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2349: Grace Place, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Grace Place, Chicago (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Hector the Lector.
The church: Grace Place, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Chicago.
The building: Although Grace Church was established in 1851 and has occupied several locations in its 150 years, its home since 1985 has been a brick commercial building that was renovated into a loft-sanctuary on the second floor, with a large open hall on the ground floor used for church and community affairs. The circular sanctuary space has large wooden beams and overhead pipes befitting its industrial heritage, but feels intimate and contained due to being enclosed by circular structures that suggest traditional church walls and Gothic windows. The cross above and behind the altar looked like a steel girder plate.
The church: In addition to long-term residents of the neighborhood, Grace reaches out to the nearby college communities (Columbia University Chicago, Roosevelt University). The booklet insert provided details about programs (adult spiritual formation, discussion groups, movie nights) and ministries (sack meals taken to Humboldt Park, worship services for college students, community breakfasts). Their website also has useful information about these.
The neighborhood: It's in the heart of Chicago's South Loop/Printers Row neighborhood. The South Loop, the historic commercial center of downtown Chicago, is also home to city government buildings and cultural institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony, and the Joffrey Ballet. Printers Row is a neighborhood of exposed brick buildings originally used by printing and publishing businesses, and now mainly converted into residential lofts.
The cast: The Revd Ted Curtis, rector, presided. He was assisted by the Revd Deacon Sue Nebel. The guest preacher was Christine Wenderoth, Ph.D., associate professor of ministry, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, and director of the JKM Library at McCormick Seminary, Chicago. Jing Qiao was the guest violinist.
The date & time: March 4, 2012, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Full – about 70 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but friendly eye contact as people passed my seat.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews at Grace Place! Individual chairs, such as one might find in an office waiting area, with cushioned seats and backs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet with whispered conversations. Young children weren't shushed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed are you, Holy and Living One."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No prayer books or hymnals to juggle (no pew racks to hold them), since everything – hymns, liturgy, scripture readings – was in a photocopied booklet.

What musical instruments were played?
Baby grand piano and violin. The guest violinist, Jing Qiao, played three a prelude (Bach?) and again during the offering and at the end of the service.

Did anything distract you?
As an architecture buff and survivor of a recent kitchen remodeling, I was pleasantly distracted by the physical space: high, open ceilings above me crossed by a network of water pipes, thick wooden support beams, the brick outer walls.

Grace Place, Chicago (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was relaxed but intentionally and simply prayerful. Stripped down to essence – like the physical space – but this may also be due to my visiting during Lent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Professor Wenderoth was direct, conversational, personal.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Her text was Mark 8:34-35 ("Let them deny themselves ... those who want to save their live will lose it, and those who lose their life ... will save it"). She said that her week of preparation had been haunted by worries about her adult son. Life is hard sometimes, but we don't have to be alone. We have our communities of support along the way, and we have Jesus, who chose his own difficult journey.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The two minutes of silent reflection following the sermon.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not quite hellish, and entirely of my own making. As a visitor, I felt shy during the exchange of peace. Parishioners were sincerely friendly and welcoming, and seemed accustomed to moving about the sanctuary to greet everyone. I stayed close to my chair and felt obvious for doing so. A good think to remember when I greet visitors at my home church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A woman said hello and apologized for not recognizing me if I had been to Grace before. We had a nice conversation about Grace's history and my reasons for visiting Chicago.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, juice, cake and fruit. No chairs or tables; people visited standing up.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The programs and ministries described in the booklet would appeal to me.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The intimate sanctuary space and the warm community.
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