Places

New Orleans, Day 5

Priestess Miriam Chamani, Voodoo Spiritual Temple

We sat in the temple for nearly two hours. It was a rather enlightening visit, and it was not at all what I expected. Although, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected.

As our time drew to a close, I said, “I feel like you have not given me the answers I wanted. And yet, it seems you’ve given me the answers I needed.” She smiled. It was the smile of a sage.

It was time to say goodbye and I found myself at a loss for words. “You have given me a lot to think about,” was all I could say. “Well, don’t think about it too much,” she replied.  And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

Priestess Miriam Chamani

Priestess Miriam Chamani

New Orleans, Day 4

Saint Augustine Church

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

“Today we celebrate the 173rd anniversary of St. Augustine Church,” said the woman from the pulpit, moments before the procession began. While I’ve been traveling for this project, one of the hardest decisions has been which church to visit on a Sunday morning. I only have one Sunday morning in town and there are always so many great options. By the time I woke up this Sunday, I had narrowed it down to two churches. So, I did what any sensible 21st century netizen would do. I crowdsourced my decision. My Facebook friends resoundingly voted for St. Augustine. When I arrived, I was very happy to learn I was there during an anniversary celebration. How auspicious! (Thank you, FB friends.)

Saint Augustine Church stands on a piece of land that was part of the original Claude Treme plantation. Treme eventually subdivided his estate and began selling large tracts to free blacks and other buyers. A pamphlet at the church explains, “When the free people of color got permission from Bishop Antoine Blanc to build a church, the Ursuline Sisters donated the property at the corner of Bayou Road and Saint Claud, on the condition the church was named Saint Augustine, after one of their patron saints. And so it came to pass.”

"We Are Standing On Holy Ground!"

“We Are Standing On Holy Ground!”

“We are a church that is rooted in our history, but present in this moment,” says Pastor Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga, O.M.I. That history is rich and groundbreaking. In 1842, a few months before the dedication of the church, people of color began buying pews for their families. The pamphlet continues, “Upon hearing of this, white people in the area started their campaign to buy pews. Thus the War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color, who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship.”

This is a Catholic mass unlike any I’ve attended. All of the elements of the mass are there, but the music is joyous, loud and distinctly New Orleans. The choir consists of some eight to twelve singers who are accompanied by piano, saxophone, drums and percussion. Music is conducted by choir director, Carol LeBlanc, who alternates between piano and electric keyboard. The congregation claps, sings aloud and a few have tambourines. It is a soulful celebration, without a doubt.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

It is one thing to visit this church and stand in awe of its history, of the role it played in the development of this city. It is a powerful thing to sit in the very pews that, as a sign indicates, “were reserved for and used exclusively by slaves from the date of the church’s dedication, October 9, 1842, until the slaves were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” This sacred space is a house in which faith, politics, slavery, freedom, and race are inseparable. And it is yet another powerful thing to experience the mass here and see that this is not a museum or a monument, it is a living and thriving community even to this day.

Father Mulenga, who is originally from Zambia, has been at the church for only about three months. He preaches a fiery and uplifting service that challenges parishioners not to dwell in the past. In alluding to the rich heritage of this church, he says, “We like to say, ‘We used to…’ a lot.” He talks about times when the church has had to hold three masses on Sunday to accommodate the numbers of people. Today, the congregation has dwindled significantly. “We have a history to celebrate. But we must move forward.” I look around and it seems to me the place is quite packed, it doesn’t look like a dwindling congregation to me. And it certainly doesn’t sound like one, either. People agree with resounding “amens,” there’s applause, there’s a sense that this is the pastor the church needs right now.

The entrance to the church.

The entrance to the church.

One of the perhaps unintended results of the “War of the Pews” in 1842 was that Saint Augustine became the most integrated congregation in the country. The pamphlet states that there was “one large row of free people of color, one large row of whites with a smattering of ethnic folk, and two outer aisles of slaves.” Today, this is still a diverse congregation, racially and generationally.

After the mass, as we make our way to the fellowship hall for an anniversary reception, Father Mulenga greets me warmly. I mention how much I’ve enjoyed the mass and he tells me this is an exciting place. I have to agree, as I’m still glowing from the impassioned rendition of “We Are Standing On Holy Ground” with which the service ended. This is indeed holy ground, in every sense of the word. And I’m so grateful to have been here.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

 

New Orleans, Day 3

Bethany Church, Baton Rouge

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

It was a lovely drive to Baton Rouge from New Orleans today. Along the way I stopped to visit a plantation and a couple of historic churches. But my final destination for the day was Bethany Church, which was recommended by a good friend who is familiar with the area. I looked up the church online beforehand, and I knew I had to make the trek just for this. I also knew to look for three massive crosses standing near the highway, visible from a good distance. The Bethany crosses are an icon of the area, and they are truly a sight to behold.

