Chicago Pastor Bruce Ray called to a ‘disruptive’ mission

Ray spoke at the Las Posadas action at Lathrop Homes, a public housing project in Logan Square. The protest enacted Bible story to urge Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the "innkeeper," to keep his promise of preserving public housing units in Lathrop Homes. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

Yingxu Jane Hao

The Rev. Bruce Ray never planned to become a pastor.

Son of a Kentucky pastor in a small town in northwestern Illinois, Ray longed to become a writer. So he went to the University of Iowa to study English with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in social work. Though his life took a transformative turn from his plan, his passion in both served him well in his ministry at the Kimball Avenue Church in Logan Square.

On one Sunday, Ray preached a sermon about Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus to a small but attentive congregation. Ray, in a dark blue white-spotted sweater, speaks in a deep and vibrant voice full of emotion. His brown eyes peek down at the Mac screen on the podium occasionally, sometimes shining with a seriousness, sometimes with joy. His hand, holding a leg of his classes, waves to bring home his message from time to time.

Several congregants, including his daughter Ellen, responded with “Amen!” as Ray said that Jesus called His people to “a disruptive and subversive mission.” Sitting beside her mother Karren, Ellen was one of the two younger worshippers present that day. Most of the church members are grey-haired like Ray himself.

“We are people of grace and love, and the fruit of love is justice and righteousness. And that is what we bring into this world. And we’ll be perceived as dangerous, threat – if we are doing it right, we will,” said Ray firmly with  just the right hint of humor that made his congregants laugh. “We cannot be safe to the kingdoms of the world because we live with an alternative vision… And that was what Jesus began, and that is what Jesus has continued to do and will continue to do through his people who’ve been made to be a Kingdom.”

Rev. Bruce Ray plays piano and sings with his congregation in a Sunday worship services in fall. The Kimball Avenue Church held its Sunday services for a year in the art studio, Voice of the City, at 3429 W. Diversey Ave. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

Ray has been ministering this church since 1978. During the past decades, he has seen congregants leave the neighborhood and his church as they moved to other places due to life changes. But he tries to make his micro-church a healthy one with close relationships.

“My wife and I joked that if everyone had stayed and not moved, we’d have a congregation of thousands. But we don’t, we have a really tiny congregation,” Ray said with a grin.

It doesn’t take a mega-church to do the things Ray preaches and practices.

One of the leading voices of Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, Ray and his congregation have taken part in progressive actions to promote affordable housing, living wage and anti-violence efforts. For the past six years they have dedicated efforts to helping preserve public housing at Lathrop Homes on the North Side.

“There’s the need for addressing suffering – compassion. But then we also need to go beyond just ministering to the suffering and ask: why are people suffering? And when we ask that question, it gets us to another level of engagement with those issues,” said Ray.

“Why are people homeless? There are a lot of reasons, but many of them are because we eliminate the services to people that need those services, we refuse to raise the wages so that people can actually afford to get to an apartment and sustain themselves,” Ray said, his voice rising. “There are many churches that have overnight shelters but don’t address why they are homeless. I think my faith has to ask a different question. It’s not just what need needs to be met, but why there’s a need like that in the first place, and how does my faith then lead me to address those causes.”

As a result, he and his congregants can be spotted at various protests or rallies – sometimes in Logan Square, sometimes around City Hall.  In a recent action called “Occupy Palm Sunday,” Ray and several of his church members asked the Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Housing Authority to keep their promise of the one-to-one replacement of the public housing units at Lathrop Homes.

“What do we what, show us the plan!” “If we don’t get it, occupy!” They chanted side by side with community members, housing activists, and congregants from different churches.

Ray and other clergy reenacted the Bible story of the walls of Jericho falling apart by holding signs representing the Chicago Housing Authority. This Moral Monday action last November demanded that Mayor Rahm Emanuel remove the barriers to safe, secure and affordable housing. Ray said he felt proud that half of his congregation was there. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

“If you look at any social justice movement, you’ll often find people of faith at the foundation of it,” said Ray on the active involvement of him and his church in such actions. “Who is better than the faith community to be the conscience of the mayor and the city?”

Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative met Ray six years ago at a meeting about Lathrop. A long-time co-worker of Ray’s in the efforts to save Lathrop, she feels impressed by Ray’s deep commitment.

“How many causes do people stick with for years? And he’s stuck with this cause through thick and thin,” said Levinger. “It’s courageous to be vocal and so public so consistently.”

As a public housing advocate herself, Levinger said Ray has been a great leader from the faith community to bring people who are not directly affected as allies.

“He talks about the work we need to in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone. That’s hard to do. I feel that regularly,” said Levinger with a shrug. “Sometimes you can talk about stands people should take but you talk in a way that turns people off. It’s hard especially when you feel lot of emotion on the cause you are working on. And I think he never got submerged by anger and injustice. He always channels anger in a way that is productive. That’s a pretty high level of spiritual development.”

Good news is about life

In college, Ray was always grappling with the question of how to integrate what he learnt about social work with how he lived his faith. He found the answer in two books: “Christianity and the Social Crisis” by Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of social gospel movement, and “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon, who introduced the idea of “What Would Jesus Do?”

Those two books helped move Ray toward his mission. “I’m at now has just been a progression of that over a long period of time,” he said.

In his senior year in college, Ray found he didn’t just want to write, he wanted to work with people in the city. So he started to find ministry opportunities. The timing was good. The Kimball Avenue Church, which has a connection to his home church, had a job opening for a pastor. So Ray started ministering at the church right after graduation. Four year later he started attending North Park Seminary Part Time and got his degree in 1990.

Before Ray moved to Chicago, Logan Square, where Kimball Avenue Church located, went through rapid transitions in late 1960s and early 70s. Ray’s wife Karren grew up in the neighborhood and was part of the congregation then. The neighborhood witnessed the flight of non-Hispanic whites and an influx of Puerto Rican and Mexicans. The changes in the community led to increased gang activities and crimes, creating an atmosphere of mistrust, animosity, anger and fear, Ray said. Two years before he arrived to serve as pastor, the church was robbed and there was even gunfire outside the building.

The response, was to turn inward. The church became a safe fortress for the congregation in the midst of the ethnic transition. Instead of embracing it and responding to the needs of people coming in, they shut themselves off from it.  So when Ray first came, it was a very scared congregation.

“They are scared of their neighbors and very mistrustful. I didn’t like them very much. Not very Christian actually,” he laughed. “Love your neighbors as yourself. But It was more like fear your neighbor. That was part of the task that I felt really strong about. People needed to be able to be safe again, to reach out to the community.”

Ray and his church took action very slowly. One of the efforts was to make the church a polling place for the precinct. It was non-threatening. And people came into his church, said Ray.

When he first came, the church was also very theologically “conservative,” he said.

“Our main concern at that time was where someone was going to go after they die. It wasn’t about how are people living or what are the conditions that people are facing as they live,” said Ray. So the emphasis of the ministry “wasn’t about people’s needs, or engaging where people were at,” but only “saving their souls.”

But Ray wanted to challenge the prevailing definition of salvation.

“I think it’s more important about how this life has been transformed by the presence of Christ, and heaven is just a nice benefit.” – the Rev. Bruce Ray

“When Jesus came he announced the good news, or gospel. I think we’ve done the gospel and the service by only making it words where it gets shaken down to this idea of ‘when I die I’m going to heaven’ … as if that’s the only thing that the gospel means, but that not what Jesus said,” said Ray. “When Jesus started his ministry, he said I have come to give sight to the blind, to make the limb walk, to release the prisoners, to relieve people of oppression, and to bring good news to the poor. So I think that the good news is about life; it’s not about afterlife only. In fact, I think it’s more important about how this life has been transformed by the presence of Christ, and heaven is just a nice benefit.”

For Ray, salvation is not to only “get on the lifeboat,” but also to live out a life that is aligned to God on a daily basis personally and collectively as a church. So he tried to educate his congregation to orient their eyes away from themselves and their own needs, and refocus them outward to the needs of others.

“I didn’t call him a preacher. I call him a teacher. I think he taught his congregation, and then pushed them to move,” said Marianne Deacon, long-time member of the church. “But he had to take time, because we had a lot of older people. They were not really interested in going out.”

