Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Search of the Gypsy Church in Chicago: Part II

I arrived in Chicago with an elaborate list of churches, communities and neighborhoods I wanted to visit. I only had four months and I had to accomplish most of this during my free time. At the top of my list was attending a Gypsy church service. I had watched numerous video clips of Gypsy churches in Chicago. The congregations were big, the music was loud and the energy was fantastic.

The Chicago Gypsy Church 8-8-10

When I finally had the time to go to one of the Gypsy churches I was excited. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the address and there was no church. I couldn’t believe it. I went home frustrated. Luckily that evening was salvaged for me when Nik, one of the Kaio members, asked me if I was interested in seeing some fire dancers at the lakefront. There were no gypsies that night but it was still a great evening.


Over the course of the remaining two and one half months I called churches only to find out the numbers were no longer active. I watched video of churches downtown hoping to glimpse an address. I read blogs and comments on video clips. I contacted a church in Los Angeles hoping for a lead, all to no avail. I talked to clergy hoping they could help me and they tried. They told me about Eastern European churches, about drum circles and about individual Roma that they knew but none of this resulted in finding a gypsy church. I was having no luck and yet I could not give up. I was a man on a mission.

Every time I attended an ethnic church I was also aware of what church I was not attending. That did not mean of course that I didn’t’ love the churches I did attend. They were great. I attended an Ethiopian Pentecostal church. The members prayed for 20-45 minutes on their knees with their faces in the chairs, this was before the service even began. I attended a Coptic Church and found myself thinking about the early church and about the holy family. I attended an Assyrian church and felt connected to a persecuted people whose culture is threatened and I attended an Arabic-speaking Lutheran church where the members came from North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf States. I attended Mass in Chinatown. I was at a Polish wedding and a Ukrainian wedding. I was at shrines, outdoor services and large and small Taize services. There was no shortage of new and wonderful experiences for me. But still, no gypsies’.

I was about to concede defeat and acknowledge that while I was having an incredible experience in Chicago I was not going to attend a Roma service. I was reading the comments on one last video clip and found a phone number I had not called. Without any hope of success I called the number. Imagine my surprise when Rev. Skip Christo answered the phone! His first question was to ask how I had found him. I didn’t even know how to answer that question. We talked and he invited me to his church. As soon as I hung up I texted the Kaio members who had witnessed and supported me in my search. My text message was brief, “I found Gypsies!”

Even getting to the church was not easy. Bethany from Kaio dropped me off where I thought the church would be. After walking and walking I called Bethany and she began a MapQuest search for me. While I talked to Bethany on the phone I continued to walk. I looked up and there was the church! The church was in Andersonville, a neighborhood I had walked to numerous times.

The night was bitterly cold. I was told the service would begin at 7:30; it was already 8 PM when I arrived. It would end up being 9 PM before the service would actually begin! Only few people were in the church. Rev. Skip was out picking up members and jumping batteries. This was a small but caring community.

As soon as I arrived, Joseph, the minister’s son and the drummer greeted me. He was a friendly young man. I then met Millie, the minister’s wife. She was clearly a person in charge and the person to go to when it appeared things were falling apart. She apologized that her husband was not here. All I kept thinking was how this truly felt like a caring, supportive faith community. Then I met Anna. Anna was Millie and Rev. Skip’s daughter and she played the keyboards.

While I waited for others to show up the brother and sister rehearsed. They were good. They also bickered like brother and sister; it was like being invited to someone’s home. I liked it. Finally congregants arrived. There only a few this evening, a little over 20. You won’t see them I the video because they sat behind me and because I was reluctant to film them in prayer.

Rev. Skip was a big, welcoming man. He told me about Gypsy history and culture. He talked about the Roma culture of Chicago and about the other churches. This was not the big church I had wanted to attend. It was the right church that I was meant to attend!

When the service began Anna eased us into worship. Her voice was powerful, her leadership qualities evident. Across the sanctuary her brother was on percussion. They were a powerful duo.

Gypsy Church: Anna, “I’m Calling”

If Anna was the intense one who wanted to make sure everything was just right then Joseph was the counter-measure. He was easy going, he went with the flow and together they lead us in worship. Anna sung in Roma and in English, Joseph closed his eyes and played and smiled.

