Kelley J. Leigh

Loud World. Quiet Soul. Listen beyond the noise.

Hometown Street Signs

Come with me, back to my midwest church girl roots with a visit to South Park Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. park ridge street sign

Time Travel

Loud music bounced wildly off the dark wood panels of a north side Chicago Irish pub.  Thirty years after high school graduation, we milled around tall bar tables, leaned in close and shouted catch-up questions to each other above the din. “What are you doing now? Where do you live? How many kids do you have?”

High school reunions are like a one-night event where people get a chance to glimpse into a carnival mirror for faces of one age.

Hello, classmates of 1984. Look around. This is what you look like.

This is who you are.

This is who you were.

This is who you are becoming.

Before I gathered courage to join the reunion, I took a drive around my hometown.

Park Ridge, Illinois sits on a northwest edge of Chicago, and is marked by grids of long mature tree-lined suburban streets and sidewalks. Over the years, newer larger homes slowly demolished and replaced many of the old neighborhood houses. But the recognizable landmarks remain.

I drove past the simple concrete street markers with long green name plates which marked my turns on to Vine, Crescent, Courtland or Prospect. I passed my girlfirend’s bedroom window, my boyfriend’s backyard, tidy back alleys, the red and white marquis of Pickwick Theater and the stadium lights on the football field at Maine South High School. The familiar smell of airplane exhaust from O’Hare Airport mixed with fresh cut lawn grass made me feel like I should be walking to school with a flute case under my arm.

On that park swing, I felt six. By that grocery store, I felt thirteen. Under that elm tree, I felt twenty. And around the corner, I found home.

The white steeple and tall colonial windows of South Park Church were extensions of my family home. A half mile apart, I inhabited both places almost equally. I used to know every inch, every hallway, closet, baptismal, bathroom and balcony. I colored pages in Sunday School rooms, memorized Pioneer Girl verses in Fellowship Hall, shouted with the high schoolers in the gym, and walked down the sanctuary aisle on my wedding day.

I stopped and parked the car next to church. The car engine went quiet. I sat and stared at the brick structure and felt the same sensation you feel seconds before the front door swings opens and the family dog comes running.

Except, nobody was home.

I stepped out of my car to inspect the site and experienced a collision of familiar and foreign. The church was undergoing massive renovation. The parking lot was a scrabbled surface. Plywood covered windows. Dirt and dumpsters marked the outline of massive upgrades to the tired old building. Yellow tape and temporary fences served as safety barriers to redirect pedestrians.

I stood before a work in progress. The white column institution I used to consider immutable and steadfast was under construction.

This is who you were.

This is who you are.


As a pastor’s kid, I watched this church morph over the years. When we moved to the middle-class suburb in 1973, the choir wore white and green robes and WMBI‘s favorite son Glen Jorian was the choir director. Hard cover hymnals lined the backs of the pews and my Dad, Art Gay, spoke from a fancy pulpit which set in front of four matching white throne-like chairs. Times changed. A revival among high schoolers ignited in the late 1970’s, and filled the weekday sanctuary with hundreds and hundreds of teenagers who were spiritually on fire. Traditional organ and piano services gave way to the allowance of one service with drums and guitars. Media screens moved into the choir loft and a christian version of Second City drama slipped onto the stage. We waved goodbye to youth pastor Bill Hybels as the last vestiges of that youth revival flooded out of our doors and into movie-theaters in what would become the birth of mega-churches like WIllow Creek. In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan brought a new kind of evangelicalism to conservative churches. And in the 1990’s, my Dad moved out of the weekly pulpit and into international relief and work with Christian non-profits. I got married and moved away.

This is who you are becoming.

Standing by the curb, all the bustle of restoration made me feel optimistic, excited for what may be ahead for this community. At the same time, the ripped-up church construction felt like a brick and mortar picture of my own faith journey. The organ and pews are gone; the middle of the building demolished and rebuilt, the entry reconfigured. I’ve heard the church members have had to communicate clearly about which entrances to use during the project. There at the curb, I didn’t know which door to use to access the sanctuary that was once the living room of my youth.

Finding Home

For a while now, I’ve been among the scattered — the ones who used to be church people but currently claim no ‘church home’. I am currently untethered from any one particular established faith community. I travel around to various local churches in my quirky little mountain town, taking it all in. I am listening, writing, learning.

I am still a Jesus Follower. I am just in a messy process of trying to reconstruct what it means live out my faith in context of community. And somedays it feels like a jumble of familiar structures and demolition.

That said, somewhere deep in the middle of the rising scaffolds of my faith, God’s Spirit dwells. I believe this. I rely on this as truth. It doesn’t look exactly the same anymore. But the sanctuary still stands.

SPC Construction

I snapped a couple pictures of the church renovation to send my brother and sisters and headed over to meet up with all the other kids who were born in 1966. And I got to thinking.

No matter how the world changes. No matter where we wander. No matter if we lose bearing and can’t seem to find the front door. There is always an available way home to the heart of God. Somewhere at the center I hear it, feel it, know the way like the concrete markers on every corner of my childhood. In the depths of my soul I feel a boom and resonance across time, for me, for you.

“I AM.”

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה



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Wondering about “I AM”?

“I AM”, or אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה in ancient Hebrew, is a sacred and timeless name for God as found in the Bible, Exodus 3:14 where YAWEH introduces himself to Moses. It is also a name Jesus uses to describe himself as the one “who is, and was, and is to come.”

Always Final (2)


26 Replies

  1. Maria Leahy

    I just loved this! Your writing is incredibly talented. Look forward to the next one!

    1. Thank you, east coast friend. I am blessed and happy that you stop by!
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Running Wildly After BeautyMy Profile

  2. John Cip

    Beautifully written, Kelley. Such a great reflection on our hometown, your place in it and its place in you. Even though I still reside in Park Ridge, your words give me a different perspective of our hometown and the monuments of my life that I pass frequently, yet infrequently take the time to appreciate their place in my life. I suspect if I gave myself a moment to breath, I could do so. Your post is a great start. Thank your for the first calm moment of my day. You have always inspired me with your words and your faith. Keep up the great work!

    1. John,
      There’s nothing like hearing a familiar voice from home here in this space. ‘Means a whole lot that you’d take time to respond here (especially when the comment system was all out of whack).
      Thanks so much for this.

      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Rear View MirrorsMy Profile

  3. slpworscheck

    A beautiful statement, “But the sanctuary still stands.” It makes me think of the place the Holy Spirit dwells within us. I’ve never thought of what that place is called in my heart, but sanctuary seems right.

    1. Thanks for this comment, slp. : )
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  4. J. Gay

    How that reflection has touched so many hearts, so many memories. This morning I met with the prayer group that has its beginnings back during that time–the beginnings of many faith stories. So a good bit of our time together was spent unpacking those very personal memories. Each story has its beginning in a moment in time in that building that housed the youth group where hundreds of youth found Christ–the services where those in the prayer group this morning found the redemptive God, the I Am so real, so personal. Thank you for initiating those reflections in lots of hearts. A great journey–and it continues in that same church. Wonderful!

    1. Beautifully said, Mom.


      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  5. Eric Flood


    I deeply appreciated your post. It seems like more than coincidence that you would close with a reference to “I AM.” The series I started yesterday is called “I AM Home.” We’re exploring how God wants us to use the renovated space focusing on a few of the “I Am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

    It would be an honor to give you the grand tour the next time you’re in the area. Becky sends warm greetings.

    Senior Pastor

    1. Eric.
      What a privilege to have you stop by and read.
      Please send my greetings right back to Becky.

      I had no idea about your current series “I Am Home”. Wow. Gives me the chills honestly … such a beautiful “coincidence.” I am so grateful for the long thread of shared heritage and life experience that winds through that building. And as someone who is currently following Jesus in my own clumsy journey of living out faith in context of community, I look forward to hearing how this new space becomes a new ‘home’ for those who so desperately need it. Best to the SPC family as you explore how God intends to fill and use the freshly renovated spaces of buildings and hearts.

