Thursday, September 13, 2007

Road Trip Destination: Chicago, Illinois

Oh, I know! Finally, the long-awaited (by me) final blog post on the road trip has now arrived. LOL, almost two weeks after it happened. What can I say? I've had some readjusting to do after being back from vacation. Plus i've had some other blog-worthy thoughts and events since returning that may or may not make its way to a live post. We'll see. But this post here will be a long one (I warned you) because this part of the trip was full and it was fun! So bear with me if you've been following our journey and choose to read on. Plus be sure to check out the link to the full album of photos. =)

But here it was. The end of the road trip vacation!

Chicago was my favorite leg of the road trip. It was also the last destination before returning to Southern California. After Grand Rapids, Michael and I spent our Labor Day weekend hanging out in Chicago. It was fun because we got to do a little bit of everything.

We met up with a new friend and reconnected with another (both GCN'ers) for smoothies. We got to ride the "L" - Chicago's rapid transit system. We met some incredibly interesting yet random people. We had Chicago pizza. We saw some of Chicago's sites. We connected with other local GCN'ers. And we spent some time exploring how the Church could be reconciled with itself in regards to that ole' gay issue . . . .

As we entered Chicago, I could already tell that this was going to remind me of home. Well, at least, the part of home I try to avoid. I live in Long Beach which is roughly 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Without traffic, it could probably take 40-45 minutes to drive in to LA. However, with traffic, it'd take at least an hour or more to get to where we'd want to go. So I try to avoid LA if at all possible.

So when we first arrived in Chicago, we hit the Labor Day weekend traffic - all the people rushing home from work or rushing out of the city's madness.

Welcome to Chicago!

Nevertheless, it was quite exciting to be entering this city for the first time. It is so packed and condensed. We drove through Chicago's ghetto areas. We drove along the beach and waterfront. We drove passed the skyscrapers. We drove in bumper to bumper traffic. But it was really interesting to see the diversity of people on first impression - varying ethnicities, varying cultures, varying economic status, varying fashion, and varying personalities in both the people and in the city's structures. Very cool!

We were meeting up with a GCN'er named Michael for the first time. This is gonna get confusing so i'll refer to my travel companion as Michael and i'll refer to our new friend as Michael M. That'll do, right? So this is Michael M. We were quite excited to meet each other! Hehe.

Michael M. hung out with us on Friday afternoon and evening, then also all day on Saturday. So over the course of these days, I was continually very impressed as I got to know him a bit more - his heart, passion, and personality in action.

The three of us first hung out at this Hookah cafe place for some tasty smoothies. Michael really seemed tempted to try the Hookah for the first time, but he took a rain check. I took the opportunity to talk with Michael M. a lot about his experience going through one of the Marin Foundation courses. Remember Greg from Michigan? Greg works with the Marin Foundation quite a bit. In fact, even Becky is good friends with Andrew Marin. In a nutshell, Andy is this straight guy who just has a huge heart for the GLBT community (much like Becky). Through the foundation, he works to build bridges between the gay community and the religious community. But its his approach that is very interesting and some of us in Long Beach are considering bringing him here to do some of his work. I'll talk more about this at the end of this post. Michael M. went through one of the courses offered by the foundation geared for gay people. I really wanted to get his feedback from going through it so that I could assess its potential usefulness here in Long Beach.

Michael got to share some of his story with Michael M., as well as discussing his journey of examining the Side A/Side B Debate (see left side column links). Michael M. teaches music at a university so he is quite familiar with academia. It was also interesting to hear about some of his passion for music. He's a composer! Check out his Web site here.

As the three of us hung out, Shawn was on his way to meet up with us. Shawn is a GCN'er who lives outside of Chicago. We met in Southern California, first at the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference at the end of June (I let him crash at my place for an evening after the conference), then a second time at the post-EC Conference GCN bonfire at the end of July.

After Shawn got off from work, he took the "L" to meet up with us and he had to use the restroom SOOOOO bad! It was funny because I told him we were going to the store to get him a box of Depend. It took him a while to find the cafe that we were at so when he finally found us, he post-poned the standard hugs and greetings and went straight for the restroom with us holding the door for him and waving him in the right direction so that he could find his relief.