Gypsy Church: Joseph on Percussion

Finally Rev. Skip spoke. I only have a small clip of his sermon, I wanted to attend and be part of the service and not just a person behind a camera. Rev. Skip spoke of the challenges of being a Gypsy in Chicago. He told of being pulled over by the CPD, for driving while being Gypsy. He spoke of a culture that was stressed and how only Jesus could heal their brokenness. The congregants raised their hands, prayed, witnessed and were a supportive Christian family.

This was not the big, slick Gypsy church I was looking for. However, I had been to so many cathedrals, so many historic churches with elaborate musical programs. I loved this church,

"The Master’s Touch” church is a member of the United Pentecostal Church. They are far more dramatic and demonstrative then I am comfortable with and yet I cannot wait to attend again. I found my Gypsy Church right in the heart of Andersonville.

Gypsy Church: Rev. Skip Christo Preparing to Preach

I was grateful for the heart felt welcome by Millie, Joseph, Anna and the Rev. Skip. I was impressed by how this small congregation of adults, children, laborers and immigrants cared for one another. It really was as if I had saved the best for last!

Gypsy Church: Rev. Skip Christo

In Search of the Gypsy Church in Chicago: Part I

I have been interested in Gypsies or Roma for as long as I can remember. Everything about them seemed to tell me that however you live, everything could be different. I find myself interested in lots of different cultures; the further removed from Western culture the better. I went to Coptic, Ethiopian, West African, Assyrian, Chinese and Arabic speaking churches. I spent time in Chinatown, Pilsen, and Devon Avenue. I went to Powwows, Mosques, Islamic bookstores and every kind of ethnic restaurant I could find. Still, I had to find the Roma!

I loved their music/s, dance, dress and use of color. Even the stereotypes are etched in my mind. I remember as a kid watching Mighty Mouse on WGN. My favorite episode was “The Gypsy Life.” Was this episode a blatant characterization of a people? Of course but it still demanded my attention. I remember growing up loving paprika, scarves, tambourines and violins. Perhaps it was just the antidote for a stoic Norwegian-American life!

Treasures of the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive 07

I remember my surprise when I found out that some of my favorite dance forms were all connected by the thread of Roma culture. What a tapestry! The fact that folk dance in India, belly dancing in the Middle East, flamenco in Spain and Cossack dance in Russia all shared a common ancestry fascinated me. It is impossible to watch any of these dance forms and to not begin to tap your foot, keep beat with your shoulder, or begin to move your hips. There is nothing cerebral about this art form it is just life flowing to music.

Gypsy Dancing Evolution

Roma music is one form of World Music. Listen to Loyko a Russian trio, the music is haunting. It calls up images of centuries of struggle and of persistence in the face of challenging circumstances. The music enters your ears and then flows into your blood.

Loyko - Loyko (live in Vitebsk)

I grew up in Chicago. I have visited New Orleans, St. Louis and Memphis Tennessee. These are centers of jazz. I have a growing appreciation of jazz, partially due to a colleague, Lon Bhonke, who is a jazz music evangelical! Well Gypsy music is not stuck in medieval Europe or only influenced by the music of the Volga or of Islam. Gypsy music is alive, current and influencing contemporary music forms, including jazz.

Minor Swing (Django Reinhardt) - Gypsy jazz manouche guitar - Latchés

I love Klezmer music, and not just because I like Woody Allen! Well Roma music and Klezmer have mutually influenced one another. Watch a Chasidic bottle dance to Klezmer and you could almost picture gypsies in the corner keeping time to the music.

Open show Big Klezmer band Chasidic dance. Very quick unique

However, if my interest in Gypsies was only about music and dance that would be pretty one dimensional. I am fascinated by peoples who are considered outsiders and have to find a niche for themselves. Roma are not alone in this. East Indians in Africa, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, and Jews in Europe have all had similar struggles. Each of these groups have been influenced by their adopted countries but have also left their mark on their new homes. This is also true for the Gypsy. They have also all suffered persecution.

According to the United Nations, the Roma are the single most persecuted peoples in Europe today. In Rumania, the Balkans and Hungary reports of human rights violations persist. Surveys consistently reflect anti-Roma perspectives. Gypsy tent cities have been demolished in Rome and gypsies have been expelled from Ireland and France. It is difficult to stop being an outsider when the dominate culture persecutes you, it is difficult to be accepted by the dominate culture if you are not willing to give up our identity as an outsider.