Deacon laughed, saying, “Now we are of the older people.”

But this congregation of predominantly 50-something people act differently than those of before: they go out more. And this is what Ray thinks a church is supposed to do. The church today is “profoundly different” from the church she grew up in when she came home from college, said Ellen, Ray’s daughter who works for the Center for Changing Lives and is active on housing and immigration issues.

The change came not because of turnover. “Many of the people are the same, but, together, and through my parent’s example, we have all evolved, grown, learned and, yes, changed,” wrote Ellen in an email exchange. “I believe my church, under my dad’s leadership, had a conversion experience to know Jesus better by understanding the gospel as a call to social justice. I love that I am part of a community that wants to, is hungry to, be challenged to do what is right and just and is willing to change in order to fulfill that call.  I am a better person because I am a part of that kind of faith community.”

The church on the street

In 2011, after their church building was ruined by the ruptured steam boiler and other damages, Ray thought that they didn’t have to fit their ministry into the shape of our building. So the 110-year-old church building was taken apart.

When there was no church building, Ray said they had to learn how to be a church without walls.

“We’ve really had to be the church on the street rather than the church in the building. We didn’t want it to just be Sunday morning, we wanted it to be more times during the week that we would interact with people’s needs. What does ministry look like when you have no building? So we collaborate a lot.”

One of their collaborations with other neighborhood organizations. is to feed the homeless. They served the meal once a month for five years through Humboldt Park Social Services. Several other churches also volunteered to serve other Sunday meals, so that the program could provide a daily meal to the hungry at the Humboldt Park Methodist Church. After this program ended, Ray and his congregation decided to carry on the work. They have been partnering with the First Lutheran Church in the neighborhood for two years.

At the traditional Thanksgiving meal last November, they made salad, mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans. And of course, the turkey played the leading role. They also prepared cranberries, soft drinks, and pumpkin pie.

Ray said the grace at the front of a room full of homeless people. Then he exchanged greetings with everyone in the long line as they waited to be served. Everyone knows him, and he seemed to know everyone. He called them by name in his joyful and sonorous voice. He ate with them at the cafeteria tables, catching up with their lives and bursting into laughter from time to time.

“The Kingdom of God is now and not yet. But there are glimpses of it when the people of God rise up with their voice to say ‘tear down the wall,’ when the hungry are fed, when the homeless are housed, when the church acts to relieve suffering. There are these glimpses.”

“The family you want to be a part of”

Among several volunteers from Ray’s church, Kyle Gilbertson is the only younger face.

The 36-year-old music teacher at Phoenix Military Academy said he joined the church partly because of Ray’s active involvement in social justice actions. An atheist years ago, Gilbertson said many churches that he went to “didn’t have that same kind of urgency, or seriousness.”

“It’s okay to be both spiritual, and to be political and activist the same time. And meeting a pastor and congregation that seem to embrace that idea was good for me because it was where I was already but it was sort of legitimation,” he said, while opening a can in the hustling kitchen occupied by his church members.

“What I appreciated most about Pastor Ray?” Gilbertson put the can down, adjusting his John Lennon Glasses and starting to answer, unaware that Ray was in hearing range.

“I’m here!” Ray cried out with a naughty grin. Everybody laughed.

Gilbertson, laughing with a flush on his cheek, moved to a corner outside the kitchen.

“His positive energy. He never stops. He never seems like he’s tired or exhausted, or like he can never do it anymore. He keeps a huge level of activity. It seems that he thrives on that, instead of getting tired,” said Gilbertson in a gentle voice. “And he’s open to trying all sorts of different new things. He’s got that openness and feeling of excitement about everything he’s doing.”

For Deacon, who has known Ray for about 37 years, the answer is simple.

“He listens. He’s compassionate,” she said with appreciation.

The time when Deacon first met Ray and Karren as neighbors, her children were going to an after school program at the Kimball Avenue Church, but she was going to another church.

“Then I gave birth to my son, and I had an emergency C-section, and the staff said that my pastor was there and coming in to see me. And I thought in my head, ‘I don’t want to see him. Why does she or he – there were many ministers – have come to see me?” she recalled. “And then pastor Ray came in and I was relieved. And next moment I knew I was going to the wrong church. And that’s why I started to go to this church.”

