First United also has Grace Episcopal Church as its
neighbor one block to the west. Lake Street, on which the church
sits prominently, is a retail and business corridor, with restaurants,
movie theater, and the Lake Street elevated train (CTA) right
The Revd Kent Organ, interim lead pastor, officiated. He was
assisted by the Revd Rob Leveridge, associate pastor for membership
and congregational care, and the Revd Marylen Marty-Gentile,
associate pastor for children and family ministries. William
Chin, director of music ministries, and Michael Surratt, organist,
were in charge of the music.
The date & time:
September 22, 2013, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Around 300 people in the pews, so close to half filled. The
building seats around 1000 when the balcony is available; it
is currently draped off as work is happening on the south-facing
rose window. Without the large balcony, the remaining pews accommodate
about 600. There was a nice mix of old and young.
Did anyone welcome you
Yes. Ushers were most welcoming and cordial passing out the
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard old wood pews, with fairly heavily-padded seats.
How would you describe the pre-service
It was quite chatty and sociable, rather than the quiet-prayerful
(or sometimes just under-caffeinated) pre-service hush found
in many churches.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning, everyone!" were the first words following
the prelude. That led into a more extended greeting and spoken
What books did the congregation use during the
The Presbyterian Hymnal plus the service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A large-ish pipe organ filled the wall behind the clergy seating and pulpit.
Did anything distract you?
I would have to say no, although I judged some of the interior
appointments to be less than successful (for example, a hanging
cross composed of five white boxes and possibly lighted inside
during evening services). There were a number of children around
me who were as perfectly behaved as one could hope for, including
three blond girls looking very much like younger versions of
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was a main-line Protestant hymn sandwich (no communion this
week). It got a little clappier toward the end with the famous
Lilies of the Field "Amen" (complete
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Pastor Kent Organ was very effective and seemed comfortable
speaking to this congregation.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
It was a solid liberal theology social gospel message
relating to the reading from Luke 16:19-31, the story of the
rich man and Lazarus. His main point was that we are all in
this together, and that the recent increase in income inequality
is not Godís will for us.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
They did nice traditional hymns and did not seem prone to incorporating
praise bands or contemporary music. Their website also indicates
a fairly full calendar of concerts of sacred music and jazz.
William Chin is a very active conductor of several ensembles
outside this church choir, and brings those ensembles to perform
in the space.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing was objectionable or even irritating. I would have to
revert to my criticism of the white box cross as the only thing
I would change.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, as I moved toward the west transept doors to the social
room, a lady with a deacon name-badge engaged me in conversation.
Then a couple of other members joined us at the coffee hour.
They didn't seem too disappointed (well, maybe a little) when
I told them I was just visiting and that I generally attend
another church across town. Conversation and greeting strangers
came easily for them. Younger families with children to wrangle
seemed more preoccupied, as you would expect.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
Decent urn coffee served in china cups (which is a nice touch,
preventing styrofoam cups being thrown in a land-fill). There
were cookies, but I didn't try one. I heard that by tradition
they serve no alcohol in the building, which eliminates most
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 Very nice place, but I would miss more Anglican music
and communion at every service. Itís not what I am used to,
but it suits many people quite well.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Sure. First United Church seems to be fulfilling its mission
quite well, maintaining worship and parish life and keeping
a large 100-year old building and grounds in beautiful repair.
Friendly and gracious neighborhood churches like this one (even
though bare of statuary and images) are very significant parts
of the quality of life in Oak Park, even for those who never
walk through the doors. On the other hand, if all the mega-churches
in the country folded tomorrow and were demolished, almost no
significant art or architecture would be lost.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
I left with the general feeling that this was one traditional
Protestant congregation that didnít need light jazz combos or
gimmicks to compete with mega-churches.
|We rely on voluntary donations to stay online. If you're a regular visitor to Ship of Fools, please consider supporting us.
|The Mystery Pilgrim
| One of our most seasoned reporters makes the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Read here.
| Read reports from 70 London churches, visited by a small army of Mystery Worshippers on one single Sunday. Read here.