The church is located within an industrial complex, which seems strange until you realize how much land the church has and how many thousands congregate throughout an average weekend. I parked the car, walked toward the entrance and was immediately greeted by two very friendly staff members. One of them, Katie, walked me into the foyer and pointed out several areas of interest…the VIP table (more on that in a bit), the coffee station, the entrance to the auditorium. I was struck by the modern and bright interiors, which contrasted with the drab, warehouse look of the outside. And then we walked right by what appeared to be an ATM mounted on the wall. A churchgoer had just swiped her credit card and was in the middle of a transaction. I asked Katie what that was, and I could tell she had answered that question many times before. “A lot of people find it much more convenient to give their tithe electronically, they use their card and their tithe is withdrawn automatically,” she said. I was truly surprised, I had never seen -or known of- such a thing. “We also have the old school method,” she added, pointing to a wall pocket filled with tithing envelopes.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably bristling at the thought of an Automated Tithing Machine. My first thought was, “Well, that is the limit! I have seen it all! This is crazy!” And then, almost immediately, I remembered how many times I’ve been upset at an independent merchant for not having a Square card reader so that I could pay with my credit card. I remembered every time I’ve wanted to give a donation or offering at a place of worship only to realize I don’t have any cash. And that’s when it hit me; this is a church for today, why would they not have an electronic option? And, why should I be surprised that they do? This is the year 2014 after all, when cash is a dirty necessary evil we have to remember to carry around for those ever-decreasing prehistoric pecuniary transactions.

My “worship experience,” as the church refers to its services, was a deep contrast with all of the historic churches and cathedrals I’ve visited lately. You won’t find sacred art in this church. You won’t see an organ or a choir loft. In fact, there isn’t even a pulpit. Instead of pews, there are comfy chairs. Instead of stained-glass windows, there are two giant projection screens flanking the stage. In place of an altar, there are bright, colorful lights and laser visualizations. As you walk in, you can’t help but notice the TV cameras hoisted upon large cranes. An outsider like myself can be easily distracted, even put off, by all of the cutting edge-technology and the exacting level of audio-visual production. But as the service begins and as I look around, the congregants don’t even seem to notice it. They are absorbed in worship, focused on what they have come here to do. To me, this resembles a sound stage for American Idol much more than it does a church. Only the music is better. A lot better.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

For about thirty minutes the worship band leads the congregation in song. The band is comprised of highly skilled and talented musicians. There are two electric guitarists; one of them controls the sequenced tracks. Then there is a drummer, a pianist, a bassist and the band leader sings and plays acoustic guitar. Five supporting vocalists complete the ensemble. The music is modern and anthemic, it reminds me a lot of the upbeat drone of bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Coldplay and classic U2. I’m particularly moved by a beautifully arranged interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, which is modern yet tasteful.

I say “modern yet tasteful” because although I love technology, rock music, and flawless audio-visual production, these are not the things I look for in worship. My preference is the for the high church liturgy of the Episcopal church. Give me vestments, give me bells and whistles, give me choirs in robes, give me Bach, give me gothic architecture and incense, and I’m in heaven. Those are the things I associate with the sacred. But as I’m coming to find, one man’s experience of the divine is another man’s stodgy, outdated, organized religion.

Pop worship and light show.

Pop worship and light show.

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill takes the stage as the band winds down. He leads the church in prayer and proceeds to share the results of a challenge he gave the church a couple of weeks ago. A videoclip rolls on the screens and we see church members delivering checks to financially stricken families, we see a couple of people receiving the gift of a car. I learn that in an effort to emulate the early church of Acts, Bethany Church has raised money and resources to meet the needs of their community. In just one week, the church (which counts approximately 6000 members across a number of campuses) has managed to raise nearly $80,000 to help those in need. Families on the verge of foreclosure and eviction have been provided with enough funds to avoid losing their homes. Electricity has been restored for households that have lost power due to their inability to pay the bills. And of the six cars that were donated, two have already been given to people in need of transportation. This is amazing stuff, and nothing about it seems inauthentic. Pastor Stockstill talks about “unlocking the hand of generosity,” and he asserts that “this is how the early church did it.”

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

The second half of the service consists of Pastor Stockstill’s sermon. He is a gifted and charismatic preacher. He speaks about the power of prayer, emphasizing the need for Christians to pray both in private and corporately. He confesses that even for him, prayer is still a struggle. It is a discipline and a requirement for all Christians, “not just the hyper spiritual ones,” he says. He preaches from the book of Acts and on a couple of occasions he asks us, if we have our Bibles, to turn to a certain chapter and verse. Only this is isn’t really necessary as scripture passages appear on the large TV monitor by his side, from which he reads them aloud. A life without prayer is aimless and empty, as he says; it is merely religion. “Religion is doing a God-thing without God,” he proclaims, adding that we want to have a relationship, not a religion.

The service ends with a call to prayer and a call to accept Jesus Christ, for those who haven’t already done so. A few hands are raised and Pastor Stockstill says a special prayer for them. He asks for those who have made a decision to accept Jesus to please head for the VIP table in the foyer so that church volunteers may meet with them, answer any questions and give them a gift. And then the band takes the stage once again and church is dismissed with a refrain of an earlier song. I did not raise my hand during prayer, but I head for the VIP table all the same because that’s where Katie has invited me to meet after service for a chat.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

People are gathered around the coffee station; there are cookies, too. Parents are retrieving their children from child care and kids’ activities. When I see Katie again I tell her how much I enjoyed the service. She asks me to fill out a visitors card and gives me a VIP folder with information about the church. Enclosed is a CD with a welcome message from Pastor Stockstill as well as three tracks by the worship band. I also get a reusable cup and straw emblazoned with the church’s logo. It’s all really quite nice. I remark about the prevalence of technology throughout the church and how user-friendly my worship experience has been. She tells me they make every effort to have visitors and members feel as welcome as possible. She tells me about the history of the church, which has just celebrated its 51st anniversary. It’s been about 14 years since they moved into the current space and a lot has changed since then.

