Services at Chicagoʼs Gilead Church

Quirky services are the norm at Chicago’s Gilead Church, whose founders sought to create a new kind of spiritual community. (Photography by Jordan Doyel)

A balm in Gilead

Two Divinity School graduates lead an unorthodox Chicago church that aims to heal spiritual wounds.

Onstage at the Chicago nightclub Mary’s Attic, Rebecca Anderson and Vince Amlin stand side by side at a pair of microphones. As a keyboard introduction begins, they take a breath, look out at the few dozen people scattered between them and the rainbow-flag-draped bar on the back wall, and launch into Cher’s “Believe.”

It’s not a lip-synch show or a karaoke night, though both happen often at what Out magazine has called one of the greatest gay bars in the world. It’s church—and they’re the pastors.

“Our tagline is, ‘We’re not for everyone, but we might be for you,’” Anderson, MDiv’10, says of Gilead Church, the community she and Amlin, MDiv’09, cofounded in 2017. “And we mean it.”

Like a growing number of orthodoxy-shattering religious efforts nationwide—Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, the DignityUSA movement in the Catholic Church—Gilead is a nontraditional church for a not traditionally churchgoing crowd.

“There’s this cultural lie,” Anderson says, “that if you’re urbane or smart or educated or a Democrat or a socialist or a feminist or sexual or pro sex,” religion isn’t for you. That attitude, the co-pastors believe, hurts people—which is why Gilead, named for the biblical land known for its miraculous healing powers, serves as a balm for those who’ve felt excluded.

Despite the church-running credentials Anderson and Amlin have today, they, like their parishioners, aren’t stereotypically religious. Amlin studied dramatic writing at New York University before pivoting into the clergy, while Anderson spent much of her 20s rebelling—through stand-up comedy, mostly—against the environment she’d been raised in as the child of an evangelical pastor. Growing up, she says, she was taught that religion meant “you’re in or you’re out.” Since she took issue with her denomination’s treatment of women and its punitive theology, she assumed she wasn’t welcome.

When she learned that the church down the street had an out, married lesbian behind the pulpit, Anderson realized that the family business might have room for her after all. She enrolled at the Divinity School, hoping to one day start a church like the one that brought her back into the fold. Unbeknownst to her, her classmate Amlin was planning the same thing.

“My classmates have reflected back to me,” Amlin says, “that apparently, when we were starting div school, I would go around saying I was just going to have a church of 12 people. Like Jesus.”

Though he cringes at the apostles comparison now, he admits that he clearly always had what Anderson calls the “new stuff gene.” The two crossed paths only casually at school, but when they joined the same small group of UChicago divinity grads for a series of annual retreats, their shared interests were revealed.

They formed a “summer-camp, magical kind of relationship,” Amlin says, “where you’re really only seeing the person once a year, maybe twice a year, but the time that you’re spending together, you’re spending on the deepest parts of yourself.”

Over coffee on one of those retreat weekends, Anderson suggested that the two of them cofound a church. Amlin was already five years into a pastor role in Florida, but he nonetheless felt that the out-there idea could work.

“I needed a challenge, and I wanted to try and do something that I wasn’t sure that I could do,” Amlin says. “Something like 85 percent of new churches fail in, like, a very short amount of time, … so the odds are very against us. But that made it attractive.”

The fledgling co-pastors also agreed about the mission of their new endeavor.

“Very early on, we came up with a version of the statement, ‘We want to be church for and with people who have been told or made to feel that church isn’t for them,’” Anderson recalls. Initially, that meant LGBTQ people, a group that both founders feel has been historically wronged by Christian churches. “And then, not very long into it, [we realized], oh, tons of people are told or made to feel that church isn’t for them.”

Committed to reaching out to those alienated groups, Anderson and Amlin set plans in motion to establish a church on Chicago’s North Side. For him, that meant a move back to the city with his wife and newborn. For her, it meant securing the duo a day job—which came courtesy of Ravens­wood’s Bethany United Church of Christ, one of the two denominations that supports Gilead. The other is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Anderson and Amlin serve as the more established congregation’s co-pastors and are allowed to use Bethany as office space for the nomadic Gilead community they lead. By January 2017, Gilead Church was ready for its first service.

The liturgies have changed a bit in the years since—pop songs came into play in 2017; an early interest in home-brewing Gilead beer shifted from central focus to intermittent parish hobby—but today they follow a deceptively traditional playbook. Each Sunday night meeting begins with a song, followed by a welcome, a sermon from one of the pastors, and the Gilead spin on “the word of God for the people of God”: parishioner-led storytelling on spiritual awakenings as diverse as a nonbinary twentysomething finding a new name or a congregant’s first relationship postdivorce. (In the time of COVID-19, these stories have become the core of Gilead’s work, through video posts on the church’s social media.) The congregation shares intentions, passes around a collection plate—or, depending on the week, an empty Bud Light pitcher—and gathers for a communion of homemade bread. A closing song, like “Proud Mary,” or Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” wraps things up.

Gilead’s work, as Anderson is fond of saying, represents not a new gospel but a new translation of the gospel that Christians already know. It won’t resonate with every Christian out there, the pastors recognize—but that’s OK.

She recalls a conservative member of her family asking if she would be welcome at Gilead.

“You’re totally welcome!” Anderson replied. At the same time, she pointed out, “you can go into any church.”

Gilead was created for the people who can’t.