An Episcopal minister turns a West Side church into a vibrant cultural center-with a little help from her rock & roll friends.
By Garin Pirnia Photographs by Rogan Birnie|
On a Wednesday night in mid-September, the hippest place to be was neither a bar nor club. It was a church.
Inside the Epiphany Episcopal Church on the city’s Near West Side—the newest space being booked by Empty Bottle Presents—the Rev. Meigan Cameron watched as her pews filled with beer-guzzling twentysomethings and a tech crew set up guitar amps and a drum kit near her altar in preparation for indie-rock trio Low to preach its gospel of slow-burning doom. Cameron didn’t flinch or seem the least bit flustered. After all, making Epiphany a part-time rock venue is all part of Cameron’s larger plan to mold her church into an active cultural hub.
When Cameron came to Epiphany four years ago, the Idaho native says, she encountered an economically diverse congregation that had little to no contact with the secular community around it. She made it her goal to transform the church into a “gathering place for fellowship, for meals, for joyful and serious and thoughtful time together.” To that end, she’s instituted a winter farmers’ market every weekend from November to December where local producers sell everything from sheep’s-wool yarn to organic meats. The church even established LINK-card usage at the market so the poorer members of the congregation can partake. Other programs include a monthly experimental-dance series and a Music and Scripture period, during which Cameron, 41, who grew up on a steady diet of Talking Heads and Nirvana, integrates band lyrics into her sermons.
But don’t expect a note of hip-hop or heavy metal in Cameron’s house of God. She says one of the tenets in the agreement between the church and Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman was that he wouldn’t book acts she and the congregation felt would undermine Christianity—something Finkelman says he didn’t take issue with. “We would never want to book something there that the congregation was not comfortable with. I think so far they have been incredibly open to our ideas,” he says.
The broad prohibition on hip-hop and metal doesn’t mean Cameron is attempting to proselytize concertgoers through Epiphany. “Yes, of course we hope that people come in here and say, ‘Wow, this is a great place and I’d like to know more about it,’ ” she says. “We’d love them to see that we as Christians care about what they care about, but we’re not going to be standing at the door recruiting.” As Low (which includes a married couple who are practicing Mormons) ended its set, a few people approached Cameron to ask about the church. Concertgoer Jason Shanley remained skeptical, though. “I appreciate that the pastor is open enough to have rock music here,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s going to bring indie kids into the church.”
Perhaps the interest generated among the crowd can be attributed to the fact that Cameron conversed with all the shaggy-haired hipsters as if they were already a part of her flock. “When people try to contrast Saturday night as secular and carnal and Sunday morning as holy and spiritual, I think we’re creating a false dichotomy,” she says. “If I can’t treat the people around me at a concert on Saturday night with decency, then I’m not living how I profess on Sunday.”