Around the diocese, congregations are pursuing mission through the arts
For centuries the church, at its best, has served as a center of community life. From medieval stained glass windows to contemporary exhibits and performances, the creative arts have helped congregations welcome their neighbors, express the Christian call to service, enhance congregational life, and become known within their communities.
In the Diocese of Chicago, congregations of all sizes use concerts, art shows, photography, poetry readings and other art forms in ministry to their congregations and communities.
Hope for Health in South Sudan: St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn
Since 2005, St. Barnabas has hosted an annual concert of gospel, jazz and classical music to benefit the Renk Medical Clinic in South Sudan. Each year, the concert raises about $10,000 for a clinic that stays open until medical supplies run out. And they always run out.
“We’re a very small church, but we’ve always had a commitment to outreach and we’ve always had a passion for the arts,” said Shirley Holt, a founder of the annual concert. “It’s pretty amazing because the first time we did it, we didn’t have the concept that it would be an annual event. I remember our priest (the Rev. Matthew Alan Gunter, now bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac) said, ‘You should probably book it for next year!’ Everybody just took hold of the rope.”
The Renk clinic, administered by the Episcopal Diocese of Renk in South Sudan, is in the Upper Nile State. The area is populated by farmers, herders and refugees from the civil war in South Sudan, as well as refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. The clinic sees roughly 9,000 patients per month, with people often walking 10 to 20 miles to get medical care.
Renk and the Diocese of Chicago have had a companion relationship since 2001. Shortly after it was established, Daniel Deng Bul, then bishop of Renk and later archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, visited St. Barnabas and shared stories of his country’s dire needs. The seed for a benefit concert was planted.
“Because I’m a nurse, I wanted to know about health care,” Holt said. “There was no health care at that time in the village of Renk. There had been a clinic, but it had been closed for several years. The idea of having whole sections of a country without health care was alarming. That just kind of bored itself into my head.”
All of the funds raised by the free-will offering concert are sent directly to the Diocese of Renk. St. Barnabas underwrites all other costs, and the professional musicians—more than ten, most years— donate their time and talent.
“Over the years between 100 and 200 people attend the event,” Holt said. “Very early we set our goal at $10,000. I realize that that’s not much money in the grand scheme of things, but it goes a long way in South Sudan.
“I think it has become part of the fabric of St. Barnabas.”
The Rev. Natalie Van Kirk, who was rector of St. Barnabas until October, agrees.
“The South Sudan ministry is a very big part of St. Barnabas’s identity. Even when people move away, they come back to participate in the concert. And because all of us have contacts in other denominations, it was been a pretty ecumenical event.”
Noting that the congregation has about 170 members, Van Kirk said, “What they do here is pretty phenomenal for this size congregation.” In addition to the concert for South Sudan, St. Barnabas also sponsors an annual concert to raise money for the DuPage County’s program to end homelessness.
“They do a tremendous amount,” Van Kirk said of St. Barnabas’s parishioners. “And we’ve always been blessed with really talented artists, especially musicians.”
Arts & Outreach: Emmanuel, Rockford
Almost six years ago, three parishioners at Emmanuel wrote a diocesan grant proposal designed to showcase the arts while also deepening parishioners’ spirituality.
“We really wanted to create programing that would address the need for additional spiritual offerings and bring in people from the community,” said Millie Zimmerman, one of the three who drafted the original proposal. “Our rector was just leaving, and in preparation for that, our parish conducted a survey. One finding was our parishioners wanted to do more in the way of spirituality. Plus, our church is right on the border of the downtown area of Rockford, which was enjoying an organic revitalization and was really flourishing. We were well aware that we were on the edge of that excitement, and we wanted to reach out to that community.”
At first their goal for the new program, titled Aspire, was a bit nebulous, Zimmerman admits. But over the years, the initiative has matured into a program that facilitates arts and spirituality outreach through musical events, art shows, lectures, poetry readings, film series, spiritu- ality and meditation classes … you name it.
The Rev. Bill Nesbit, interim rector since February, notes Emmanuel’s commitment to serving its neighbors.
“I believe Aspire has … helped establish our identity in the collective consciousness. We have improved
the awareness of who and where we are.”
“Emmanuel has really stayed connected to its neighborhood community,” Nesbit said. “We work together with other nearby churches to expand our impact. We get about 140 to 150 worshipers in on any given Sunday, but our impact on the community goes so much further. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says that the goal of evangelism is not to grow the church but to change the world. We may not be changing the world, but we are changing our little corner of it for the better.”
Zimmerman said the first art show, which showcased parishioners’ artwork, helped members of the congregation get to know one another in new ways.
“We have artists, potters, sculptors, photographers, people who did architectural drawings,” she said. “We spent the entire evening walking around and saying, ‘I didn’t know that person could do that!’ It was just wonderful.
“The committee was really energetic at first. Really robust but perhaps out of control. We may have had too many things going. We’re still strong, but we’re not out of control.”
