Monday, May 23, 2011


Despite Harold Camping's prediction, the world did not end Saturday.

I'm not going to say I'm surprised by that, yet I did experience a surprisingly delightful five days in Chicago, that culminated in an up-tempo Christian rock crescendo Saturday evening, orchestrated by a band called The Crossing—roughly in the vicinity of when Camping predicted the Rapture was due. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

While the California evangelist was reported in the Sunday Chicago Tribune to have been "flabbergasted" by a decidedly Rapture-less Saturday (it was the second time Camping's calculations failed, having first misfired with a prediction that Jesus would return in 1994), today I want to write about my having found a less splashy, yet more profound (and hopeful) group inspired by the presence of Jesus. Instead of Camping's fire and brimstone, my attention was drawn to the hospitality and humility of our hosts: Jesus People USA—a 400-person income-sharing community on the north side of Chicago.

While this 39-year-old group is clearly grounded in evangelical Christian beliefs, that doesn't mean they aren't also dedicated to civility and kindness, and helping to make the here and now a better place. We FIC folks had chances over the course of our five days together to talk with dozens of members in a variety of settings. To a person, they were unfailingly warm and courteous. Often they were curious as well (wanting to hear our stories, and readily willing to share theirs whenever we expressed interest). The thing they were not was righteous or rigid.

As a community networker, I often encounter people (even whole groups) who are so excited about what they're doing (and so convinced that they have answers to the important questions of the day) that dialog with them is mostly about girding one's loin to withstand an encounter with heavy proselytizing. It's not seen as an opportunity for conversation so much as an opportunity for conversion. As someone who gets increasingly tired of being "saved" (without having put out an RFP), I went into last week's stay at JPUSA with some trepidation. While missionary zeal is by no means confined to religious groups (I've struggled every bit as much with the righteousness of eco-fascists), evangelical religious groups have a reputation for specializing in it (remember the insistent saffron-robed Hare Krishna's at airports in decades past?) and I was guarded—perhaps more than I knew.
As it turned out, however, I needn't have worried.

JPUSA folks have an abiding commitment to doing good in the world. Mostly this shows up by running a homeless shelter and offering about 80-90 seniors (some of whom used to be homeless) a comfortable and affordable place to stay on the top three floors of their 10-story building at 620 W Wilson. They've bought and sold several pieces of property over the years; mostly for a gain, but sometimes for a loss. Not everything they've touched has turned to gold.

Since 1984 they've produced Cornerstone, a five-day Christian music festival, held each year the first week of July, on JPUSA property in western Illinois. Tens of thousands attend this gala event each year yet it's only made a profit three years out of 27. While an artistic and spiritual success, its been a financial quagmire. Oh well.

Over their nearly four decades together, they've learned to take people as they are, and to be open to the mystery of faith arriving in a wide variety of packages. There's everything from Goth to bikers; from push-up bras to push carts. Their members are both joyous and tolerant. While they take their mission and their faith seriously, they don't take themselves too seriously. In short, their approach to life was every bit as fresh as the May breezes off nearby Lake Michigan.

• • •
In addition to being inspirational (both for us FIC folks and for the 30+ people who were more attracted to community than Camping and happily attended the Saturday event) the weekend had its amusing moments. One event participant (who arrived from out of town midday) had to pass through a gauntlet of folks vigorously hawking Rapture t-shirts in downtown Chicago en route to our Art of Community Day. Walking to the beach Sunday morning for a bit of communing with Lake Michigan before heading back to Missouri, I pulled a 4-color Rapture postcard from underneath the windshield wiper on my car (if the prophesy had come true, I'd have gotten the memo too late). There's something quintessentially American about attempts to merchandize the End of the World (where the ushers come across more as profit raptors than as prophets for the Rapture).

Riding the elevator to the FIC's quarters Saturday morning after breakfast, one senior resident casually inquired of (FIC Board member) Marty Klaif and me if we had plans for the day ahead of Camping's 6 pm hard deadline. We asked in reply if the end varied by time zone, and were informed that it was a Rolling Rapture—6 pm wherever you were. This brief exchange put fresh zest into the normally casual admonition to "have a nice day." This jaunty exchange of elevator repartee put Marty and me in good spirits. What better way to go out than by mingling with people hungering for more community in their lives—and with people who can laugh!

As the JPUSA band The Crossing (one of several bands in the community) set up for their end of show gig (not to be confused with an End of the World performance) they joked easily among themselves—"Hey man, I know they're going to take you, so leave your wallet."

I figure there are far worse things that could happen to a person then being "left behind" at JPUSA—with or without a wallet.


anutosh said...

Wonderful, there is still some hope for the US.

Marty Phillips said...

Thanks for coming, we enjoyed it!