These are a people who left northern India. Who migrated through Afghanistan, Persia and who split into various groups. Some went north into Ukraine and Russia, other the Middle East and North Africa and Spain and other still central Europe. There are 14 million Roma in the world today, most are in Central Europe. However, the migration to the United States starting in the mid 1880s was not insignificant.
Imagine my excitement when prior to my sabbatical I discovered there were Gypsy Churches in Chicago. I watched the videos of the church services, I listened to the music and read whatever I could get my hands on. I could not wait to attend a Gypsy service. I would soon discover that it was not that easy. I would discover that actually finding church was a challenge. I would ultimately discover that it was worth the challenge, I was not disappointed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Shiviti Jewish Drum Circle

While I was in Chicago I was always open to new experiences. I attended concerts, trainings, and cultural events. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was amazing. One day I came across an invitation to a Jewish Drum Circle. This was too much. It was religious, cultural, musical and it was affordable. I immediately called to get information.

I began to find out about the Shiviti Jewish Drum Circle. There are drum circles all over Chicago. When I went to see the Fire Dancers a drum circle was a huge part of the experience. Chicago has all different kinds of drum circles.There are ethnic drum circles, drum circles predominately for musicians, drum circles for youth and drum circles for the elderly. When I went to see the fire dancers at the lakefront it was the drummers that night that kept the group dancing long after the fire dancers left. I loved watching those drummers and I was excited to find out what made this drum circle Jewish.

Drummers at the Fire Dance II

The drum circle was based on teachings of Kabbalah. These teachings served as the guide or blueprint for each meeting. It was a multimodal approach. There was the drumming, there was chanting and there were icons.

Three principles guided the meetings. “Nefesh” refers to the spirit or soul. One becomes in touch with this through gazing at the Shivitis or icon. The next concept is “Olam” which refers to space. We become aware of Olam by being part of the circle. Being part of the circle means not just being individuals who make up the circle but letting go of self and becoming the circle, the ‘us.” Finally there is”Shanah” which refers to time. When we are in the drumming circle we keep time. When we enter the drum circle it is for a set period of time. However, we also give ourselves up to the time of the drum. How long a song or chant will be will depends on the time, the spirit of the song. We become part of time and not-time; we are ‘in the zone.”

The drum circle become a time of letting go of dualities. As we drum we are “I” and “us.” We are “on the clock” and we are timeless. We come in contact with the Infinite G-d and are part of the G-d within us. This is not just beating some drums!

The group met at Mitzuit Jewish Community Center. The particular day I met with them we were at the North Lakeside Cultural Center at Sheridan Road and Granville. It looks out at Lake Michigan. The building is a large, empty residential home. Every variety of drum is available to the members. We meet and greeted one another. The icons and chants were explained. We were told the group fluctuates in size from a small group of perhaps 4 members to a much larger group of over 70 participants. The day I was there there were seven us of us. Sometimes it sounds like all of the drummers are musicians and other times it sounds like happy noise. This was not a concert and our performance was not important. What was important was that we recognized that we were participating in a group prayer.

Participants could be of any denomination of Judaism. They could be secular Jews. They could be first-timers or gifted musicians. They could be members of other faiths or no faith. This was a welcoming drum circle

So we began the chant and to drum. I tried a variety of drums. I did not expect to fully participant, I went wanting to be an observer. What I found was that the icons pulled me to them. The chanting grounded me and once I closed my eyes I could drum. It was a wonderful experience. I felt connected to this diverse group of strangers. I did lose track of time and self. I hope to one day return. I like drum circles, I love the Shivti Jewish Drum Circle.

Shiviti Jewish Drum Circle

Saturday, January 8, 2011

JPUSA, Skateboards, Coffee and Rich

I loved living across the streets from the Friendly Towers, home of Jesus People USA (JPUSA.) The place was exotic. It was also a slice of Chicago history. The towers had originally been Al Capone’s Chelsea Hotel. On our side of Wilson Avenue had been Capone’s brothel. The man was a businessman! Just as the building Emmaus Ministries was in had once been a coke house, it was uplifting to see Capone’s old hotel was now an intentional faith community.

When one says “intentional faith community” the mind goes in many directions. Visions of convents, monasteries, simple structures and walled-off large estates come to mind. The Friendly Towers does not fit any of those stereotypes. It is a two towered hotel with blue awnings. “Friendly Towers” is printed on the awnings. It is impossible to miss them. There is a walled courtyard. Behind the walls is a flower garden and a playground. The entrance hall to the lobby has been restored and is a beautiful introduction to the building. Once inside it is clear there is so much work to be done.