The church was founded by Roy Stockstill and later taken over by his son, Larry Stockstill. Three years ago, Larry’s son, Jonathan assumed the pastorship and things really started changing. Katie tells me Bethany was already a vibrant church, with great worship music and preaching, but it looked nothing like what it does today. With Pastor Jonathan in place, the church started moving quickly into a more technology-driven experience. In came the screens, the concert lighting, the electronic tithing station and the smartphone app. The church moved firmly into the online age. But the improvements did not stop with technology. In fact, technology simply enabled the congregation to be more actively engaged in the life of the church. Katie joined a wave of volunteers three years ago and today she is on staff as Volunteer Coordinator. Programs were developed, small groups instituted, ministry opportunities created, and with all of this the church has experienced significant growth. Today, the church holds three weekend services on this campus as well as various other services throught their other campuses. They have also begun a Spanish service which is already averaging one hundred in attendance. This church is alive and engaged. It is a spiritually-rich and community-driven body that reflects in its membership a diversity across generations, race, and socio-economic levels.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

I’ve already taken quite a bit of Katie’s time by this point and she has work to do, so I say my thank-yous and I go sit on a comfy couch in the lobby. As I reach for my phone, I wonder if they have a wireless internet connection. Of course they do. This makes me smile. I may be an old soul when it comes to church, but I’ve changed my mind about modern Christianity. I no longer see all of these technological advances as trappings or gimmicks. Why should Christianity today conform to my Luddite preferences? I was brought up in the Nazarene church, a conservative evangelical tradition. And as I logged on to Bethany’s guest wifi I remembered the time I learned how so many of the hymns in the Nazarene hymnal were original drinking songs (or so I was told). I thought about how many times the church has reinvented itself through the ages, changing with the times. I think about all the technological, architectural and engineering advances made in the construction of cathedrals of old. And it makes perfect sense that today’s church should be at the forefront, that it should make use of modern technology and music in worship. It seems such a simple yet significant realization, the church remains relevant in great part because it adapts to our modern proclivities.

As I leave, a t-shirt worn by a volunteer catches my eye. It reads, “Church doesn’t start until the service is over.” It takes me back to what I heard earlier, about how this church raised so much money and so many resources for the neediest in their community. And, it also makes me realize a very important truth. The church is not the flying buttresses, the jumbotrons, the pipe organ, the electric guitars. The church is not the alms boxes, the automated tithing machines, the prayer books, the smartphone apps. The church is the people.

New Orleans, Day 2

Congo Square, Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, Touro Synagogue

Tonight’s entry is more of a photo essay. I’ve been walking all day and I’ve just returned from a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. It has been an exhausting, but most rewarding, day.

I joined a walking tour of Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, which took us through several places of interest. Here you see our tour guide, NU’Awlons Natescott. It’s a funny name, but he was very serious about his history and storytelling.

NU'Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau's house once stood. The plaque reads, "1020-22 Rue St. Ann - Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

NU’Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau’s house once stood. The plaque reads, “1020-22 Rue St. Ann – Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

Congo Square, another highlight of our tour, is in the heart of what is now known as Louis Armstrong Park.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

The area surrounding Congo Square was considered sacred ground by the Houmas Indians even before the arrival of the French. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Square was well-known for the Sunday gatherings of enslaved Africans, with attendance ranging from 500 to 600. Some of the dances practiced here were the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo. And, according to our guide, these are significant dances in Voodoo religion. It is important to note that these dances are the genesis of Mardi Gras, jazz and rhythm and blues.

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Opened in 1789, this is the oldest of the Saint Louis Cemeteries and among the notables buried here is Marie Laveau. However, there is controversy and confusion surrounding this fact. The tomb believed to house her remains bears a plaque stating that this is her reputed burial place. The tomb is a main attraction for tourists and devotees, and as such has suffered a great deal of vandalism. It is currently being restored.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau's daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau’s daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

Our tour guide is an excellent storyteller, he builds up intrigue and tells us he is going to show us where Marie Laveau is actually buried. We walk down the narrow street of this City of the Dead, as these cemeteries are known, and come upon this tomb.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Tonight I attended a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. This beautiful liturgy of repentance, confession and atonement marks the beginning of fasting for Yom Kippur. Rabbi Alexis Berk delivered a wonderful sermon, of which I’ve requested a copy. I hope to have permission to post it here, either in its entirety or in fragments.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Touro Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in the country. It was founded in 1828 and it was the first synagogue outside of the original thirteen colonies. The present sanctuary was built in 1909, in the Byzantine style. It is an impressively beautiful space and it was full to capacity for tonight’s service.

A few minutes before the service began.

A few minutes before the service began.

