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Events Tue May 27 2014

Confessing at the Liar's Contest

Maybe I was too in the spirit of things. I'd already told someone my name was Richard Cabernet.

"Is it French?" a nice woman asked me in line.

"Yes," I told her. She smiled. "Yeah, it's French." I couldn't explain where Cabernet came from, or whether Richard was my father's name, or his father's. But I was standing outside the Liar's Contest, wasn't I? A carnival of lies, I'd been told; probably the only truth in its advertising.

Inside I'd be lied to again and again, I was sure. There's not much else to do at a Liar's Contest, I imagined. Small talk was more fun as Mr. Cabernet, anyway. We'd all arrived early only to find a line stretching down the block.

"The email said doors open at 6:30pm," murmured a suspicious contest-goer behind me. It seemed that, too, was a lie.

Scott Whitehair, the event's founder, had told me to look for details, so I had my eyes peeled for everything: actors, miniature dramas, clever minute props and set dressing. Everything that happened, everything I saw, was pregnant with the possibility of a much younger imagination. As I listened to the lie-debunkers around me explaining to each other who Scott was, what happened last year, and what was supposedly coming to us during this year's contest, I was rocked into alertness by every movement from the church.

Liar's ContestI glimpsed the man I would come to know as Reverend P. Initial Brennan nodding in ushers and musicians. He seemed to know them. I wondered if even these glances were part of the show. They were imbued with mystery. The excited crowd was howled at by a line of patrons who had not yet purchased their tickets. Genial name-calling ensued. Some familiar faces from story hours both monthly, weekly and bi-weekly.

"See you next first Thursday!" "See you on the 2nd 4th consecutive Monday!" "See you tonight!" "Tomorrow!" they called. "Can you believe he chose that story?"

A community began to take shape and I saw one of the more diverse crowds I'd witnessed on a single Chicago street begin to congeal into a mindful assortment of storytellers. They were excited by narratives. They explained to each other the philosophies of each of their groups.

"Bring the story you know doesn't work!" shouted the affable woman next to me.

"Bring the scariest story you know," said another.

"I hear there's fried chicken," someone gurgled. "I hear there's lemon meringue pie."

"My girlfriend is an usher," said a plain-spoken gentleman to my left. We all turned. He shrugged.

Out of the church came a high-energy woman in her early thirties who shouted for our attention. This was Stephanie Douglass. The whole line turned with eager grins. We were in line for the Liar's Contest, of course. We'd heard things, though we assumed most of it wasn't true. But we were in line, and look at us -- we were making the show!

I was one of the few who'd been told the true history of the Liar's Contest and I heard some murmurings of that, too. A confident-sounding man declared my article a "pack of lies." I couldn't help but wonder if I had, in fact, been deceived.

"Everyone!" the high-energy woman cried out. This was co-creator of the Liar's Contest with Scott Whitehair. She looked apologetic and kind. Next door to Ravenswood Church of Christ, she explained, was a baptism. Could we please wish the boy a happy baptism? If he grows up to love people, she explained, he'll be thrilled to get this message.

He had six names. One of them was Anicio. We all looked at an iPhone in her hand and bellowed "Happy Baptism..." and then 50 people said 50 different combinations of Anicio's five names and we all laughed for 30 minutes before the show was set to begin.

The line finally began to move. "Oh boy," said the usher as she saw my Kentucky ID. "You think you're fooling anyone?" She ushered me onwards into the church. I was paired off with Sydney (not her real name).

"Are you together?" they asked us. No, we answered. So we were paired off. I saw couples split. They left each other with wide grins. It was a funhouse they were entering. Ironically, it was actually a church they were entering, and all the trappings of a church were present.

Excusing myself to use the bathroom, I was on the lookout for those telling details, those rewarding particulars that would enrich and embolden my faith in the whole goofy affair.

"What's Happening At Ravenswood UCC," a bulletin board read. I stepped aside to let the bathroom crowd pass and I squinted to see the labels in the twilight of the dark church stairway.

"Confirmation Class Trip to Bahai Temple" read one, coupled with photos of the mosque and a few teenagers in tie-died shirts. I laughed, not knowing enough about any of it to smell a lie. "Oktoberfest," read another, paired with ambiguous photos of socializing. "Arts Sunday," read another, this time with some well-thought-out paintings leaning against pews and on card tables. I started to think I was just crazy. Looking for lies in everything. I almost stepped away when I saw it: "Blessing of the Pets Outdoor Workshop." The photos were ambiguous enough. Seniors on a lawn with a few dogs. I laughed out loud and chuckled all the way to be bathroom.