Shawn's a character and he had me cracking up several times. He also hosted us the entire weekend. Not only did he let us stay at his place through the weekend (thanks Shawn!), he also hung out with us the whole time. It was fun getting to know Shawn's personality too (as well as his history).

We were starting to get hungry for dinner so we decided to make our way downtown for our first Chicago pizza (yes, for the Pizza Wars). It was my first time riding the "L"! Wow, I was in Chicago riding the elevated transit train passing by Wrigley Field. Sigh. While on the train, we had an absolutely fun time talking with these random strangers. Actually, it'd be more accurate to say that they were talking with us.

It was sooo fun! Michael and Shawn were sitting on one bench to my left (see picture above). Michael M. was sitting on the bench in front of me (pictured here on the right). The "L" made a stop and picked up a lot more passengers and along came this rather interesting couple. The woman sat next to Michael M. while the man sat right next to me. Almost immediately, the two of them began to engage us in conversation.

"Do you like my tattoo? Is it cool? Does it make me look hard? Do you like it? Awww, you don't like it! Does it look gay? Does it make me look faggy? It's cool, huh? Huh?"

The man was so overbearing with the almost immediate and random barrage of personal questions and comments but he did so with such charisma and friendliness that I totally thought it was all fun. So I engaged him back. I found out that the two of them had previously been divorced (not with each other). They met three years ago and have been committed to having fun and living life. They have two lists of things they want to do and experience. One list is a "good" list - the one you can tell the family about. The second list is their "bad" list - the crazy fetish type stuff. The funny thing was that he was sharing details about the kinds of things that were on their list and the things they've done and crossed off the list. It was so hilarious and fun because he showed absolutely no boundaries with me but was super friendly. He sat really close to me, shoulder to shoulder, and told me about their journey and asked me about mine. He wanted to know about the road trip and the places I've been and seen. He'd oscillate back and forth between telling me stuff on their lists to asking me about me then inquiring about whether or not I thought his girlfriend was hot.

The funny thing is that she was having a similarly humorous conversation with Michael M. "What do you think about my nipple ring?"

The whole experience was hilarious! And it was a fun random encounter with Chicago natives.

We finally got to downtown Chicago and we were surrounded by the towering skyscrapers above us as we walked along the sidewalks with the herds of people. We were all starving and we searched with minimal success for pizza places to eat that didn't have a hugely long wait. We settled on Pizzeria Due that had a 45 minute wait time. I'll comment on the pizza during our Pizza Wars post. However, it took absolutely forever to get our food! It's like all of Chicago goes out for pizza every night.

The rest of the evening after dinner was pretty uneventful since we knew that Saturday would be a full day. We took the "L" back to where our cars were, we parted ways with Michael M. who would join us for breakfast, then Michael, Shawn, and I drove out of the city to Shawn's place. By then, we were pretty tired.

Before the trip, I got in touch with a Two World Collision reader and fellow blogger ("A Journey of Reconciliation") - Michael R. Yeah, another Michael. Michael R. impressed me when he first made contact with me a few months ago. He recounted his own experiences and shared with me how many aspects of both our stories paralleled each other. Since he lives in "Boystown" - an area in Chicago largely populated by GLBT people, he agreed to show us around his neighborhood.

We all met for breakfast first at Ann Sather. I guess they are known for their huge cinnamon rolls that accompany every breakfast order. Soooooo good!

After breakfast he gave us lil' tour around Boystown as I asked numerous questions about the GLBT culture there. The bars and clubs and businesses are only one way of seeing the GLBT community in a city. In any city, I'm concerned with how people relate with one another. Do the G's, L's, B's, and T's get along? Do they interact well? How well do people of varying generations connect? Ethnicities? What kind of leadership does the community have? Can people meet new friends outside of the context of the bar or club?