      Thanks so much for this gracious response.


      And, yes. Next time I am in IL, I will gladly take you and up on that offer for a tour! : )

      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  6. Penelope Anderson

    Kelley, just love this. So many memories come flooding back. Seems like it was just a minute ago! Thanks.

    1. I think it was one minute and 15 seconds ago. Yes.
      Loved driving by your old house.
      Missed your garden!
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  7. Kim Evans

    Kelley, I love your writing…I so “got” your emotions in entering that left-behind world of yours, and in some way, all of ours. I just had my 35th reunion in July, and experienced the good, bad, ugly, profound and life-changing memories of re-entering Park Ridge. It’s “home”, but also feels so far away. The next time you’re in town, I would LOVE to grab some coffee and catch up! Keep writing…you are SO very talented!!!!

    1. 35th reunion?! How is this happening? Time is flying.
      Thanks so much for this, Kim! : )
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  8. Patricia Schreiber

    Beautifully written, Kelley! You are such a talented writer! “Going home” and trying to make sense of everything isn’t always easy for many of us.

    A side note—it has actually been very easy to enter and exit the church during construction—and sort of fun. We either use the portico entrance or the doors under the steeple–so we enter at the front of the church. However, at the end of the first song, the steeple doors are locked. God must really like this renovation—the weather has been wonderful every Sunday since construction began, even recently when we have been without heat. Plus we had a beautiful, sunny and warm-enough day for our dedication ceremony last Sunday! :) You should come see it some day when it is finished!

    1. I would love to come and see the finished project. Absolutely.
      And, just so you know, I just edited this piece according to your note about the entrances.
      It’s a dynamic story-telling process when we are all in community, yes?
      Thanks, Mrs. Schreiber.
      : )
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

      1. Patricia Schreiber

        Well-put! (But I didn’t mean for you to have to change anything!) There has been very clear communication to us about how to work around the construction. It’s very exciting and attendance has not been affected. However, it will be nice when everything is completed!

        1. Yes to completion! Onward!
          Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  9. Linda Hansen

    Wow! Memories cascaded over me…i , too, grew up there and got married there in 1972. Solid foundation. Had a sense of solidarity and belonging there and wonderful Sunday school teachers. So thankful. We lived on Dee Road. Great writing, Kelley!

    1. Linda. Dee Road! Wow! And how awesome that we were both married in that same sweet sanctuary. I love the small world of it all. oxox ~KjL
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

  10. Yeah. You said this so well. Revisiting those places from the past always amplifies for me the things that matter most now that I can look at this time in my life with fresh eyes.

    A few years ago I went back to my home place in Coffeyville Kansas. A flood had destroyed the east end of town and the EPA had tagged our house and the church for demolition…so I could only stand on the sidewalk behind the yellow tape. Remembering the stories and the laughter in the walls of those places gave me warm, contented melancholy. Part of who I am was formed here and it would all soon be gone forever. I can’t go back home anymore… it’s all gone now. But, the life that was shaped there is not. Places are reminders; mile markers of a life lived, but now only in the rear view mirror. Nice reminder Kelley, thanks!

    1. Tagged for demotion!? I want to hear the rest of that story.

      And this is so right: “Places are reminders; mile markers of a life lived, but now only in the rear view mirror. ”
      Well said.
      Yes. Thanks, friend.
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  11. Ann Gemmel

    Wow Kelley – beautiful post. So related to your thoughts. While I still live in another nearby suburb, returning to Park Ridge always seems…..strange. Like anyone, the past holds the good….the
    bad….the ugly….the sweet…the sad….joys…regrets! But God….the I AM.
    So LOVE your conclusion….beautifully expressed!

    1. Ann, yes. Exactly. So much whirls around in so many feelings and memories! I appreciate that you GET it. : )
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Tending HopeMy Profile

  12. Kim

    It’s so complicated, how I feel about that time & place! Glad you did a revisit for my benefit.

    1. It IS complicated … and I am happy to revisit for you. : )
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Hometown Street SignsMy Profile

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