New Orleans, Day 1

Voodoo

This is my first visit to New Orleans. Technically speaking, it’s my second, but I was barely three years old the first time so I don’t remember it at all. My mother tells me I got lost in the middle of a crowd and that she’s forever grateful to the police officer who found me and carried me on his shoulders so my parents could spot me. If ever there was a city preceded by its reputation, it is this. Even months away from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter is bursting with revelers. Walking through these streets after dark is an assault to the senses, all five of them. This is not a place to go in search of the sacred. Or, is it?

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

New Orleans was on my list from the beginning of this project. I came here searching for a unique spiritual landscape, and half a day into my visit, I’m convinced I’ve found just that. My first priority was to explore the culture, tradition and practices of Voodoo. To that end, I headed straight for the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. I would have missed the nondescript, little building had I not known exactly what it looked like from the photos I found in my research.

As I walked into the place, I found myself in the middle of a shop filled with voodoo dolls, incense, and all sorts of paraphernalia and artifacts for sale. The attendant at the desk was very kind and informed me that the priestess was in the middle of a reading and wouldn’t be available for another hour. I explained I’d called a few times and left messages, I didn’t mean to simply barge in. After I explained the reason for my visit, she asked if I’d been to the Voodoo Museum and said it was just a few blocks down. We agreed I’d go visit the museum and come back to talk with Priestess Miriam Chamani, founder and Queen Mother of the temple.

In the Voodoo Museum

In the Voodoo Museum

All I knew about Voodoo before today was the Hollywood narrative and the scary stories I heard in church youth group about evil forces and dark spirits. It is a very marketable story and it makes for excellent entertainment. But beyond the kitsch and the lore, there is a very rich history and tradition that thrives to this day among private societies where true Voodoo is practiced. But it’s not easily found. Walking into the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, I find myself again in a store with all sorts of paraphernalia and gifts. At the back of the shop, behind a desk, sits Dr. John T. Martin, Voodoo Priest and museum keeper. I ask a few questions, pay my admission fee and walk into the museum area. It is a small space, but it is chock full of altars, artifacts, portraits, statuettes and other various items.

The room at the back houses a main altar and a legend that reads:

“This is typical of the type of altar that may be found throughout Louisiana. This is a working altar and is frequently used in rituals and changed around to invoke and propitiate different spirits. The Catholic Saints represent the Voodoo Spirits. Candles, incense, oils, cigars and other such items are used as offerings. A glass of water is present to absorb negative energies and a few drops are sprinkled on the altar daily to refresh the spirits. The center pole is believed to serve as a channel for the Spirits to come down. During a ceremony, offerings of food and drink are made, then may be consumed by the participants after they have been blessed. The drums are used to summon the spirits and various dances are performed as offerings and to facilitate possession of the dancer by the spirits.”

Voodoo Altar

Voodoo Altar

Although my knowledge of Voodoo is minimal, there is a lot about this room and these artifacts that feels familiar. I’m reminded of spiritual healers and practices I grew up around in Mexico. The way that West African practices mixed with European Catholic beliefs in Louisiana, is reminiscent of the way Prehispanic spiritual traditions mixed with Catholic beliefs in Mexico. I’ve always been interested in this syncretism that breeds a new kind of spirituality. In Mexico, for instance, Day of the Dead is the product of Prehispanic spiritual practices and Catholic tradition. Dia de Muertos as we know it did not exist before the clash of these two worlds.

Voodoo originated as a collection of socio-political-religious practices native to West Africa. In this religious practice, devotees experience a direct contact with the spirits. And the word “voodoo,” well, it simply means “spirits.” The Museum’s guide dispels the notion that Voodoo is evil and black magic. Instead, it claims that Voodoo is benign, “A selfish desire is considered an evil intent. Usually a Voodoo Priestess (Queen) or Priest (Doctor) will reject any request to make an evil petition to the spirits. A portrait of Marie Laveau is one of the centerpieces of the museum. Laveau was a famous healer and is considered the matriarch of New Orleans Voodoo. Born a “free woman of color” in 1801, she came to be known as a devout Catholic and humanitarian.

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

After visiting the corridors and rooms of the museum, I had a brief conversation with Dr. John T. He was holding a small python in his arms, which I don’t remember noticing when I first arrived. We exchange a few pleasantries and then I tell him why I am in New Orleans. “I’m here looking for sacred spaces,” I say. His face changes, I feel like I’ve just said something wrong, then after a second or two, almost whispering he says, “They are few and far between.” He is speaking so softly I’m actually struggling to hear him, so I lean in a little closer. He bemoans the fact that the practice of Voodoo has lost its true meaning, and I think of all the “Voodoo” t-shirts and tchotchkes I’ve seen walking down the streets just this afternoon. And then he tells me, again in the softest whisper, that most practitioners keep private altars. He himself doesn’t much open his home altar to outsiders. He tells me of a few other places I should visit and people I should talk to. This is great, it’s what I was hoping for, and I’m still surprised that the mention of “sacred spaces” brought this on, as though I spoke a code word I didn’t even know I had.

Back at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, I finally meet Queen Mother Miriam. She is a joyous presence, dressed in bright colors and looking quite regal. It has been a long and draining day for her, filled with private consultations. But she kindly entertains a few of my questions and regales me, the attendant, and a couple other visitors with parables about seeking. This, because when asked what tradition I practiced I answered that I was a seeker. She asks me to come back for a proper visit and we make arrangements for Monday. I can’t express how thrilled I am, this is my first contact with Voodoo and I get to visit with a Queen Mother.

It’s getting late and I haven’t had lunch or dinner, so I look for a place to eat. Night has fallen by the time I leave the restaurant. My walk back to the hotel takes me through Bourbon Street, and what an experience that is. People, people, and more people, walking, laughing, drinking, having a good time. It’s exciting, it’s what the French Quarter is all about. And it’s also a little strange for me, I feel a little lost. These are profane spaces, what am I doing here? My answer comes moments later when I notice a man and a woman praying over a bar tender on the sidewalk. They each have Bibles in their hands and they are wearing t-shirts with Christian slogans, “Ask me how Jesus can change your life,” “Not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I wait around for them to finish praying and I approach them. “Are you with a church?” I ask. “Yes,” the man replies. He goes on to explain that they are here just about every night, expecially on the weekends, and they go around praying for the workers on Bourbon Street. He is very warm and genuine, there isn’t an ounce of judgment in his words. I look around and see nothing but the kind of environment an Evangelical Christian would typically stay as far away from as possible. “It must be very difficult to do the work you do here,” I say. “Not really,” the woman affirms. The man (I didn’t get their names) tells me ther rarely experience rejection or confrontation. In fact, he tells me, it is quite often the case that people accept Jesus Christ as their Savior right here on these sidewalks. “That’s pretty amazing,” I say. “You see,” he tells me, “When you are in a very dark place, all you need is a match to light the way. And we don’t have a match, we have the most powerful light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

They’re busy doing their rounds and I’ve detained them long enough, so we agree to meet again tomorrow night. But they leave me with the assurance that I am in the right place. I’m learning that the sacred and the profane are oftentimes found right next to each other. In fact, they are often so intertwined you can’t have one without the other. I think this is going to be a great week.

San Francisco, Day 7

Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church

This morning’s worship experience was truly something else. I’ve observed and participated in my fair share of religious services, but none quite like the “A Love Supreme Meditation” and “Coltrane Liturgy” at Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Both are held every Sunday morning and early afternoon at the Church, which is located in a store front in the Fillmore area of San Francisco. I decided to attend both the meditation and the service.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

The meditation began at 10:30 with the recitation of John Coltrane’s testimony, as it appears in the liner notes of his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme. We were then guided in a group meditation by Deacon Marlee-I Mystic. For me, this was unlike any meditation I’d ever practiced. When I meditate, it is almost always in silence. This meditation, however, consisted of focusing our attention on the music of A Love Supreme. The Coltrane classic is a suite in four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. In between parts, the meditation leader delivered recitation that focused our attention on certain spiritual themes. The meditation concluded with us singing the words of the poem, Psalm, set to the tune played on saxophone by Coltrane. Following the meditation, we were invited to share any thoughts, feelings or reactions to the meditation. It seemed everyone had something to share, including myself.

I’ve been listening to music much more intentionally for the past few years, but today was a completely different experience. When I think of jazz music, I think of smoke-filled, dimly-lit night clubs. A Love Supreme, however, is a different kind of work. Coltrane wrote it as a spiritual offering and today, along with a number of the Coltrane-devotees, I listened to it as such. It was transformational, not in that I experienced some sort of supernatural thing, but in the way that for thirty some minutes I was so present in the moment and with the music. I shared how greateful I was to have had such a new and special experience.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

The Coltrane Liturgy begins at 11:45. By this time, the congregation has doubled, perhaps tripled. By my count there are nine instrumentalists, the Ministers of Sound; four vocalists, the Voices of Compassion; and a tap dancer. The service consists of a series of free-form jazz compositions with occasional sung parts. For approximately an hour and a half, the Church is stirred into a worshipful trance as one piece of music leads into another. Archbishop Franzo King, D.D. on tenor saxophone walks around, functioning as band director, trading solos with a baritone saxophonist. Rev. Wanika King Stephens plays bass and Deacon Max Haqq goes back from alto sax to drums. There is a conga player, a drummer, a djembe player, a keyboardist, and a harmonica player. But this is only today, I learn later that there are times when there are even more musicians. The procession, opening prayer, confession, introit, and Lord’s prayer are all interpreted musically. And then before Psalm 23, there is a tap dance solo, accompanied by bass. This is something I’ve never seen in church, and it is both impressive and moving.

Then comes the collect and the scripture readings, which don’t have musical accompaniment. For the first time all morning, this begins to resemble the kind of mass to which I’m accustomed. After the offering, Pastor Stephens takes the pulpit and preaches an inspirational sermon on the nature of God-given creativity. She quotes Saint John Coltrane throughout, reminding us how he said, “All great artistic expression is truth.” And she also quotes from “Psalm” in a Love Supreme, “God breathes through us so completely…so gently, we hardly feel it. Yet, it is our everything.” It’s approximately 2:30 when the service comes to an end. I have an opportunity to speak with several of the church members. Their warm welcome and genuine interest make me feel at home, as though I’m visiting with old friends. I was nervous and a little uneasy at the beginning of the service, and as I left, I felt so happy. I don’t know how else to explain it. Just happy.

– – –

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary's Cathedral said I should go for "last chance mass."

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary’s Cathedral said I should go for “last chance mass.”