It was interesting to see that while it does look like a cohesive community - as compared to others I've seen in West Hollywood, Long Beach, Palm Springs, Louisville, St. Louis, Grand Rapids - Boystown has much the same issues as every city i've been to when it comes to a need for a healthy relational understanding of one another as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals. That's been my theory - that fragmentation happens within the GLBT community (as well as in any community) because the sub-communities don't understand one another. When people don't understand one another, they tend to lack compassion for one another which leads to isolation or social fragmentation. One of my goals with Catalyst is to help catalyze a sense of compassion and interest in venturing into relationships outside of their comfort zone for the sake of building tangible community. What does this look like? That's what i'm exploring. And that's why i'd like to see if it already exists somewhere out there. This is something that I lack in my own life and i'd like to be more intentional about developing these kinds of relationships.

We had a great time walking up and down some of the streets of Boystown. We checked out some of the shops and stopped for ice cream. We even met up randomly with Tahir. He was walking up the sidewalk and Michael M. and Shawn both knew him and were surprised to see him so they started chatting. "Hey! It's good to see you! How's it going? Funny running into you here!"

I was just joking around and pretended like I knew him too. "Hey! It's good to see you! How's it going? Funny running into you here!"

Then Tahir says, "Actually, yeah, I know you. Author of Two World Collision dot blogspot dot com. Yeah, i know who you are."

I was shocked. Michael and I both looked at each other, "What the - ".

He introduced himself and I recognized his name. He had been reading this blog too and we started corresponding for awhile through email a couple times last year and this year. I didn't know what he looked like. I thought it was so funny because I was totally joking about knowing him. What are the odds that I'd actually know him? Talk about another random moment in Chicago!

Anyway, it was really good to meet Tahir.

We parted with Michael R. (for the afternoon only) and decided to see some Chicago sites so Michael, Shawn, Michael M. and I all went to see the Sears Tower. Apparently, it was the tallest building in the world for a time. Now I think it's 3rd or 4th tallest. It was interesting to visit because it's a business building in downtown Chicago that just happens to be super tall but it's also set up like an amusement park attraction.

There were the windy lines. There was a gift shop. There was a station where people can have nicely done photos taken. There were ticket booths. Then there was the elevator that led to the top of the Sears Tower. Before heading up, they crammed a large batch of people into a room that played a movie educating people about the history of the Sears Tower. Actually, this was smart of them because it had us appreciate it as more than just a really really tall building with a great view.

It was a great one, by the way. The view was awesome! From up top, there's a viewing room that let's you see Chicago from an amazing perspective. There were also maps of the city that showed you what buildings and sites you were looking at. It reminded me of St. Louis' arch.

Along the walls away from the windows, they displayed pictures of historical and notable Chicago people. It was an interesting presentation of honoring those who have contributed to shaping the city.

After leaving the Sears Tower, we ended up talking with a group of Mennonites outside the building. They had been there all weekend singing and witnessing and passing out literature. Most people would have passed by them without giving them a second thought or they would have engaged them in debate in regards to the right of gays to be acknowledged in the Church. But Michael M. really impressed me in the way that he spoke with one of them and genuinely tried to get to know him better. The result was that he was able to get to know Michael M. better. As the whole conversation unfolded between the two of them, Shawn, Michael and I just watched while Michael M. established authentic friendliness. He allowed this young 18 year old kid the opportunity to share his faith and story. That's what he was out there to do. Eventually, the kid discovered that we were gay Christians and we could tell that it made him pause. "Oh. Oh. Oh! You're . . . gay . . . Christians. Interesting. Um. All . . . of . . . you? Interesting. Okay. I . . . didn't . . . know."

I could actually see the wheels turning in his brain and learning that we were "gay Christians" almost short circuited him. But Michael M.'s approach and presence was so friendly and so disarming that the kid continued on with talking about God's love for all people and his own story. Seriously. I was absolutely impressed with Michael M. It was inspiring because he set an example of how we could shatter stereotypes by simply being willing to be authentic without overly emphasizing needlessly the fact that we're gay. During the conversation, two other Mennonites came over to hover as if to protect the kid. But as they stood by and watched their dialogue, I saw them gradually change their demeanor from "who are these guys and why are they talking to our guy" to a completely humble demeanor of "who are these brothers of ours". It was very interesting to see it all unfold. Eventually, Michael M. began talking with the other two Mennonites while the rest of us continued talking with the kid.

