As the queen mother of megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington has become a refuge for spiritual seekers and people of faith who no longer feel inspired by the religious institutions that raised them. After the sex
In his spiritual memoir "From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism," Haw, 31, explains how he discovered just as much ritual in the Protestant evangelical world as he did in the liturgy of century-old cathedrals. Though many evangelical Christians are convinced that nothing stands between them and Jesus, Haw believes they are wrong.
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Regardless of people's preferred brand of Christianity, there is always a mediator between them and God, he says.
"Others are continuing to say, 'I want my Jesus straight,' whereas all these other people want it with all these complicated rituals," Haw said. "Evangelical worship is still a ritual. It still has history and a form and an expected mode of engagement. Even though we're praying spontaneously, it's still socially conditioned."
Haw's departure from the Catholic Church began when he was 14. His devout Catholic mother, a Sunday School teacher, was scolded for suggesting her Crystal Lake parish adapt some practices from the area's popular Protestant youth groups. Church shopping led them to accept invitations to Willow Creek. The minimal building, no-frills worship and active community bore no resemblance to the family's former parish. Volunteers largely ran Willow, which Haw thought at the time democratized Christianity.
"I didn't see this at the time but no matter how much a Christian community tries to remove stuffy, ritualistic requirements from worship, new forms and structures of ritual come to fill the void," Haw wrote in his book.
"What I thought was a direct relationship with Jesus was a protest of the church saying they had handed Jesus to me," he said in an interview. "I didn't want hurdles between me and God." He has since realized no direct relationship exists, he says, adding that even the Gospels guiding Protestants have been edited and revised by church tradition.
As a college student at Eastern University, a Christian college in Philadelphia, Haw watched disheartened as many of his evangelical Christian brethren rallied around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He couldn't figure out how they could be so zealous about war and so complacent about poverty.
But the transformation of this middle-class white guy from the Chicago suburbs wasn't complete until he moved to inner-city Camden, N.J. There he still lives with his wife and son in a former abandoned crack house, working as a carpenter.
Once again, sitting in the pews of Sacred Heart parish, he found himself worshipping with Catholics — but this time in a context that prompted serious contemplation of the church's corruption and wealth in relation to Jesus' simplicity. While the church was not perfect, he concluded, it was family.
"There is something really deep about people loving something that isn't too lovable," Haw says. "We do that with families. We do that with parents and friends. The better among us try to push through the ugliness that we get out of each other and keep loving the deeper person."
Haw prefers to think of his book not as a spiritual memoir but part of a smaller genre called "theological memoir." He points to other Catholic authors and converts — Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and
"They didn't just intellectually consider their faith. They went on some adventure and found themselves having to retool their lives along the way," Haw says.
Haw argues that evangelical Christianity could learn a thing or two from the Catholic Church, and vice versa. In fact, that seems to have already begun. Willow Creek has been experimenting with liturgical elements, including communal readings from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer.
"An increased reverence for God — His holiness and beauty — among all Christians often comes from engaging with God with all the senses," says Susan Delay, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek. "Engaging with all the senses is something present in the Catholic Church."
William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University who wrote the book's afterword, says he considers Haw's book a gift.
Willow Creek awakened in Haw "an urgency for the Gospel that was missing from the Catholic Church he knew as a young child," Cavanaugh writes. "This book has renewed my tired old faith that I live in a tired old Church."
"Perhaps Willow Creek is a gift to the Catholic Church," he adds, "and perhaps the Catholic Church can be a gift to Willow Creek too."
Manya A. Brachear has covered religion for
"From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart"