Updated: Jan 13
I was in Chicago visiting family after having been away for many years.
It was Christmas Day and I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch but arrived early so I decided to take a walk around my old neighborhood until my friend arrived.
I was walking east on the south side of Devon Avenue between Mozart and California when I saw an older Indian man dressed in what looked like religious or ceremonial clothing turn right on California.
Having time to kill, I decided to follow him, curious to see if he was going to a place of worship.
I followed him as he walked another block and crossed California eastbound at Rosemont and entered a building that I remembered once housed Ner Tamid Synagogue.
Entering, I was met with a friendly greeting at the door and followed the Indian man into the large sanctuary that, to my surprise, was packed not with Indians, but with the widest assortment of people from just about every race and ethnicity imaginable.
I made my way down the aisle looking for a seat at the beginning of the row with an empty seat next to it, finding one on the right side about three quarters of the way down the aisle.
I sat down and the preacher took the stage and I was astounded to see it was a young girl with curly brown hair who I thought couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven.
All of the sudden—looking around at the worshippers packed into the sanctuary—I became aware that no one, myself included, was wearing a face mask.
Panicking, but not wanting to draw attention to myself having just sat down, I removed my phone from my jacket pocket, switched off the ringer and pretended to have received an urgent phone call.
Putting the phone to my ear and covering the other ear with my other hand, I walked quickly up the aisle, into the main entrance hall and out the door.
By that time, I had to meet my friend so I walked back to Devon Avenue and saw him waiting there.
I greeted Paul—a tall, Black man with whom I had attended The Theatre School at DePaul University in the early 1990s—and told him about this megachurch I had stumbled upon and it peaked his interest enough that he asked me to take him there.
When we arrived a few minuted later, I was surprised to find the place had emptied out and there wasn’t a soul inside.
We sat down in the same row where I had just been seated moments before and just then Paul—looking out of a window I wasn’t tall enough to see out of—said he could see cars beginning to fill the parking lot and crowds of people walking towards the side door.
So, we quickly headed for the main entrance and as I was walking up the aisle I noticed I had forgotten to return the large white pillow that was on my seat and decided to keep it, awkwardly hiding it inside the back of my jacket.
We left the building and as we started walking south down California, we came upon square with a beautifully smooth, black and white, tiled mosaic floor.
While I was trying to describe to Paul what I had experienced earlier in the sanctuary, I noticed a woman who was getting out of a car she had just parked on the periphery of the square and was convinced it was another former African American Theatre School graduate named Holly, but though I was certain it was who I thought it was, her complexion was very light and, I thought to myself it looked like she may have chemically lightened her skin.
I pointed out the woman—who was casually dressed in jeans and a faded army-style fatigue jacket—to Paul, but then remembered he graduated before the woman had, so he probably wouldn’t have known her.
The woman then turned around, walked back to her car, removed her jacket (revealing a faded, short-sleeved army fatigue t-shirt), closed the car door and began walking towards the megachurch.
At the last minute, I decided to call out to her and recognizing me she walked over to say hello.
I was going to make a joke by saying that she was pretty far from home, considering she lived with her husband and children in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
As she was fast approaching, I realized I didn’t know how to correctly pronounce “Stuyvesant,” so I remembered the neighborhood was also referred to as “Bed-Stuy,” for short, so my quirky comment came off and got a laugh from Holly.
I introduced Paul to Holly thinking they might just remember each other from school, but when Holly asked Paul what year he graduated, he replied “2002,” which I thought was strange because he had graduated when I did a decade earlier in 1992.
When I asked Holly what she was doing so far from home, she said she attended the church regularly and often came with her husband and children.
She said she had to go because she didn’t want to be late and said it was nice running into us.
Paul and I started walking across the square and realizing it had gotten late and we hadn’t eaten, I suggested we go to pizzeria I had seen nearby rather than walking around until we found a place to eat.
I told Paul I had this terrible habit every time I visited a new city to literally walk around for hours until I found the perfect place to eat, so I insisted we had better just go to the pizzeria for lunch as we were starving.
Then I woke up.