The Rev. Laura Truax first learned about LaSalle Street Church when her attorney husband represented a young man charged with murder.

Each day during the weeklong trial, Truax came to watch her husband, Terry, work. They both noticed the LaSalle Street Church congregants, who sat with the defendant’s mother during the trial, took her other kids to school and fed the family daily.

Upon seeing this outpouring, Truax thought to herself, “If I ever go to another church, that’s the kind of church I want to go to -- where the gospel looks like something.”

Today, after a faith journey that has included a punishing fundamentalism, a mind-opening exposure to Zen Buddhism and a Jesuit education, Truax is senior pastor of the nondenominational, evangelical congregation in Chicago.

As its leader, Truax makes sure that the gospel still “looks like something” at LaSalle Street Church.

This 48-year-old mother of three believes strongly in “living out Christ in the world” by reaching out to people who are hurting and who have been rejected and marginalized by society. Today, that is one of the most important messages of LaSalle Street Church: Everybody is welcome and everybody is a part of the story of Christ.

LaSalle Street Church is in the midst of a highly diverse socioeconomic community, where wealth meets poverty daily. Through a variety of ministries and partnerships -- ranging from child care services to a food program for the hungry -- the church reaches out to all members of its community. Providing opportunities for service is as important at LaSalle Street Church as offering help to the marginalized and oppressed.

“We are not God in here. We are God out there,” Truax said recently, circling her arms in a gesture that included both the church and the wider world.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • Imagine what your church or organization looks like to outsiders. Is it “a place where the gospel looks like something”?
  • In what ways might God be “culturally mediated” for you? What cultural assumptions might you be making about God?
  • The Rev. Laura Truax’s early church experience is an extreme example of a “cultlike” Christianity. In what ways might any church or organization become “cultlike,” focusing only on itself? What steps can help shift that focus outward to the needs of those outside the church?
  • Faithful leadership requires paying “close attention to what people are thinking, talking and feeling.” What and to whom have you paid attention to in the past week? What have you learned?

Facing disappointment

Considering LaSalle Street Church’s unique geographical placement, with the wealthy Gold Coast on one side and Cabrini-Green -- one of the country’s most famous public housing complexes -- on another, it is fitting that Truax’s own parents, Bill and Lottie Sumner, came from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Bill’s grandparents migrated to Central Florida from a Georgia debtor’s prison, and Lottie’s family from Texas aristocracy.

Bill was a self-made businessman who had 11 cents in his pocket when he lied about his age to get into the Navy. His own father had died when Bill was only 10.

One of his greatest disappointments was when his daughter Laura, at 16, accepted Christ at a tent revival meeting.

“Dad knew one thing, and that was that he could only rely upon himself,” Truax said. Even today, tears fill her eyes when she recalls her father’s disappointment and the rift that was still unresolved when he died 10 years later.

She became the first of her five siblings to go to college, paying her own way with the help of a music scholarship. She said she was a “very zealous Christian” in those days, and her ministry was knocking on doors, inviting people to church and taking mission trips to the Florida beaches during spring break.

Around that time, she married a man who shared her zeal to eliminate sin from their lives. Their daily practices included strict adherence to a “sin chart” they kept on the refrigerator. The chart listed numerous sins and their corresponding punishments.

When the marriage failed, she left behind at 22 what she now describes as a “cultlike environment, … a whole subculture, which had been the only Christian environment I’d ever known.” Truax also left behind the only concept of God she had known, and she was filled with questions and disappointments.

She didn’t go to church for months, and then tried other, less strict churches. But it wasn’t until she married Terry Truax in 1987 that she began to regain a sense of God’s love for her.

“After I married Terry, I felt I learned more about what it means for God to love me than ever before. In a very powerful way, Terry just loved me,” Truax said. “I didn’t have to be good. I didn’t have to go to church. I didn’t have to do the right thing. He loved me, period. And I realized that’s how God loves us.”

A bigger God

The couple moved from North Carolina, where they had lived after marriage, to Chicago in 1988 for Terry’s work, and Truax pursued her career in public relations. Seven years later, Terry’s work provided a formative experience for Truax, when the family moved to Tokyo for 20 months.

“Once I got to Japan, I realized how white God had been, how male, how Western, how Republican, how capitalist. God had been so culturally mediated for me,” Truax said. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I am a Christian. I don’t know if I can be a Christian, because maybe Christ himself is all some kind of a cultural conception.’”

She began to search for her own truth. She read writers who had their own questions, and began meeting with a group of Jesuits who were using Zen prayer and meditation.

“It was both exhilarating and destabilizing at the same time,” Truax said. “I was realizing that, wow, God is pretty big, while also recognizing that as soon as we say the word ‘God,’ we’ve already truncated this God of all beings into something for which we are arguing over whether we can use the male or female pronoun.”

Despite her questioning, the experience in Japan ended up deepening her faith: “Jesus had everything I sought. Then and now,” she said.