Anyway, this was another fun random encounter with strangers in Chicago and I was impressed by the leadership that Michael M. showed.

As we moved on from the Sears Tower, we wanted to go check out Millennium Park. There are some cool exhibits on display that attracts the crowds.

We took some time to get there though because it took us forever to find parking! That's something I noticed about Chicago. There is very little parking and for the ones that are available, you've gotta pay an arm and a leg for it. Granted, it was Labor Day weekend, but still. A friend of mine in Manhattan was telling me about how people need a mortgage broker in New York to help them find and secure a very small apartment - much less a condo or home. Here in Chicago, you've gotta get a mortgage broker to help you find and secure a parking spot! It's craziness!

Well when we finally got to Millennium Park, it was fun! We saw a fountain to take a photo in front of and we ended up having yet another random encounter with strangers.

Pictured here to the right is a trio of Children's Theatre performers. (LOL, every time I look at this photo I actually laugh out loud because of cutie Drew in the middle who poses like a dinosaur!) They are an acting troupe that travels around to do what they love. We started talking because both our groups wanted a group photo taken so we each happily snapped a shot of the other. We struck up a conversation with them and they turned out to be super fun people.

I shared with one gal for the majority of the time about our road trip and about how we are a part of a Gay Christian Network. She was incredibly compassionate about the way that gay believers are often displaced from their churches because of the issue. She comes from a religious fundamentalist background and so she's familiar with how hard it can be for people like us. Being in theatre, she's had many gay friends that have shared with her about how hard it's been for them. So she thought GCN was a great thing to be a part of and was glad that we're networking together to support and encourage one another. I wish and pray that more and more people within the mainstream Church would be like this gal - compassionate before judging. I sensed her genuine sincerity. It was fun sharing hearts about things we're both passionate about in the community.

One of my goals for the Chicago trip was to see the "Bean". I don't know if that's what it's actually called - but it looks like one. Several months ago, a friend of mine posted pics on Facebook from his Chicago trip and I was intrigued at seeing this bean looking structure. At the time, I had no idea that i'd be going on this trip but I knew that one day, i'd like to see and touch it for myself.

So the exciting thing for me is actually doing it! For a long time, i've always dreamed about experiencing things (like travel) but I never actually did it. So I feel like I missed out on alot of years. I don't want to dream anymore. I want to experience more. My goal recently has been to be intentional about stuff like that. So here I am, like that hilariously odd couple that we met on the "L", and i've got my metaphorical list of things I want to do and I'm crossing them off the list! And now i'm the one posting photos of it on Facebook!

Ooh! I can imagine . . . . one day i'll be sharing photos with you on this blog about visits to Paris, London, and Sydney! I can't wait!!!

Hehe, sorry, got a bit excited for a minute there.

After seeing Millennium Park, it was time to meet up with the others for dinner. Yes, we went out for more Chicago pizza. Again, it took absolutely forever to get seated, then to get our food. Chicago really likes their pizza!

But it gave us an opportunity for all of us to hang out, reconnect, or meet for the first time. This was a fun dinner because besides Michael, Shawn, Michael M. and I, we were joined by Andy Marin, Michael R., Troy (another Chicago GCN'er), and Earl (a TWC reader that I met through Facebook and have kept in touch with). It was a fun mix! Michael R. and Earl are now on GCN too! =)

After dinner, Michael R. made special arrangements with a friend of his to get us into a show to see the Blue Man Group. I've gotta say that this was totally awesome of Michael R. to do for us. (Thank you soooooo much Michael!!!!!) He got the five of us in - Michael, Shawn, Michael M., Michael R. and myself.

It was one of the best shows that I've ever experienced. It engaged all of my senses - even taste because I kinda up-chucked during a part of the show. It was fun and funny. I'm not going to spoil it by divulging details of the show but it really was amazing. I went in not having any idea of what to expect and I left having had a blast. We even took pictures with one of the blue guys!

