Pastor finds home at Evanston’s Lake Street Church
Lake Street Church of Evanston Rev. Steve Van Kuiken speaks during service Feb. 3 at the church in Evanston. | Buzz Orr—Sun-Times
Updated: March 8, 2013 7:12AM
EVANSTON — The Rev. Steve Van Kuiken has found a home in Lake Street Church, a 155-year-old institution with a legacy of openness and social justice.
“What I like about Lake Street is kind of like this radical freedom that encourages people to be on their own spiritual journey,” he said. “Institutional churches are often viewed as rule and doctrinal based, and Lake Street is just the opposite.”
Van Kuiken finished just his second week of service on Sunday and feels buoyed by the warm welcome, including enthusiastic applause after his first sermon on Jan. 27.
“It’s going to be a real fun time,” he said.
Lake Street’s appreciation of other religious fellowships and traditions represents a “different kind of Christianity and one that fits me perfectly,” Van Kuiken said.
“It also has a strong sense of justice and social activism that connects well with who I am,” he said. “It’s important to be at a place where you can be yourself and be appreciated for that. That’s a good reason of why I’m here at Lake Street.”
Van Kuiken has not always been as welcomed by church authorities. In 2003, he was defrocked for performing gay marriage ceremonies from 1999-2002 at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.
“My congregation and I engaged in ecclesiastical disobedience, following in the tradition of Martin Luther King, to disobey unjust laws,” he said. “We saw these as unjust laws of the denomination.”
Although Van Kuiken was later reinstated, he ultimately left the Presbyterian Church, which continues to prohibit same-sex marriage ceremonies. The experience “cost me everything – my income, my identity as a preacher, and my marriage,” he said.
“It was a very dark period in my life, but a time that I became more open to this sacred presence in my life – in a sense a stripping away of ego that really made it possible,” Van Kuiken said.
“That is really what I think spiritual growth is about – moving beyond ego, this self-centeredness – to a more expansive understanding of that presence and getting in touch with a level covered up by all those ego desires.”
Van Kuiken focuses his sermons on both inward and outward experiences.
“I believe Jesus was a mystic. That means Jesus and others had this inner experience,” he said. “A lot of other religious practices can help us discover our inward focus. My encounter with Buddhism has helped me become a much better Christian.”
The outward focus involves “engaging with the world, transforming myself and then transforming the world,” Van Kuiken said.
“Part of it is you bring your heart to bear on issues that are before you,” he said. “It’s a mixture of your head and your heart. One great definition of justice that I like is ‘compassion with intelligence.’ You use your intelligence to connect the dots.
“You understand the political dynamics of society. There is basically an obligation to inform yourself. That’s why I’m a news junkie and a policy wonk.”