Before I went to McCormick Theological Seminary I went to Harvard Divinity School to study comparative world religions. I thought I would go on to get a Ph.D. and teach comparative religion. I never thought I would become a minister, because at the time I didn’t even identify as a Christian.
I had a negative experience of Christianity as a child and was told as a pre-teen that I wasn’t a Christian because I didn’t believe the right things in the right ways. Sadly, no one presented to me the range of beliefs that Christians have held throughout the centuries or the importance of communities of practice for forming Christian identity.
I was spiritually homeless for awhile, and faithful people of other religious traditions helped me experience my connection to God. Eventually I reconnected with the Christian faith of my childhood through a small Presbyterian Church in South Boston which welcomed me exactly as I was and helped me to learn about a generous and dynamic Christianity.
As my call to ministry began to unfold, a Presbyterian elder suggested that I look into McCormick Theological Seminary. She knew that I needed a place where my developing Christian faith would be protected and nurtured. I needed the freedom to wrestle with my religious questions and an invitation to enter into the dynamic theological conversation which has characterized Christianity since its inception. McCormick provided that for me—a grounding in rich tradition, an exposure to theological diversity, an education in history along with a seeking for the future.
When I graduated in 2002, I began to seek in call in parish ministry, never anticipating that I would end up as a new church development pastor, organizing an experimental church. The Presbytery of Chicago wanted to engage people who had negative past experiences with the church—those who were not attending churches and might not darken the doorway of a traditional church. I accepted their call and began a ministry of encounter in Wicker Park on the west side of Chicago.
Spirituality discussions in coffee shops, book discussion groups in tea houses, poetry jams for peace, and bible studies in participants’ homes characterized the first couple of years. From that came the vision for Wicker Park Grace, an exploration of grace-based faith—a new church development of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2005 we began meeting in an art gallery in Wicker Park, and now we gather weekly for Sunday evening worship, fellowship, discussion and education. Our participants range in age from 3-95, we have several babies on the way, and we recently celebrated our first infant baptism.
We are still a fledgling community, partnering actively with ten Presbyterian churches in the Chicago region and friends throughout the nation. We’re committed to sharing what we’re learning and how we’re experimenting and exploring ecclesiology (who we are “as church”), theology (how we talk about God), liturgy (how we worship) and polity (how we organize ourselves in community). One of our young adult leaders grew up in a Presbyterian Church in Michigan, and the church which raised her recently adopted Wicker Park Grace as a mission and sends salary support for their missionary to Chicago (me!). Church partnerships help us to keep going, and hopefully our partnerships with them help them to keep growing.
Being experimental means that we actively entertain questions about who we are as church. We use contemporary arts, visual and musical, to tell the Jesus Story in moving and meaningful ways. We reach deeply into Christian tradition, but try not to get stuck there. A recent McCormick field study student (we’ve had one for each of the last five years) said that her training at Wicker Park Grace required that she develop a firmer grasp of why traditions have developed as they have so that she could translate them into meaningful forms in the present.
McCormick prepared me for my ministry by giving me strong grounding in tradition along with the courage to take risks for our future. Being familiar with past reformations in the church allows me not only to say what the reformers said, but also to try to do what the reformers did—to live into a faith which is meaningful today and the best we can do at this time.
You can read more about Wicker Park Grace at www.wickerparkgrace.net. Rev. Nanette Sawyer is also the author of Hospitality—the sacred art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome, published by Skylight Paths, 2008. It is available at http://tinyurl.com/hospitality-sacred-art and by calling 800-962-4544.