“Pastor Ray has never been out for what he can gain,” Deacon added. “In fact, he’s worked for our congregation for a low income for many years because we couldn’t afford at one point to pay him a whole lot.”

Ray and his wife Karren raised their two children in the neighborhood. Deacon called Ray’s oldest child Ellen “my dear friend since the day she’s born.”

For Levinger, who has been working with Ray on the frontline to preserve public housing at Lathrop Home and with his daughter Ellen through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, “they are just like the family you want to be a part of, like if I could adopt them and join their family, I would, because they are just deeply good people.”

An oasis to feed the body and soul

The congregation has been on the move since 2011 after their 110-year old house of worship at 2324 N. Kimball Ave was torn down piece by piece and recycled with most of the materials sold. The process also became a workforce training project. They trained and certified six people in deconstruction, including three homeless people.

“Even though we lost the building, we did it in a really eco-friendly and socially responsible way,” said Ray with pride. “We feel really good about it.”

Ray isn’t sure when or whether they’ll rebuild the church building. On the vacant they have already built an “oasis” – a labyrinth and a community garden – a place of rest and refreshment.

“You are coming to find your center again. You are walking back and forth until you get to the center,” Ray said while walking the labyrinth. People pray and reflect on their lives in this practice which could date back to Middle Ages.

Ray walks the labyrinth. This practice helps to “find your center again,” said Ray. (YIngxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

In the gardens beside the labyrinth, 26 families and three churches grow fruit and vegetables there in spring and summer, said Ray. They plant eggplant, tomato, green beans, kale, basil, green peppers, etc. There are also two ponds that have mosquito fish in them. The church installs solar fountains to keep it like living water.

“We lost our building,” said Ray. “But the plan is to have a place that feeds the body with the gardens, and a place that feeds the soul.”

The church and community members have been constantly improving the whole project. Ray said they would replace bricks with flowers and words like peace, love, wholeness, “things you want to incorporate into your life.” Recently, teens from the Design.Build.Grow.Eat program have been building arches over the garden.

Three black planters, one slightly higher than another, stand at the center of the labyrinth. Ray said flowers representing flames of fire will be planted there.

In the center of the labyrinth, three planters will have flowers to represent fire. “Moses meeting God in the burning bush. You come, and you have your Moses moment,” said Ray. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

“Moses meeting God in the burning bush. You come, and you have your Moses moment,” Ray said with a smile. “You become centered again, you realign yourself to the things that you want to become and what to do. After you have your moment, you breathe deep, and then you are ready to go out, and face life again, better prepared to face it.”

An era of new challenges

Since this February, the congregation has moved back to a “house church format.” After worshiping in an art studio on Diversey Ave. for a year, the church now holds the Sunday service in a house, which is also the church’s office, beside the community gardens at 3413 W. Medill Ave.

The congregation now holds their Sunday services in a house beside the community gardens at 3413 W. Medill Ave. Ray’s family used to live here. After they moved out in 2011, this house has been used as the church’s office. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

Though it does not give the congregation the space to grow as they need to, it does reconnect the church visibly to the Labyrinth and the community garden, which serves as their primary outreach with more people walking the Labyrinth and gardening. Through the summer, weather permits, the church might do some outdoor services, and have some concerts in the yard.

“Honestly. The church is struggling financially,” said Ray. “We need to look at what options do we have to find different revenue streams, increase our capacity to give and sustain ourselves.”

Ray has worked for the congregation for a modest income for many years. For a period of time Ray worked a second job, but juggling between them prevented him from giving as much of attention to his pastoral work. So Ray decided to continue to work full-time for the congregation.

Sustainability is an ongoing concern for many churches. Ray’s congregation met with several other congregations last Sunday, discussing the possibility to rent a co-working space.

A dwindling and aging congregation might be another concern for the church. Ray said the there would be 25 to 30 members if everyone connected with the congregation came to services. Gilbertson said he would like to see more members, including younger people like him, in the congregation. There is a challenge, but Ray said they have been working on this.

“With all the work that we do in the community, I think that people are aware of us and what we do. We are visible,” said Ray. “But we haven’t been able to successfully translate that community awareness and involvement into participation.”