"Hello miss," said storyteller Oba King, as I stepped down into the basement. "Hello sir," he said to the woman behind me.

"Hello," I said, still chuckling. Who was this strange man? I would soon find out.

Further research led me to find that the Blessing of the Pets Workshop is an actual event that takes place at Ravenswood FCC. In retrospect I would encourage anyone with a loved pet to bring their "furry or feathered friend" under the linden tree so that Father Jason may work his magic (for lack of a better word).

After the bathroom, I forgot my name was Richard Cabernet. I was nice to Sydney and we laughed about things like the cocky choirboy with an iPad. "There's always one," she said.

Then the contest began. There were a couple of hilarious false starts. "And now," Scott bellowed, "Reverend P. Initial Brennan!" and audience members jogged out waving, then sat. Finally the Reverend appeared and I was so glad for his presence. There's no better way to explain the rest of the evening than a warmth. Yes, by warmth I mean the humid hotness that comes from a shut nave on a typically balmy Chicago summer night (nights far from faith-based, as the temperature has climbed radically and dropped with as much ambition this "summer"). Yes, I mean that warmth; but I also mean a warmth of the heart.

Not a lie: the Contest is good-natured at its absolute best. It does little to speak of its worst; there is none. Even the presence of the Devil comes with a wave of relief, humor, cultural awareness and -- the night's biggest surprise and easily its most substantial laugh -- political astuteness.

"The second reading from Mayor Rahm Emanuel..." the Reverend Brennan announces. A pause, and the stout bearded man in a devil costume (previously announced as "the devil") approaches the lectern with a wiggly precociousness. He reads a miraculous parody of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" that thoroughly tears down any illusion left among the pews of Emanuel's political tact, ethics or intention. "I hate everyone in the 4th district," reads one refrain. "This is the word of the Lord," he concludes solemnly. A shocked and impressed audience gave in to applause and whistling.

The Reverend P. Initial Brennan is the kind of man you trust to criticize. He embodies the spirit of the night well, as MC's are want to do; that of the coy, good-natured uncle at the peak of his form. Perhaps an uncle at 27, imagining how he'll entertain his nephews someday soon, the stories he'll tell, the dirty jokes and lessons he'd impart.

The Reverend asked the audience to remember a person who had lied to them, and how it hurt to be lied to. Then he asked us to forgive them; to try at the very least, "because they were just being an asshole," he said. "They weren't being themselves." It's logical enough advice, and optimistic, to imagine humans as the least who-they-are when being assholes.

"Now remember a time when you've lied to someone and -- you should actually do this, now," he said, "forgive yourself." A long pause without applause, like the dead moments in the Greek Orthodox service I remember so well from my childhood. A rustle of paper, of clasping and unclasping hands. "Would anyone like to share?"

Surprisingly, no one did. I took this as an indication of the exercise's sincerity. Finally, one man raised his hand. "Ah!" said the Reverend. "This is my friend." He nodded in approval. "What was your lie?"

"I tell my dentist I floss," his friend said. "Every time." The audience laughed, but the Reverend was obviously troubled. He shook his head, incredulous.

"Do you know the suicide rate of dentists?" he yelled. "You're disgusting!" He berates his friend for a few minutes and I was glad I didn't reveal my transgression.

The night progressed as such. To list each reader would be to try and capture the sun. It's true, such things have been done. I know what a solar panel is. But the proof of the Liar's Contest's power really does lie in the pudding of that line I stood in for a half hour waiting to get in. It was joyous waiting. The new, the old. Veterans of the contest schooled newcomers, and newcomers shared their stories as well.

It wasn't a sermon. That wasn't the devil, it wasn't that boy's baptism, and I wasn't Richard Cabernet. We were lying. Maybe in holding that fun house mirror up to the world, we were constructing realities more absurd and playful. Maybe in allowing ourselves to escape the constraints of certainty we found that our created worlds were, for our trust in them, all the more real. Maybe we were believing in the potential to be limitless.

Or maybe, to paraphrase the Reverend, we were all just being assholes.

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