From the Archives: Scarlet Begonias | This 'sacred space' nourishes body and soul
February 5, 2004
For two days now, since I read about a new Chicago travel book set to hit the market later this year, I've had a Grateful Dead song stuck in my head.
No, not "Truckin'."
It's "Scarlet Begonias." Specifically, the line where Jerry sings, "Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right."
The book that inspired my consciousness to play the darn song on a loop is called The Spiritual Traveler: Chicago and Illinois. It's for travelers searching for God as well as local color.
Written by Marilyn Chiat, a religious art and architecture specialist from Minnesota, the guide promises to introduce readers to "hundreds of churches, synagogues, mosques, meetinghouses, Buddhist meditation centers and Hindu temples" in Chicago and vicinity, as well as "retreat centers of various traditions ... gardens, parks, cemeteries and other peaceful places."
The book, according to the publisher's promotional blurb, sums up the locations listed above as "extraordinary sites and places of spiritual power."
An easier way to describe them is "sacred space."
We have a lot of that here in Chicago. But not all of it is found in the kind of locations Chiat explored.
I'm talking about sacred space in a Joseph Campbell (the American mythologist) kind of way. He said, "Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again."
Using that definition, I can think of many spaces that are sacred to me, places where I have been inspired and awed, where I've wrestled with what I believe are life's most important questions.
Some of those places are houses of worship, like St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and Sacre Coeur in Paris. Some are natural wonders, like the cliffs at Malin Head at the northern tip of County Donegal, the White Place near Abiquiu, N.M., and a certain large rock on the northeast banks of the Fox River in downtown Geneva.
But in Chicago, one of my sacred spaces, the place where I find myself time and again, is a ramshackle joint at the corner of Glenwood and Lunt in Rogers Park with the best corn bread in Chicago.
The Heartland Cafe is part restaurant, part headquarters of the revolution. Its denizens are an eclectic mix of artists and engineers, blue-collar workers and college students, socialists and soccer moms. The food ranges from vegan fare to buffalo chili. And the decor is decidedly hippy-trippy-meets-Che Guevara, with the head of a bison named Omar mounted over the bar.
For the last 15 years or so, ever since I made that first 74-mile round-trip trek from my college out in the suburbs, it's been a dependable source of sustenance -- physical and spiritual -- for this particular pilgrim.
Over the years, between the gray-and-mint tiled floor and the dark green (or is it black?) tin ceiling, I've laughed a lot, cried a few times, prayed frequently, danced, sung, read scripture, argued about it, talked politics, argued about it, fallen in love and out of it.
The Heartland's got a vibe that seems to draw out my spirit. And I'm not the only one.
For a while, the cafe was a regular apres-church stop for a group of us. Kind of like a coffee social, but with more soy products.
We'd slide right into one of the old church pews from St. Gertrude's parish and the United Church of Rogers Park that the Heartland uses as seating in the dining room, before digging into our lunch and heady discussions about faith, love and the meaning of life.
Our group retired some time ago. But that sense of the sacred remains for me in the Heartland.
"There's always been a church-like quality here," Michael James, one of the Heartland's co-owners and founders, was telling me the other day as I drizzled more honey over the block of corn bread still steaming from the oven.
When he was a young teenager back in Connecticut, James thought about becoming a minister, and his business partner, Katie Hogan, he says, "wanted to become a nun, I think."
Instead, they became '60s radicals and in 1976 opened the Heartland as a place where people could get "wholesome food for mind and body."
The Rev. Wendy Hardin, pastor of the United Church of Rogers Park, is a Heartland regular. She first visited the cafe as a seminary student in Evanston 10 years ago.
"I tell Michael it's my second office," Hogan said. "People feel safer there than coming and hanging out in the pastor's office."
When James, who abandoned his clerical aspirations before he headed off to Lake Forest College, explains why he and Hogan started the Heartland a generation ago, he could just as well be describing a more traditional ministry.
"I set it up because I wanted to give people what they should get," he said. "There are a lot of people who show up here who are just really grateful that we're here. It's a place where a lot of people can come to be nourished."
Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right….