It might be even harder to get a younger generation to show up in the church. A Gallup religion trend report last year identified this growing number of younger people without a formal religious identity as “nones.” But Ray said no affiliation does not mean they don’t have a spiritual desire.

“I’m not sure whether younger people in the community are necessarily interested in a Sunday morning kind of expression of their faith,” said Ray. “My observation is that they are passionate about community and connection, coming together around things like gardens, social justice actions, but not necessarily the way of worship.”

While acknowledging the importance of the community gathering together in actions, Ray thinks it’s also important to root the actions and community building in Biblical faith – “having the foundation of why we’re doing those things, not just doing them.”

“We need to become more strategic as a congregation about developing in more full understanding the way people, whatever age, are thinking about their spirituality and faith, and how can we better connect faith and actions for those people,” said Ray.

Discussion with his 34-year-old daughter Ellen helps Ray to understand the mindset of millennials in the efforts to get them connected. One of the challenges is to engage younger people  in a less formal way, since church on Sunday doesn’t always relate to their lives, Ray said.

One of the ways he wants to try is to create conversation circles. The conversation is not discussing a specific kind of dogma and breed, but things younger people really doubt from time to time.

“Is Jesus really God? Younger people struggle with that doctrine. So rather than being dogmatic and saying that Jesus is God, it’s more like bringing people together to talk about it with without being judgmental,” said Ray.

For him, part of the discussion is to understand where people at and how can the congregation engage people where they are at, and lay the foundation that enables them to sustain their action long-term. The challenges are new, but the situation is familiar: leading his congregation to meet the needs of the community and to answer the call of the gospel, just like what he did almost 30 years ago.

“Blow Wind Blow”

As a pastor, Ray has not given up his love of writing. He not only incorporates that passion in preparing the sermons, but also published a book. “Blow Wind Blow” is “a children’s book with an adult message,” said Ray with a profound look.

Ray has published a book called “Blow Wind Blow.” He wrote this book to encourage his congregation to welcome new experiences. (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Ray)

The story starts with a little boy who lives in a house with his father, grandfather, great grandfather. All the windows he sees are nailed shut. The little boy asks why they don’t open those window. His father tells him “there are scary things out there and we are vulnerable to them.” His grand father tells him “the wind will come in, make everything dirty and mess up with our order.”

Finally, he gets up enough nerve to knock at his great grandfather’s door. When the door opened, lo and behold, all the windows in the room are open, and they start the conversation about “why do you open your windows?”. The great grandfather says “because without the wind, the air, there’s no life.”

At the end of the book, the great grandfather gives the boy a hammer and says “you have to decide whether you want to open your windows or not.” The little boy goes back to him room, ponders on the question, and in the end decides to open his window. In front of the open window, he shouts, “blow wind blow!”

The book, Ray said, was written in a period of time when the denomination they were part of were really afraid of new things and they weren’t open the window. The wind is an allusion to the Spirit, but it is also about freshness, new things that coming to our lives, sometimes unexpectedly.

“Maybe there are people saying ‘don’t go there, don’t do that, you shouldn’t think about those things,’ but when we are presented by the opportunity, we should not be afraid to try it,” said Ray. “There is a time where we individually or corporately have to make a choice to give up control, to risk the chaos of change, to experience something new and to move forward.”

Ray’s “Moses moment” came when he was called to serve God as a pastor, which he said turned out to be the best way for him to live out his faith and his desire to do God’s work in the world.

Ray turns 60 this year but he said he doesn’t feel old. He has spent almost four decades shepherding his “little flock of sheep.”

“I’m very pound of Kimball Avenue Church,” Ray said, in a serious and sincere tone. “I know we are small, I know we are growing older, we might not be sustainable currently, but I think what is really fantastic about this congregation, is that they have never shied away from taking risks. They have always been willing to open the windows, to say ‘blow window blow.”


Photo at top:Ray spoke at the Las Posadas action at Lathrop Homes, a public housing project in Logan Square. The protest enacted a Bible story to urge Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the “innkeeper,” to preserve public housing units in Lathrop Homes. (Yingxu Jane Hao/Medill)