For this church, gay congregants 'bring new life'

Rev. Barbara Lohrbach talks about St. John's United Church of Christ in Kankakee, Ill. which is 40 percent LGBT. Mike Voss, The Daily Journal via AP.

By Lee Provost, The Daily Journal

Kankakee, Ill. (AP) — Kankakee's St. John's United Church of Christ is no stranger to taking the road less traveled.

The small, brown-brick church at the northwest corner of South Rutledge Avenue and West River Street has called the city home since 1870.

The church of about 175 members — at a time when many churches are seeing empty pews — is set to break ground on a 4,700-square-foot, $800,000 expansion that will increase the size of its facility to just less than 14,000 square feet.

The project will go out for bid in May. It should be awarded in June and completed in time for Christmas services, Pastor Barbara Lohrbach said.

However, while the expansion will be a noticeable shift, it's not the only change taking place at the west Kankakee site that's been home to St. John's since 1955.

The other shift is much more subtle.

The church, which has for years welcomed members of the gay and transgender community, has maintained a healthy congregation particularly because of affirming policy.

"We welcome everyone and that includes the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community," Lohrbach said. "Many are people who had given up on church. People who didn't feel welcomed anywhere else."

When Lohrbach arrived at the church nestled inside this west Kankakee residential neighborhood, she said it was facing obvious challenges. The chief concern? Its congregation was graying. New members were few and far between.

St. John's was not alone in that. A 2013 Pew Research Center report estimated only 37 percent of Americans attend church on a weekly basis.

Meanwhile, a 2014 Gallup poll found church participation was even lower among the LGBT population. According to this poll, about half of all LGBT identifying people — 47 percent — said they were not religious. Of all American adults, 30 percent say religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom if ever attend religious services.

Lohrbach, the church's pastor since 2004, estimates 40 percent of St. John's congregation would be classified as LGBT.

"This is a place where they can come and be comfortable. They are seen here just like anyone else. This has brought new life for this congregation," she said. "They've helped bring new life, excitement and hope here."

Gary Dahn, a 40-year church member, said welcoming the LGBT community undoubtedly had to be difficult for some. He did some soul searching himself.

"We are where we need to be according to the Bible," he said. "I know I'm where I want to be."

As for the expansion, architect Jacob Carlile said the project is expected to take seven months to complete.

The northside addition will consist of a multipurpose room, kitchen, offices, elevator and handicap-accessible restrooms.

Lohrbach and Dahn said there was talk of moving out and putting the 9,300-square-foot building up for sale.

The congregation declined to move. West River Street is home.

"We didn't want to flee the community," Lohrbach said. "The people said this is where we should be. Our goal is to serve this community. Going somewhere else is not the mission God has for us."

Source: The (Kankakee) Daily Journal,

Information from: The Daily Journal,

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The Gayly May 16, 2016 @ 6:35 a.m.