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Altar Ego

The Chicagoland Community Church goes to the goths.

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The place was spooky enough before the goth bands loaded in: low ceilings, walls padded with crude tapestries, the air funky with incense. And there was, of course, already a cross hung prominently behind the stage. The opening act, a local duo called Leper, added a couple candle-topped pillars, a smoke machine, and a red light, and one warm Saturday in February the Chicagoland Community Church became a sounding chamber for a dark night of the soul.

Chicagoland, at 836 W. Aldine, is a stone's throw from the Alley and the rest of the counterculture mall surrounding the old Punkin' Donuts. It's a "nondenominational house of worship" formed with guidance and financial support from Uptown Baptist. In a mission statement on a Web site offering consultation for church "planters," cofounder Jon Pennington writes that he and his wife "have a passion to reach people [and] groups not adequately reached. Particularly the poor, punks, and young urban professionals. We are passionate about Biblical theology, multiplying cell groups, and including the liturgy in contemporary-alternative worship." Dave Verdin, the 22-year-old leader of the the CCC youth group called the Belmont Undead, runs goth night. He's wearing heavy black eyeliner and a mesh shirt. "They call it nondenominational just so we can do fun stuff like this," he said.

Verdin claims the Belmont Undead is the only free, all-ages goth night in the area that's had any longevity; it's been going nearly once a month for over two years. A typical night kicks off around 8:30 with a Bible study session, full of spirited argument between Catholic, Christian, atheist, and pagan goths, followed by a showing of a goth-friendly film like The Lord of the Rings or Edward Scissorhands, a DJ or two, and then live music that can run till 2 AM. But as the church's budget tends to be tight, some months there hasn't been enough money to hire bands, and even in good times Verdin can only afford locals "who aren't too fussy about how much they get paid." Most of the kids who come are neither Christian nor particularly wild, Verdin said. "They're basically hippies who like wearing black and have a passion for the music." Most are too young to get into bars and don't have much cash, so a free all-ages show in a church is better than staying in the cave.

Leper--guitarist Skot Shaw, bassist Daniel Feldstein, and a drum machine--was the only Christian act on February's bill. They're members of Jesus People USA, or JPUSA, the Uptown Christian commune founded by ex-hippies in the early 70s. They live and eat with 500 or so other faithful at the complex at 920 W. Wilson. In return Shaw works as a chauffeur for members and needy families, Feldstein as a laborer at Lakefront Supply, a JPUSA-owned roofing supply company.

Feldstein, a fine-featured blond with a clean pageboy, introduced two numbers in a row by saying, "I like this song!" Both he and Shaw fumbled with the drum machine, but he fingered his bass crisply, one arm whizzing out at intervals to trigger effects on a synthesizer. Shaw, a thirtysomething specter in heavy eye makeup, blood-colored lipstick, and a long, hooded cape, wailed and contributed metal-inflected guitar. Around 20 people listened attentively, seated in pews. Leper played mostly loud slow ballads with quick runs in the fills, but when a dance-speed tune finally came up one girl banged her head gently.

Shaw's wife, Rachel--a statuesque woman with big cat eyes and a black scar drawn down the middle of her face--watched him from her post at the Leper merch table. The band had three CDs available at ten bucks apiece, but Rachel was also giving out free zines. One was called Grace After Abortion, its cover dominated by a drawing of a blood-covered baby being delivered into the giant hands of the Lord. The other was filled with Leperabilia: photos of the band, clinical descriptions of leprosy, and an essay by Shaw detailing how he found a way to express his faith through the romantic dirges of goth.

"Our songs really deal with relationships," Shaw said after their set, as Feldstein replenished himself with a minibag of Doritos. "Our relationships with God, but as explained through our relationships with other people. There's a lot of things I wouldn't understand about the nature of God if I weren't married to her--the beautiful, the wonderful Rachel!"

Shaw's head is shaved except for eight tufts of hair, onto each of which he's woven a lock of Rachel's tresses--one for every year they've been man and wife. He's never been good with girls, he said, and by his mid-20s he was afraid he'd never find love. So he asked his grandmother, a devout Pentecostal, for help. "She set to prayin', as Pentecostal grammas are like to do," he said, and soon a newcomer walked into their small church in bumblefuck Ohio: "She was exactly the kind of girl I'd been asking for--dark hair, dark eyes. I'd like to think God threw in drop-dead gorgeous just because that's the kind of thing he can do."

While an industrial metal band called Tenebrion played, some people retreated to the back lounge, outfitted with secondhand furniture, urns of hot coffee, and coolers packed with soda. An underage atheist in a T-shirt featuring a salacious she-demon sucked down a cola. He asked what other people thought of Leper, then offered his own critique: "The music's cool," he said, "but if you listen to the lyrics they're really preachy. I'm just here because I know the guy who started this thing--I wouldn't be here if I had any place better to go for free. Then again, who's going to let you have a goth show for free besides a church?"

A trim, bald 27-year-old in a skintight black tee folded his arms and shrugged. If he hadn't driven all the way in from Round Lake, he informed us, he would've left when he found out it was a Christian event. "I kind of got conned," he said. "On the Internet it said 'free drinks.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Daniel Locke.

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