However, this is a community rich in talent so evidence of remodeling is everywhere. The one area that has been completed is the chapel/auditorium. That is where it is clear you are among artists. The stain glass windows are beautiful. Look closer and you discover they are not stained glass. They are windows decorated with color tapes.

Jesus People USA Chapel

On the same floor are the refurbished offices. They are very nice. There is also a massive kitchen and dining room. Both are necessary, this is a community of 500 members. The floors above are the apartments of families. Many have lived their entire adult life as members of JPUSA. Some have college age children. Others are new.

This is an artsy-type community. What everyone has in common is their faith in Jesus Christ. However, whatever your stereotype may be of what a Christian looks like, chances are JPUSA folks are not it! Walking down the halls you will see a woman with green hair on top of her head and no hair on the sides. Many members are walking tapestries of ink and/or body piercing. The dress various from resale shop bargains to gypsy-type clothing, Goth, skateboarders to just unique and noticeable threads. Even the bicycles are unique here. They are often taller than the riders. The bikes may sport one huge wheel and one tiny wheel. The bodies of the bikes may be curved and resembling a pretzel or race track. The bikes look like something from the Dr. Sues book. One of my favorite members to bump into was an adult woman. She had white vampire-like makeup and dark hair. She wore dresses that revealed her back. Her back had to full-size tats of angel wings. She was unforgettable. She was also friendly and intelligent. I would have liked to have gotten to know her. There were also plenty of members without primary color hair, ink or piercings.

When I say the place was artsy I am not referring to the appearance of the members but rather their talents and interests. Across the street are the art studios. Many of the members are serious painters, sculptors and graphic artists. Others are musicians and there are a number of JPUSA bands that tour the world. The music varies from Celtic to Christian rock, jazz, or alternative. There are many businesses for members who are not artsy. All of the money the members make is pooled. This is a collectivistic culture not an individualistic culture.

People who are creative appreciate the creativity of others. That is why the chapel is also an auditorium. While I was at Emmaus Ministries the Kaio Community attended a concert at JPUSA. The musicians were from Kirgizstan. The musicians were in traditional dress. The instruments were Central Asian and it was a wonderful evening.

Kyrgyzstani Very Fancy Playing

On another evening Kaio again attended a very different concert at the Friendly Towers. The organization “Restoring Eden” was presenting “Go Tell It on the Mountain’ which was a concert/lecture on mountain top removal in Appalachia. The music and multi-media presentation was very powerful.

Go Tell It On the Mountain II

However, for all of the entertainment at the Towers what was clear was the Friendly Towers was first and foremost a faith community. One of our Kaio members, Whitney, attended church there weekly. She found it to be a warm and welcoming community. You knew they were Christians by their love and their works. JPUSA managed multiple emergency shelters for the homeless. They had programs for the elderly and for adults with special needs. They had a yearly music festival which was also a huge worship service. Perhaps a ministry I found most unique, they ministered to skateboarders.

You would often hear the skaters before you saw them. In front of JPUSA was a constant flow of young folks in distinctive garb showing off their skills. Just a few blocks away at the lake was a large skateboard park. So JPUSA created a skateboard coffee shop, ‘Citizen Skate Café.”

Citizen Skate/JPUSA Coffee House

Now I loved their coffee. However, frankly, I am more the pastel paint or wall paper, art on the walls, over-stuffed chairs, table in the corner, world-music playing softly type coffee house guy. This was not that kind of café! The music was loud, the “motif” was young boy’s basement and it was a big success, it met a need. Skaters were in all the time. They were not just having coffee and talking with their friends, they were interacting with the staff. They may not have known it but they were being witnessed to, in the form of authentic lives being lived, by Fools for God, Christians living a Gospel Life. I kept thinking there was so much here that Francis would have loved! While I never felt as if I were a part of JPUSA I always felt I was among family. These were my brothers and sisters.

One of the guys I got to know at Citizen Skate was Rich. He had long hair, ink on his face and large ear gauges. He was funny, inviting and grounded.


Rich was a manager at JPUSA. He had a grasp of the movement’s history and identity. He appeared to be a natural leader. He also was accepting. I never felt any pressure to join his denomination. In fact, while they were clear who they were they also seemed to truly enjoy the gifts of diversity. This seemed especially true with Rich.


