First on Fullerton
With the words “please turn on your souls and turn off your cell phones,” the service begins.
There are about 60 people in worship here on this day, spread throughout the 102-year-old sanctuary of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, on the northwest side of Chicago.
A man in the center section, looks like he’s in his 40s, folds his hands intently in front of himself when it’s time to pray.
The choir is six men, standing tall in the choir loft, backlit by a stained glass window. With the familiar red Evangelical Lutheran Worship book in hand, the congregation sings favorites, such as Jesus, Remember Me and Go My Children, led by organist David Mayer. Assisting minister Kristina Diaz walks throughout the congregation when it’s time for the Prayers of the People, collecting prayers to be read aloud – for Elena, Karen, the Richardson family, and others.
The prayers and readings move back and forth between English and Spanish. Whichever language is not spoken has a written translation.
The offering plate goes around, and during the Passing of the Peace, Pastor Eardley Mendis makes his way to every single person in the sanctuary to offer a handshake, or a hug, and a blessing.
He preaches this day on the story in Mark, where Jesus says this: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
As he speaks, there’s a man in one section talking nonsensically, nearly the entire service. A few people are asleep, still bundled up in their winter coats and hats.
The other New Testament passage for the day is Romans 4:13-25. It talks about the importance of faith. Jim Blaha steps forward to read the text.
Jim is homeless. So are most of the others who worship at First Lutheran.
The breakfasts at First Lutheran started quite a few years ago, when an intern from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago thought that it would be a good idea to serve a simple meal to those who are hungry.
A couple of people came at first to breakfast, held one time a month. Then there were 20 or so. These days, on an average morning, 50-70 people, mostly men, gather.
Kevin McKinney manages the kitchen. Volunteers bring in the food. The congregation also hosts lunch every Sunday. About 75 people – men, women, a couple of children – come for that meal.
Elizabeth Garza joined First a few years ago when her church closed. “I walked in and everything clicked for me,” she said. So she started volunteering on Sunday mornings. “For us, everyone is welcome, as long as they don’t fight,” she said. “No one is required to go to worship. But when we share the peace, we’re all hugging each other. Gay. Straight. Black. White. Hispanic. The one thing we don’t have is a lot of kids. We have people who are financially comfortable. We have people who don’t have a dime in their pocket.”
Elizabeth is one of the cooks, using her crock pot to whip up pork with green chile sauce, meatballs, au gratin potatoes. Somehow, she said, it seems like there’s always the right amount of food, “kind of like Jesus with the bread and the fish.”