By Stephanie Bailey, Rush University Medical Center social worker and nine-year member of Grace Episcopal Church
I love that a physical space can have a strong, calming presence that extends far beyond its walls. Places can open themselves to just a few people, or to everyone who wishes to enter. There is a place in Oak Park that I cherish, that welcomes all, that makes me feel whole and grateful and peaceful and sometimes even gleeful, and that place is Grace Episcopal Church.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, which makes me one of the not-so-common “cradle Episcopalians” at Grace. The church I attended when I was growing up in Texas was a far quieter, almost somber place, and in my quiet, somber, only-child life, this physical place echoed what I was experiencing. I would stare at the intricately carved marble Last-Supper altar and imagine what it would feel like to touch that cold white stone. Kneeling on red velvet kneelers, studying the mesmerizing Celtic knot on the pulpit symbolizing the trinity, I grew up. I sang with the children’s choir; experienced my first, devastating crush; attended my father’s funeral; sat by my mother year after year while she gently put a hand on my back during the quieter moments of the service. And although I rarely felt like joyfully shouting about it, I learned to love the stately, ancient words in the Book of Common Prayer and the tuneful, easily sung hymns and carols. As I got older and lived in other cities, I attended church but had a hard time finding a community where I felt at home. Once I moved to Oak Park, I visited Grace on a weekday afternoon with my daughter in a stroller, “just to try it out.” We were immediately welcomed and given a tour of that inspiring Gothic revival structure by the rector, and I knew we would return.
People come to Grace from many different backgrounds; lapsed Catholics seem especially well represented, as do agnostics and parents who want a church community in which to raise their children, regardless of what they themselves believe. One of my early discussions with our rector was a surprise to me, when she said that believing in God is absolutely not a requirement for attending our church. I was thrilled by this openness and new (to me) way of coming to the church. She, and the entire Grace community, truly welcome all, “wherever you are on your faith journey,” and I know that many other faith communities in Oak Park are the same. So many of us are striving not just to believe, pray, question, or find peace, but to feel grateful in a lovely space, to quietly register some sort of acknowledgment of the wonders we experience, and to do something wonderful for our community.
Grace’s inclusiveness extends beyond those who attend, to the wider community, and I know that kind of openness is not unique to my church. Many Oak Park organizations are making efforts to live out the inclusive nature of Christ, to include and assist those who have been marginalized and mistreated. Families and individuals are carried and loved through trying times. The Black Lives Matter rally last December brought together local faith organizations as well as many other groups, and Grace was instrumental in getting the rally off the ground, knowing we must not just profess to believe the words of Christ, but attempt to do something about it.
Grace is a place where I’ve been invited to climb into the bell tower to ring the bells and into the rafters to see the incredible workings of our 93-year-old pipe organ; where staff members and parishioners have made a point of welcoming, accepting, and cherishing my kids; where the parish musician is a renowned composer whose goal is to make the kids in his choir feel at home and help them have a wholesome experience while also having a ridiculously fun time; and where my stepdad, visiting from Texas (where he attended a conservative Episcopal church), was so inspired by the same-sex wedding we attended that he began whisper-shouting, “This should be done everywhere! I’m bringing back the program to show my rector! They need to know about this!”
I’m especially thankful for the beautiful structure where I can feel the quiet solitude each year at the All Saints’ service of remembrance, allowing for silence and peace and the ability to sense the spirits of those who have died, and to know without a doubt that they are not simply gone.
Day to day, I am not sure what I believe, or even (some days) if I believe in God. However, I am grateful for the peaceful, welcoming space inside the walls of Grace Episcopal Church, where I can sense holiness and love, both in the space itself, and in those who also attend the church, who are my family.