Help Me Roll Away the Stone


Chicago’s church buildings tend to be stout Gothic dowagers, fallen on evil times but retaining something of their grandeur as they are jostled by sleek, prosaic condominiums. Wicker Park Lutheran Church is a little different. It’s a blue-gray Romanesque edifice with graceful square towers and curved arches, a Blanche DuBois stranded in a high-steepled northern city. Up close, its distinctive granite gleamed with shiny specks, in stones salvaged from a brothel demolished in the early 20th century. The interior was another, more typically dank story. The plaster was peeling, the stained glass was mostly elsewhere, and the floor was tired. I’d been in a brothel and in many churches, and both benefit from low light, a little sparkle, and a lot of wine-red carpet.

I was at Wicker Park to meet Pastor Ruth VanDemark. I was a divinity school student looking for an internship site, sent to Ruth because of her scholarly background and her youthful congregation. She preached on the temptation of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor chapter from The Brothers Karamazov. We talked afterward. “This is my first call,” she told me—a Lutheran church “calls” a pastor to serve—“and it will be my last call.” She was a slight woman, somewhat older than I had expected. A church member who spoke no English had brought her a cake for Valentine’s Day.

I don’t remember anything else from that first conversation in 2005, but I thought of it often as Ruth struggled through her terminal illness. She died in June 2012, having served Wicker Park Lutheran Church for thirteen years. For four of them, we worked together in that unusual building, trying to give the bicycle messengers and investment bankers of Chicago’s protean nightlife and fashion epicenter a place to be still and something older and bigger than themselves to be part of.

The Wicker Park neighborhood was built by immigrant beer barons and industrialists who were excluded from Chicago’s Gold Coast. These Norwegian and German bourgeois, whose mansions still line the streets around North and Damen, founded the church in 1879 as the city’s first English-language Lutheran congregation. When they replaced the Gothic Revival original in 1906, they engaged a famous warehouse architect–Lutherans are practical people–who gave them something rarer and older in style, modeled rather ambitiously on a cathedral in Caen, France. “These stones,” Chicago’s mayor his reported to have said of the ex-brothel, “have served the devil long enough.” But a new church building is often a lagging indicator of a community’s religious makeup, and the neighborhood’s Lutheran population was cresting around the time it got its distinguished new home. The decades that followed saw the departure of congregants to the north and west, replaced first by Eastern European Jews and then by Puerto Rican and Polish Catholics. A few remarkable pastors (and a handful of unremarkable ones) shepherded the congregation through demographic change, World Wars, the decay of neighborhood housing, gang violence, the Division Street riot, the first signs of gentrification, and three distinct attempts by the regional church leadership to close it down.

Throughout this whole period, Chicago Lutheranism was in a frantic decline. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes had stopped coming to the U.S. decades before, and the ones who were already here were swiftly decamping their old neighborhoods as the patterns of housing segregation broke down. Some congregations embraced their new neighbors and survived, others didn’t and died. Along with the parish churches, a whole host of social and benevolent organizations dried up and blew away. No one who hadn’t been there would know to miss any of it—a city’s cultural empty lots are much less evident than its physical ones—but their absence changed the city. It was not only the Sunday-School attendance ribbons, white-suited ladies’ auxiliaries, gun ranges and chicken dinners of that lost world that vanished. Stodgy and middle class as Lutherans are, we tend to hail from egalitarian societies and have a commitment to social equity that can border on the ferocious. Our clergy were part of every march, every community-organizing movement, every racial-justice effort. A bunch of city pastors even ran for state office as a progressive alternative to the Democratic machine (they all, in case it needs to be said, lost). The city burned, and the church was consumed, but in the smoke the Lutherans of Chicago roared for a little fairness.

Church buildings that once centered whole neighborhoods vanished, fell into senescence, or were purchased by condo developers. Some became homes for Pentecostal congregations. Somehow, by wily, self-sacrificing leadership and completely unexpected tenacity, Wicker Park became one of those that hung on. This and other churches that remained were marginal. But it was an important margin in the constant churn of a gentrifying neighborhood in a stratified big city: one place that embodies an archaic notion of beauty, that offers fellowship and celebration to everyone who shows up, that provides a place to sit and be quiet and perhaps even sing without having to buy a cup of coffee or a beer, that gives you the chance to mingle with people older, less formally educated, less white than your usual milieu. The very oddity of the institution, and the fragility of its place in a cash-and-power-driven urban world, is what makes those places so important.

And that’s where Ruth showed up in 1999, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a prominent local attorney. She’d even been nominated by President Clinton to serve on the federal bench. The elfin-faced native of South Dakota loved traditional liturgy, big chasubles worn even in the heat of summer, and quoting Dostoyevsky in sermons. Her starched liturgical style and learned bearing were not to all tastes, but she was a fitting leader for a church that had gone from the center of the city to the proverbial long tail. There were some worthy heirs to the old-time Lutherans at Wicker Park, but many more people who would have been outliers in the church not long before: the single moms from the Section 8 building across the street, gays and lesbians, artists, Unitarians, professional do-gooders. Their piety was often accidental, unexpected, or embarrassing to them. They were like people who had inherited a vast mansion but no means with which to maintain it. At one point the masonry holding the stone towers together had become so fragile that they could have collapsed altogether. The building risked condemnation and the community’s pedestrians risked worse. An outside expert suggested arson as a capital campaign strategy. They were rebuilt with a mortgage, stone by repurposed stone.

