Stories from St. C's: Meet John Hillman
My name is John Hillman. I moved to Oak Park in 1991 and basically stayed away from church for a couple of years, even though I am a “cradle” Episcopalian, and had attended an Episcopal church on the southwest side of Chicago for more than ten years. But that experience had been troubling for me—when I moved away, I had been the most recent member to join that parish in a decade; the choir had five members, so I sang tenor, alto or bass depending on who showed or didn’t on a particular Sunday; and I served on the Vestry for every canonically permitted year that I was there. In short, I was burned out and therefore I hid out for a couple of years.
In 1993, my best friend on the planet, Bob Denig (now deceased) came for a visit. He was an Episcopal priest and a candidate for Bishop in his diocese at the time. On Saturday he asked, “So, are we going to church tomorrow?” And I replied, “Sure! If you’d like to.” Bob asked what his choices were, and I explained that there were two Episcopal parishes close by—the big Gothic-revival church on Madison St. and a smaller neighborhood church at East and Adams. Bob said, “Let’s go to the little neighborhood place.”
That was my first visit to St. Christopher’s, and Bob and I sat in the back of the church, both of us pretty intent on keeping a low profile. David Cobb was the Rector. As we sat for a moment at the end of the service, Bob turned to me and said, “This is a really nice church. Why aren’t you a member?” Having no good answer for that question, I eased into life at St. Christopher’s at my own, relatively deliberate speed.
What I loved about St. Christopher’s—and still love about this parish—is its energy. As I have often remarked, “The only times we feel truly concerned about this parish is when we’re not praying for expectant parents.” As a man who joined this parish at age 47 and who is now one of its oldest members, it’s the children, their constant movement, their enthusiasm, yes, and even their noise, that add so much to my appreciation for this place.
And then, of course, there’s the choir, which for most of my tenure as a member has been led by the remarkable Richard Sobak. Richard is such an extraordinary gift to this parish—he has the musical gifts and judgement to challenge the choir members to grow in their musicianship, to choose music which fits beautifully with the themes of each week’s lessons, and to take people as they are and to encourage their growth and enjoyment of the choral experience in our parish. Richard is a classic example of a person who isn’t getting older, just better!
But perhaps the most powerful spiritual experience I have had at St. Christopher’s occurred with respect to my diagnosis of bladder cancer in the late summer of 2010. The cancer was described to me as very aggressive, and I was scheduled for October surgery to remove my bladder and prostate, both of which were infected, including neobladder reconstruction. The surgery itself was expected to take nine hours with about an eight-day hospital stay, and with a long recovery, including 16 weeks of chemotherapy. If I had been born one generation sooner, this procedure would not have been available to me, and I would have had no long-term chance of survival.
Our Rector at the time, Paris Coffey, suggested to me that the St. Christopher prayer group would like to offer me a private prayer service as part of my preparation for this extensive period of treatment and recovery. I had never participated in any church activity of this kind, but Paris assured me that this service would contribute positively to my long-term health. A group of about fifteen members of our parish assembled for this special service. I knelt as they gathered closely around me with their hands laid on me as they prayed for my treatment and recovery. I have never felt the hands of God being placed directly in contact with my body, but this service—both the touching and the extraordinarily powerful prayers uttered in my behalf—were as close to feeling the Lord’s hands directly on me as I could ever have imagined.
As a result of this gift to me from the very special people of this parish, I moved forward with my surgery and treatment with confidence, and with a calmness that I had not been expecting earlier. I have now lived another 12+ years cancer-free, in part thanks to my fellow parishioners in this very special congregation. I credit them, and my health-care providers (my wife Linda chief among them), with creating for me a life of “bonus days”. Each morning, I wake up thinking, “Wow, this is another bonus day!”
I hope that most members of St. Christopher’s won’t have to face what I did in order to experience the extraordinary love and support of the very special people who are part of this parish. However, based on my experience, this kind of care is available right here in this community.