This year the Aspire program offered a spring poetry reading and an ongoing summer film series featuring “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the documentary “RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg” and “Beautiful Boy.” Films chosen each year deal with social justice issues and are preceded by a light supper and followed by a discussion. The film series is a free-will offering, but there is a $10 charge for the poetry readings. About 30 people attend the film nights. The poetry readings draw about 60 people.
Zimmerman said Emmanuel’s outreach through the arts serves primarily as a way to enhance the lives of parishioners and members of the community.
“In addition to enriching the lives of our congregation and the community, I believe Aspire has enhanced the city’s awareness of our name and place and helped establish our identity in the collective consciousness. We have improved the awareness of who and where we are.”
This fall the Aspire program did something completely new. On November 2 the church celebrated Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with a full day of activities for adults and children. In addition
to a screening of the movie “Coco,” there was a catered Mexican lunch, a mariachi band, and a dance presentation by the Rockford Dance Company. Attendees decorated the Resurrection Garden and helped create a Day of the Dead altar in the narthex.
“People were encouraged to bring whatever mementos they wanted to put on the altar to remember their loved ones,” Zimmerman said. “The mariachi band took us outside so we could put marigolds on the graves in the Resurrection Garden.”
Zimmerman hoped the event would appeal to the significant Mexican and Central American population in Rockford.
“I personally have always felt that on All Saints’ Day, while we’ve always had a proper Anglican service, we weren’t doing what we needed to do to honor our ancestors,” Zimmerman said.
Making Music, Changing Lives: St. George’s, Macomb
With 28 members, St. George’s Church in Macomb may be one of the smallest congregations in the Diocese of Chicago, but when it comes to community impact, it punches above its weight.
For the past five years the church has awarded music scholarships to one or two students at nearby Western Illinois University and hosted concerts to raise funds for their living expenses. In exchange, the students perform at the congregation’s Sunday services, held in a rented space on University Drive near their school.
“Our students from Western Illinois University say the music department there calls us ‘the music church’,” said the Rev. Paula Engelhorn, rector of the church. “I love that.”
Scholarship recipients call it “a blessing.” Many are on full university musical scholarships, but need money for food and incidentals.
“The entire church is filled with wonderful humans and I am very thankful to have them in my life!” said Luciana Hontilă, a Romanian violinist who played at St. George’s for three years. This fall, she began a doctoral program in music at the University of Iowa.
“They are my family here in the United States,” Hontilă said. “Mother Paula and Mr. John (Engelhorn’s husband) have been a huge blessing for my family and me. They have been the most generous, supportive, kind and loving people since we met them.”
In August, nearly 90 people attended a St. George’s-sponsored violin concert featuring Hontilă, her father, Claudiu, a renowned Romanian violinist, and her younger brother Vlad, who also received scholarships from St. George’s while at WIU. The concert raised about $2,000, much of which will go toward Vlad’s living expenses at the Manhattan School of Music, where this year, in his first semester, he was chosen as concertmaster.
“It was extraordinary,” Engelhorn said of the concert and the turnout. “People said they’d have to pay $200 for a concert like that in Chicago. We didn’t believe how much we made. The Hontilăs are a wonderful family. Vlad lived with us for two years. It was really hard to let him go.”
Luciana and Vlad overlapped as musicians at St. George’s, much to Luciana’s delight.
“Our musical ministry has been tremendous. The Holy Spirit has led us since the time we started here.”
“We were providing the musical background every Sunday for all the hymns and unique preludes and postludes,” she said, “and we organized some other church-related musical events to fundraise for our scholarships. The connection we had with the parishioners was and still is very valuable to me. Such a wonderful community!”
Recipients of St. George’s music scholarships receive $800 to play every Sunday during a semester, $400 to play every other Sunday, and honorariums for playing at special events. The church also pays a student organist $60 a week.
“The church was very generous and supportive of our path as musicians,” Luciana said. “It was so helpful! I used it for music supplies such as new strings, accessories and many times for food and books, train tickets, depending where the need was at that time.”
This year St. George’s welcomes a new crop of musicians. Engelhorn said a talented freshman violinist, Madalyn Pridemore, will play every Sunday during each semester and cellist Nathalie Joy Hernandez will play every other week.
“Our musical ministry has been tremendous,” Engelhorn said. “The Holy Spirit has led us since the time we started here.”
The Episcopal congregation lost its home on East Carroll Street, Macomb, a little more than 10 years ago when what was then the Diocese of Quincy and about 60 percent of its members broke away from the Episcopal Church and became founders of the conservative Anglican Church of North America.
Though still small, the Episcopal congregation has doubled in size since 2011, when a dozen members held services in Engelhorn’s living room. It’s now outgrowing its rented space on University Drive.
“We can only do so much,” Engelhorn said of their limited finances. “It’s been a struggle but a good one, and we’re very happy with our music success. For me, it’s a labor of love.
(photos by Todd Welvaert; courtesy of St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn and Emmanuel, Rockford)