It is my last night in San Francisco and I find it fitting to conclude my visit with the 9:00 pm Candlelight Mass at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church. This Church, a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture, is a sight to behold when lit by candles on a dark Sunday night. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance, there must’ve been a couple hundred. And then, when the service began, I realized this was a very special and beautiful mass. It’s no wonder attendance is so high! I can’t think of a better way to have brought my visit in this wonderful city to a close. I have so enjoyed getting to know this city, its people and its sacred spaces. I go home with a full heart, with unforgettable experiences and with a few new friendships formed. And I hope to come back soon.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

San Francisco, Day 6

San Francisco Zen Center, Nuova Porziuncola, Saints Peter and Paul

San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Another early day began at 8:30 in the morning, arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center. Saturdays are community days at this Sangha, one of the largest ouside of Asia. This center, in the Soto Zen tradition, was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his American students. Some eighty residents live, work and practice in this place. Zazen training for beginners happens every Saturday at 8:40 and it’s taught by one of the priests. I was surprised to see such a large group gathered so early on a Saturday morning to learn the basics of sitting meditation. For over an hour we were taught several sitting postures as well as the principles of meditation. In the end, we got to sit zazen for a short period of ten minutes.

It is also on Saturdays that dharma talks are given. These talks are also available to the community as well as broadcasted via the web. Following zazen instruction, the room was rearranged for the talk. Before long, people started to arrive and the room was soon at capacity. Today’s talk was given by Kiku Christina Lehnherr, a senior dharma teacher and former abbess of the Center. I’m so grateful to have heard this teaching in person and you can watch it here (there were some technical difficulties, skip to minute 4:00 for the beginning of the talk).

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

My day at the SFZC was only halfway through and it had already been a wonderful time. There was a break of about fifteen minutes following the talk during which people mingled throughout the center with cookies and tea. This is a very vibrant community with everything from first time visitors to seasoned masters. It was lovely being in their midst. It was time for forms training and I was very eager for this particular class. My experience with zen is very limited and this class walked us through the particular forms for entering and sitting in the zendo. The zendo is the meditation hall where zen practitioners sit for extended periods of group meditation. There are specific ways of entering the room, finding your place and sitting. There are clear reasons for these prescribed behaviors in the zendo, as our teacher explained, and they all have to do with an intentional and mindful approach to the practice. There is no penalty for entering the zendo with your right foot instead of your left, as is the form. Rather, one should act accordingly as part of the practice. Every aspect of zen practice is carefully undertaken in an effort to be as present and mindful as one can possibly be.

After forms training, we were all invited to stay for lunch, and I’m so glad I did. It was during communal lunch that I got to visit with new and experience buddhists from all over the country and the world. People come to the SFZC from all over. They live and work here, and they practice together, every day from before sunrise until dark. There is plenty of work to be done, in the kitchen, around the facilities, and at Green Gulch farm which is about an hour away from the center. Some students stay for a week and others have been living there for years. Enguetsu, a practitioner from Brazil, is here for her second stay. I learn about her journey to Zen and her work at the center; and I learn the meaning of her dharma name: En (empty) Guetsu (moon). We visit for a while and then it’s time to move on. This is one of those (many) times when I wish I’d found Buddhism at an earlier age. I would have loved to have been a resident at a place like this.

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La Nuova Porziuncola

I headed for North Beach in the afternoon, where I visited the Nuova Porziuncola in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Nuova Porziuncola is a scale replica of the Porziuncola in Assisi. This is the church Saint Francis rebuilt after hearing God’s voice before the crucifix of San Damiano. The Nuova Porziuncola is a work of art and a sacred space. Every day people visit and stay to pray and reflect. I wouldn’t have known to visit had it not been for the kind lady at the St. Mary’s Cathedral bookshop. She insisted I should visit the Porziuncola, and I’m so happy I did. The Nuova Porziuncola was built with exacting standards. The stones are from the same area in Assisi as those of the original, the marble floors are reclaimed from a church in Assisi, and the frescoes are exact replicas, too. I knelt inside the Porziuncola, admiring the simplicity and beauty of its design. I wondered, if it is possible to feel such a sense of peace and wonder in this replica, what must it be like to visit the original in Assisi?

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

 

San Francisco, Day 5

 Swedenborgian Church, Darussalam Mosque, Congregation Beth Sholom, Vedanta Society

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside,  one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside, one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

Friday morning came early. By 8:00 am I was arriving at Swedenborgian Church, a historical landmark church just on the outskirts of the Presidio. As I walk in through the garden, I find myself in a modestly sized, yet beautifully appointed garden. Later I will learn that the man who envisioned this church intended us to walk through the garden in order to enter the nave. That is because he considered the garden to be part of the church, he wanted us to walk through the wonder of creation as part of the worship experience.