Ruth and her husband, an eminent statistician, bought one of the renovated mansions on nearby Pierce Avenue. Their house was a place where there was always good conversation, often splendid food and wine (Ruth had spent a year working her way through The Art of French Cooking with Powellian dedication), and on one occasion, while she was away, a place to stash a wilting choir of Minnesota high-schoolers unaccustomed to worshiping without air conditioning. Ruth and I would meet there, in the sleek, well-kept environment at distinct odds with the ponderous interior of the church. Or we went to one of the motley crew of churches in the central city, old piles with chipped linoleum, wreathed in the smell of infinite urns of inexpensive coffee. Our colleagues, who included a military chaplain, a Sri Lankan Anglican priest, an African American ex-Baptist, and a gay man ordained outside of the church, worked ground as rocky as ours, or more, strangers in both our secular city and our suburban denomination.

The most obvious question to ask in such a group is “Why do you do this?” And yet it’s one I never thought to ask. I never even asked it of Ruth, whose brilliant legal mind, good taste, and independent means fitted her for so many things more prominent than trying to get a Sunday School for three children off the ground. As we scrambled to find ushers while church started, threw together some sandwiches in the basement for a dinner on the streets of Pilsen, gathered a few damp sticks for the Easter Vigil fire, stared at a church budget that was ugly even before the recession, or tried in vain to restart a furnace that had died in the night, leaving the December sanctuary cold as a stone, I never thought to ask her why she bothered with it all. Then again, I never thought to ask myself, and if I did not have her resources and her accomplishments, I at least still had my youth. It was a Wile E. Coyote sort of vocation—as long as your feet are spinning, you’re fine, but notice that you’re off the edge of the cliff and you’re lost.

And of course there were baptisms, weddings, festivals that came off without a hitch, chanted liturgy, hymns made unexpectedly angelic by the congregation, after-church parties with champagne and hand-made pastries, flower-planting parties in the little gardens, sermons and confirmation classes, that answered all those questions. Persevering against her skepticism, I brought Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen into worship. The church itself rallied under her watch. Not only did the congregation reverse the trend of decline, at least modestly, but the building played host to a community choir, a half-dozen Music Together classes, eight AA meetings, the occasional television crew, a Jazzercise class, and even a Methodist start-up church. The restored stained-glass marched back in, one Biblical scene at a time.

Ruth continued working through everything. She suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung in 2006 after a fall; she needed a surgical reconstruction of her spine in 2007, and then cancer treatments in 2008. The last of these was especially draining. Her furious perfectionism, which had always exceeded the possibility of fulfillment, fell a little farther out of joint with the daily tasks of the church. I worried about her. Our relationship suffered.

In August of 2011, I left Wicker Park and ended up working part-time at a church in the distant suburbs. In October, Ruth had a bad fall. Her willfulness always looked and felt like permanence, but this time she never really recovered. She went into the hospital the following May, when her cancer recurred. I saw her, unconscious and without pain, the day before she died. It was in a gleaming downtown hospital, with a perfect view of the lake, as good a place as any for a Chicagoan to die. I read a few psalms, blessed her forehead, and said a few needful words.

Ruth and I had stayed in touch. She had a very old-fashioned commitment to gift-giving; when any other harried pastor would let the Christmas presents slide, hers were always wrapped and beribboned perfectly. She gave us a hefty treasury of children’s stories, a biography of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, tickets to see Deborah Voigt in Salomé.  But her last gift to me, three months before she died, was Leonard Cohen’s mortality-haunted album Old Ideas. “Caveat: It may be the reason I like this so much,” she wrote to me, “is because it reflects a certain age with which I identify . . . Even so, enjoy.” I listened: “Show me the place, help me roll away the stone / Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone / Show me the place where the Word became a man / Show me the place where the suffering began.”

There is nothing to be said for dying in the saddle, not when you have books to read, grandchildren to dote on, and a home on Cape Cod awaiting your retirement, anyway. But there was something about the funeral that nearly unstruck the blow. It was hot–I was almost relieved that God gave us a nice hot day in that granite furnace for Ruth’s departure–and none of the many clergy who showed up came without their heavy vestments. We knew the same struggles and the same hours of total bafflement at our calling, and whatever we loved or didn’t about Ruth we would honor her together with full ceremony and all the dignity we could muster. We stood up to sing the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, with the organ dropping away from the mighty swell of the congregation for the sixth verse: “And thou our sister, gentle death / Waiting to hush our latest breath / Alleluia! Alleluia! / Thou leadest home the child of God / And Christ our Lord the way has trod / O praise ye! O praise ye! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

I visited Wicker Park last year as they prepared for a new pastor’s arrival. Ruth had left a substantial gift to the church, which they used to fully restore the sanctuary. Gone were the dark-stained floors and wilted carpet (including the little burns I left while mishandling the incense), gone the crumbling plaster and ancient light fixtures. In their place was something different–light-filled, reverent, with gold and gray stenciling and fresh symbols alongside the stained-glass scenes. There is nothing like it in this big, cold metropolis of a thousand weather-beaten churches. It was another turn of the wheel, another silent gift to the noisy city, another unlikely beginning in a place that has sheltered so many sojourns, brief and long, remembered and forgotten.

Benjamin J. Dueholm lives in Wauconda, Illinois, where he is associate pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church. His writing has appeared in The Christian Century, The Washington Monthly, Pacific Standard, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @bendueholm.