I know that I am not “done” with Emmaus Ministries. I will find reasons to go back and when I do I will stop at Citizen Skate Café for some Columbian coffee and to hang with Rich.

Rich, JPUSA and a Blessing

Monday, January 3, 2011

Kodi and Christa and Laura Oh My

I made a number of friends while in Chicago. For sure the Kaio community was an anchor for me, they were simply fantastic. The M.C. Staff, the office staff and outreach were great. I made new colleagues at Adler and I came into contact with fascinating people all over the city. However, I had one very special friend, Kodi.

Kodi Talking

Kodi was Christa’s old dog and he was old. He was also loving, smelly, smart, smelly, and had personality to spare. I would visit Kodi every chance I had. He came to work with his companion, Christa and usually sat beside her as she worked. He also roamed the offices and attended staff meetings.

Kodi at a Staff meeting

Now for sure visiting Kodi was an excuse to spend time with Christa and her fellow office worker Laura. Christa Clumper is the Operations Manager and she has a fun name to say. Go ahead, try it! Laura Eppler is the Database Coordinator. These were two bright, well-traveled, attractive and interesting women. They also made my life in Chicago far more interesting. Christa invited Kaio to her house for dinner. It was a great Middle Eastern meal while listening to world music. I also attended an Anglican home vespers service with Christa. Laura invited Kaio over to her house. Again, there was great food and drinks and world music. Laura and Joel also took me to a Taize service in Oak Park and to the Santa Lucia Day Parade in Andersonville.

Now to be honest I would not have needed Kodi around to spend time with these two ladies. However, I am an animal lover and dogs are at the top of that list. Kodi and I became friends during my field study at Emmaus two years ago. Kodi and I had a mutual admiration for one another. We were both always happy to see one another.

Yep, that is clearly the coolest office in Emmaus Ministries!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Time of Violence and a Prayer for Peace

The past year has been a violent one for the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown. To be sure there are more violent areas of the city. I am not sure that is a comfort to the victims of Uptown. While I was in Uptown there were 12 shootings and 3 deaths. The total for the year was 31 shootings and 4 deaths. This is for one neighborhood. There was an attempted rape, mid-day at a beach only a few blocks from us.

120 drug dealers were arrested over a four day period. Gang violence dramatically increased. I personally witnessed a man assaulting a young teenage girl, luckily the police arrived as the violence was occurring. I had just walked out of a building when I heard other young girls screaming that the man was strangling their peer. He was calm and angry and acted as if we did not even exist. I witnessed a man hit a woman and take her child. He left before I could get down the stairs but I did call the police. I have no idea how that situation was resolved. For two days I walked past the blood stained sidewalk of a multiple shooting that occurred around the corner from our house.

During an evening at outreach there was an attempted bombing of a concert at Wrigley Field. Thanks to the assistance of the Arab community and the diligence of the FBI the plot was foiled. I attended a Synagogue that had been a bomb target by Al Queda in Yemen. Our local L stop had the bomb squad called out twice while I was in Uptown.

The violence has been aimed at gang members but everyone knew they could be victims. In September a man opened up with a gun at our Jewel parking lot, customers hit the ground to avoid being shot. On Halloween at Wilson and Malden man was shot inside his home from an outside shooter, two blocks away at Kenmore a shooter shot 3 teenagers, an hour later a man was killed at Sunnydale. Much of the violence was within a one to four block radius from our house. It was not unusual to hear gun fire. In fact, beyond the statistics mentioned there were an additional 32 reports of people hearing gun fire but no one being shot.

So I was not surprised when the pastor of Rogers Park Community Church and members of his congregation were seen on Wilson Avenue. They had arrived to pray with members of the Uptown Baptist Church for peace in Uptown. Because they do believe in the transformative power of grace they also prayed for the gang members. I was happy to see them and spend some time with them. The day was cold and windy but the group was uplifting and stood in solidarity with the citizens of Uptown.

Jesus Loves Gang Members

I have a 30 year history with Uptown. It has always been a rough neighborhood but it has never been like this. The hope is that this is a temporary period of increased violence. That what we are witnessing is increased gang violence at a time when police are overwhelmed and in fact called to protect other parts of the city. It is a time when the south part of Uptown has experienced dramatic gentrification and the poor find themselves moving north. It is a time of tension, hopefully this violence it will be the exception as citizens come together to make the streets safer.