I’m admiring an apple tree with fruit that seems ready to be plucked and eaten, and that’s when Rev. Junchol Lee walks out the parish house door. “You must be Sergio,” he says as he begins to show me around the garden. I remark on the apple tree and he tells me he’s been eating from it in the past few days. And then we go inside the church. I’ve seen this place in pictures and I’ve been very eager to see it in person, it is unlike any other church I’ve ever seen. And the pictures simply do not do it justice. The Rev. Thomas Worcester founded the first Swedenborgian Church in America in 1795, in Boston. In 1867, his son, Rev. Joseph Worcester, started two Swedenborgian Churches in San Francisco, which no longer exist. Rev. Joseph Worcester was deeply involved in the planning of the present church and it was finished in 1895.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

This is a small church, there are approximately 80 chairs in the nave. Everything inside this Arts & Crafts style building has a purpose and a meaning. The chairs, for instance, were chosen instead of pews to make this space more versatile. Rev. Lee tells me that after service in the early days, congregants would move the chairs to gather around the fireplace in the back of the church and eat together. The fireplace is off center in relation to the altar and the axis of the church. I haven’t noticed this apparent anomaly until Rev. Lee points it out. “It would’ve made more sense to center it, but they intentionally made it asymmetrical,” he tells me. “Why on earth would they have done that?” I wonder. “Nature is not symmetrical and yet we feel most comfortable in nature,” he explains. Everything about this space attempts to bring nature inside as a reminder that God is in nature, that we experience God in creation. The arches that hold up the ceiling are raw logs, they look like they were cut yesterday, and the curves are organic, not symmetrical. There are branches and other preserved greens and shrubbery inside. The baptismal shell is an actual conch shell, and it happens to have been used to baptize Robert Frost in 1881, in one of the original Swedenborgian churches before this one was built. This church is an architectural representation of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology. And it is magnificent, in an understated, humble sort of way.

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Lee is just as fascinating as this church. “I wanted to be a Buddhist monk,” he tells me. Having been born and raised into a devoutly Presbyterian Korean home, he realized that leaving the faith to follow his desire of a monastic life of Buddhism would have been devastating to his family. He abandoned that dream, but as life would have it, a few years later he ended up in New York living with relatives who happened to be fervent Swedenborgians. As we’re standing near the altar, I point to a large bell; it looks quite Buddhist and a little out of place here. He tells me it was a gift to the church and he often uses it to lead Taoist meditation. Wait, what? “A good thing is this congregation doesn’t mind having a half-Taoist, half-Swedenborgian minister,” he says, just like that, like it’s no small thing. I tell him I’ve been looking for a Taoist Center to visit and he tells me it would be very non-Taoist to have a Taoist Center. I should’ve known this. Rev. Lee is a practicing Taoist and he has only started leading meditation groups because people have asked him to. But he is also a fully trained, seminary-graduate, Swedenborgian minister.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what Swedenborgianism is. I didn’t even know I was pronouncing it wrong: it’s Swedenborg (hard G) and Swedenborgian (soft g). Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688. He was a respected scientist and inventor who later had a spritual awakening that led to him devoting the rest of his life to theological work and inquiry. While he didn’t intend to establish a new church, his followers did so years after his death.

Swedenborg’s views were very much out of line with mainline Christianity and therefore, as Rev. Lee says, “They never liked us.” I ask what are some main differences. “We deny the existence of original sin, therefore we don’t believe in instant salvation and we don’t believe in predestination,” he says, adding that one does not become saved by simply uttering some “magical words.” Another point of difference between Swedenborg and mainline Christianity is the understanding of heaven and hell. “Hell is not a place of punishment but a place of choice. We don’t belive that God created hell in the beginning. Evil was simply a choice made by humans. So, heaven and hell are different and how you get there is different as well,” he tells me. But perhaps one of the most controversial views of Swedenborg’s is that of the second coming of Christ. Rev. Lee tells me that, “In Swedenborg’s mind, Christ came to earth once physically, why does he need to come back physically again? He insisted that the second coming would be spiritual in nature.” This was a big problem for mainline Christianity, if they give up the second coming of Christ, Rev. Lee says, “They have to give up half of the power they have over their congregations. There’s no last judgment anymore? Woohoo, we’re free! Swedenborg nurtured a real freedom of choice for the congregation,” says Rev. Lee. “In a way that’s why we are small, we’ve been small and I don’t think we’ll be really huge in years to come,” he tells me.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost's baptism.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost’s baptism.

There is another reason why Swedenborgianism has not taken over the world, and it’s a delicate one. In its heyday, the church counted among its ranks some 10,000 members. But these were people, as Rev. Lee explains, who were literate and intellectually-driven. “To be a Swedenborgian, you need to be able to read and write,” he tells me, remarking on the significance of such a high number of educated members in the 1800’s. “In a way, we have been a very elite-oriented, intellectual practice,” he admits. “The mission statement of the first Swedenborgian gathering, which happened in England, was to translate and publish the writings of Swedenborg,” says Lee. This emphasis on intellectual development set the tone for the church and unintentionally crippled its growth because, there wasn’t much of an emphasis in fellowship. “This was our strength and our limitation, and it still is today,” says Rev. Lee.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

With its focus on individual spiritual and intellectual development, it only makes sense that this is the kind of Christian church which would be prefectly at peace with having a half-Taoist minister to lead them. Rev. Lee explains how Swedenborgianism is compatible in this way with Eastern philosophies and religion, “Buddhism and Taoism say you can’t help others achieve enlightenment, you can only do that for yourself.” He explains you must help others in life, but ultimately the individual is responsible for his own achievement. He tells me one of the biggest criticisms of Swedenborgianism today is the question of serving the community. “We ask that of ourselves, too, what are we doing for the community?” says Rev. Lee. They do seem out of trend in this regard. Every single church, temple, mosque, synagogue and religious organization I’ve come in contact with seems to have as its highest priority to be a service to the community. This is a wonderful thing, of course, but I wonder if the balance is a little off. What are religious institutions sacrificing in exchange for this overwhelming emphasis on serving the community?