After the show, Michael R. took us a few blocks to see his apartment. He shared with us a little about his family and friends through photos and I really got the impression that he loves the people in his life and they love him. He is a wonderfully sincere and nice guy! Hehe, so maybe he does have an "interesting" hobby but it may take him out to SoCal soon so I'll get to hang out with him when it does! =)

It was a full and fun day for the four of us and this would be the last time we'd see Michael M. during our time in Chicago. So on the ride back to drop Michael M. off at his car, what do these four gay Christian boys do? LOL, we sang songs from Aladin (rather they did) and we sang worship songs.

Sunday was our last day in Chicago and we'd be flying out later that afternoon. As our final point of connection, we met back up with Andy Marin for lunch - yes, for pizza. Hehe, well, they all knew about our Pizza Wars and so some of the Chicagoans disagreed about where the best Chicago pizza was served. So Andy had to take us out to his favorite!

I planned this meeting because I wanted to be able to talk with Andy more about the foundation and to hear more of his heart for what he's trying to do within the gay and religious communities. He was open with me about his story, open about some of the not-so-positive press he had gotten from a "gay" DJ (who has since been discredited by certain national GLBT organizations), and also open about his goals in forming the foundation.

Since he's a straight man, many people are concerned about what it is that he's about. Some gay people are concerned that he's advocating change. Some straight evangelical conservative people are concerned that he's advocating for the "gay lifestyle" (gag that phrase). Some are concerned that he's either both or neither. But at the same time, many more people on both sides of the spectrum and in between are excited about his approach and what he's trying to do. I can see why some would find him hard to read because he approaches the "issue" differently than most.

Andy doesn't make it a gay or a straight issue. He elevates the conversation above the politics and talks about more important things - spiritual growth while trusting Jesus to communicate to an individual His heart and will through a growing relationship with Him. At the end of the day, that's what Andy is concerned about. Here in Long Beach, i'm working with others from various organizations who want to navigate the "Hot Zone" and create a healthy dialogue within the Church about the taboo subject of gays in their midst. Andy could very well navigate this because he doesn't speak the language of politics. He speaks the language of bridge building. I can relate to this because I take the same approach with Catalyst and everything else. I think the key for all of us is to start teaching this new language to both sides of the bridge so that we can begin to talk with each other in the middle of that bridge.

This is my second long sit down with Andy. Several months ago, he was in Southern California and I sat down with him over dinner. He was pretty consistent in his message and his heart. He's sincere and i'm looking forward to working with him more.

And then it was over. We got to the airport, returned the rental, boarded our plane (which was on-time!), and returned to the Los Angeles area. Michael caught a connecting flight home to Santa Barbara and my friend picked me up and took me home to Long Beach.

Click here to see all the fun Chicago pics in my Facebook album!

During my first two days being back, I had a really hard time adjusting. Much of the drama that went on before I left was never resolved. Work was a crazy pit of mess - still. Plus I was still a bit irked because of that other situation. So I left home feeling all of these things. The vacation was a great respite. But now I return home still having to deal with all those feelings. I felt crappy for all of last week and half of this week. But now i'm starting to feel better and I'm moving forward.

I met soooo many people during this road trip vacation. I lost count but I suppose I could always go through all the Facebook photos to count 'em all up. So can you! Be sure to check out all of my Facebook photo albums in the section in the right column.

But the funnest part of the whole vacation was doing it yet again with a good friend of mine. Michael. It was fun times and i'm looking forward to the next one!


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a fantastic trip! Congratulations, on a fun time.

Steve and I are leaving for our first trip together to Chicago - today!!!

We are excited!

Anonymous said...

It was so great to remember all the fun times we had. Can't wait to see you again at the conference in Jan!

Michael M.

Anonymous said...


I've put Chicago on my list of places to go to!!!
Looks like you had a fantastic trip.
I noted that you mentioned London and Sydney, my two favorite cities. Definitely good choices!