“Jesus’ relentless passion for the world, his vast love that would have him suffer with and for all the suffering of the world, born among the most marginalized, himself a refugee who was branded a criminal -- this was the example of a God who exists from love and is seeking everyone for the sake of love,” she said. “If there was anything I wanted to frame my brief life on, it was this model of love that never needed to protect itself, or prove itself. It just was -- undying and unlimited.”

Leading LaSalle Street Church

Truax left Tokyo filled with a voracious need to know more, and a sincere desire to be a part of God’s story in the world. After the family returned to Chicago in 1997, she left her job in public relations to enroll in the master of divinity program at Loyola University.

The energetic, well-read latecomer to divinity school quickly established herself as a leader in the classroom, someone whose message her peers wanted to hear, said Todd Johnson, one of Truax’s professors at Loyola. Her natural curiosity and open-mindedness have been a tremendous value, he said.

“She is engaged in things she does not know and keeps an open mind about things she has learned,” said Johnson, now a professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Truax never intended to become a pastor; she thought divinity school would help her use her writing talents to serve God.

But the Truax family had begun attending LaSalle Street Church in 1998, and soon Truax became the church’s part-time music minister. Later she moved into an associate pastor’s slot.

When the other pastors on staff exited shortly thereafter, she found herself -- an inexperienced pastor with an unfinished degree in spirituality from a Jesuit university -- leading the church through one of the most tumultuous times in its history.

LaSalle Street Church was at risk of losing its ministries building because some of the nonprofits that leased its space were unable to pay rent. Truax helped both the board of elders and the congregation get behind her own faith that God had a purpose for LaSalle Street Church.

“In a time of absolute turmoil, Laura was stepping up, taking on leadership roles and helping us to get organized in a way that we could see a path forward. When others were ready to give up, she was demonstrating faith in action,” said Larry Reed, who was moderator of the board of elders when Truax was chosen as associate pastor, and later when she was installed as senior pastor.

The previous leadership of the church had been unable to get the congregation motivated to provide support to keep the building, and some wanted to sell it. Truax was convinced that the church should keep the building, and put together teams of volunteers to find other nonprofits to rent the offices. She also made the tough call to remove some nonprofits that could not pay. After the crisis was over, she led a successful capital campaign to reduce the church’s debt.

“Laura is energetic and active and uses that to motivate others,” Reed said.

When the time came for the church to select its senior pastor in 2002, Truax, who had not yet finished her degree, was not sure she had what it took to lead the church. Reed said the board was not ready to lose her, so the church hired an interim pastor to work with Truax for two years. She was ordained in 2003 after a yearlong process of study and reflection, as practiced in many nondenominational churches, and in 2004 she was installed as senior pastor.

“A big part of being a leader in a faith community is that your own personal development and growth ends up being a part of the development and growth of the church,” Reed said. “Laura’s path was just what our church needed.”

Motivating others

Six years later, Truax seems like a local on LaSalle Street. She is greeted enthusiastically at a local sandwich shop by parishioners and one of her three children.

She continues to “call forth” in her congregation a sense of being a living form of Christ in the world.

Truax said she learns as much from her church community as they do from her, and as a result changes have happened in everyone’s lives.

“I believe for leadership to be faithful we have to pay close attention to what people are thinking, talking and feeling,” Truax said, adding, “At the same time I know I have to pay close attention to where God is speaking in my own life. This is why a commitment to the ongoing work of Christ in our lives is critical to us as leaders. I know when the loudest voice I hear is that of my own ego, then I’m in trouble.”

She has continued to expand the community commitment that drew her to LaSalle Street Church in the first place: Truax was behind the founding of Breaking Bread, a ministry that provides a sit-down, restaurant-style meal every Wednesday to about 75 people in need. The program also offers access to food, clothing, health care, education and more.

She also is affiliated with the University of Chicago Divinity School as a teaching pastor and is writing a book about transforming fear and alienation into meaningful engagement with the world.

Other LaSalle Street Church partnerships and ministries include a senior center; family support teams that are paired with families in need of help with basic success and survival skills; child care services; counseling; legal aid; and a school for about 25 students whose lives were at risk because of gang violence. Truax’s latest initiative is a partnership with World Vision in Africa. The congregation decided about five years ago to become involved in global ministry, and Truax worked to find a project that would address an important world issue and offer opportunities for the congregation to do hands-on work abroad.

“I don’t lead in isolation,” she said, adding that there were many late-night conversations with members of the church to decide what LaSalle Street Church was going to do to be a part of God’s story for the rest of the world.

Because of that discussion, Truax sought out World Vision in Seattle and began traveling to Africa. The church is currently doing work with the Masai in Tanzania, a formerly nomadic people who are just beginning to settle in one place. The people have had to adapt their culture because animal food sources have changed.

“While we’re over here debating global warming and whether it exists, these people are living it,” Truax said. “We want to meet people where they are, and live out Christ in the flesh.”

Like so many steps in Truax’s journey, this next phase reflects her willingness to be open to other people and ideas, while retaining her core faith in God.

“When your agenda is to bring forth the kingdom of God -- which is really what we are trying to do here -- there’s a bigger mission involved,” Truax said. “We are in this together. And we all know it.”