“A lot of times, we do these things (serving the community) to make ourselves feel better,” says, Rev. Lee, and he adds, “To me, religious, spiritual or even philosophical practice is not to make you feel better. It is an expression of your inner desire or belief, and it is something you do regardless of reward, compliments or acknowledgment.” These are difficult ideas to grasp, and as I mentioned before, it is delicate territory we’re treading on. But he helps me bring it all around and it all begins to make more sense to me. Rev. Lee wonders, “If churches encouraged their members to serve their communities without any recognition, without any reward, would they do it? If they were to say, ‘You know what? Jesus will be indifferent (whether you serve or not).’ I don’t know if they would do it!” So, it comes down to motivation. Do we do these good deeds because we think it’ll give us good karma, merit, favor? “Even Jesus spoke to this; he criticized the hypocrites, he said ‘If you do a good work, do it in such a way that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.'” This reminds me of Jesus’s exhortation to pray in private and not in public like those who do so to draw attention.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

But Swedenborgian thought does not advocate for individualism or isolation. In Swedenborg’s mind, Rev. Lee tells me, “God is pure love and love requres mutual relationship. A relationship with God and a relationship with others. In Swedenborg’s mind, the world was created in a process of pure love.” And in Rev. Lee’s mind, God is very much present in his life. God is not the product of some intellectual endeavor. He recounts for me a couple of separate instances in which he has experienced in very real and amazing ways the voice of God. At crucial times in his life, when Rev. Lee faced uncertainty or adversity, he has felt and heard God’s direction in very real ways. “The way I experience God is to me a very interesting thing,” he tells me, “He’s wiser than any human being could ever be, truly loving, never insulting or overwhelming, always embracing and nurturing and caring. That’s the way I experience it. To me, if that’s the divine, I love to embrace it. There’s nothing to resist about!” he says.

And what about Taoism, I ask. “Taoism is very flexible and free. We don’t have too many dos and don’ts. Human beings cannot talk about absolute truth, and limiting yourself with only one philosophy leads to becoming judgmental,” he says, explaining how compatible Taoism is with Swedenborgian Christianity. “The Swedenborgian Church allows me to be who I am.”

 

After my visit at Swedenborgian Church, I headed over to Darussalam Mosque for Jumu’ah (Friday prayer and sermon). The Imam delivered a sermon expounding the virtues of kindness to others and right living according to the Holy Quran. He exhorted congregants to do good unto others, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, saying, “We are not meant to ask, ‘Hello, are you a muslim so that I may be kind to you?’ but rather be kind to all, regardless.” He insisted rather passionately that the horrors taking place in the name of Islam have nothing to do with the teachings of the Prophet or the Quran, and that the calling was to be righteous and compassionate. The mosque was full, shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall. It was a wonderful experience for me.

The entrance to the Mosque.

The entrance to the Mosque.

 

 

 

 

The Imam preaches.

The Imam preaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the sacred spaces toward the top of my list was Congregation Beth Sholom. While I was unable to attend services, I was kindly allowed to visit the Synagogue and spend some quiet time there. Here are a few photos of this wonderful place.

Congregation Beth Sholom

Congregation Beth Sholom

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A view from the top. The Yahrzeit Wall can be seen in the back.

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A view of the other side, with the ark in view.

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This lovely chapel is used every day of the week for prayers and services.

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A detail view of the outside of the synagogue. When seen in full, the shape is evocative of a menorah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last stop for the day was the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. Vedantas break for the summer, so there were no services being held during my visit. I was, however, able to explore the temple and sit for meditation in the main shrine room.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The entrance to the new temple.

The entrance to the new temple.

The main shrine room.

The main shrine room.

 

 

 

San Francisco, Day 4

Grace Cathedral

The past few days I’ve been going at a very heavy pace, visiting as many places and meeting as many people as I possibly can. I’m only here for a week, so I feel compelled to make the most out of every minute. Today, however, I decided to slow down a bit. I’ve also decided to give myself and you, dear reader, a break. This won’t be an endless blog post, instead I’ll leave you with a few photographs of my visit to Grace Cathedral.

I chose Grace Cathedral for my day of rest because of its labyrinths. Those of you who have followed my journey might remember my first experience walking a labyrinth. I knew that walking a labyrinth, particularly one in such a magnificent sacred space as Grace Cathedral, would be just the thing to do for my teeming spirit and my tired body.

Thank you for reading along, and thank you for your kind comments, which I find both encouraging and thought-provoking.

NOTE: If you are on Instagram, be sure to follow me @storiesofdevotion for real-time updates and more pictures.

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I've ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral's backside!

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I’ve ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral’s backside!

The sanctuary.

A view of the sanctuary.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave.  The photo doesn't do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave. The photo doesn’t do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

San Francisco, Day 3

San Francisco Interfaith Council, Bahá’í Center, Golden City Church, Herchurch

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

My day began with a lovely drive through the Presidio, a park and former military base located in the northen part of San Francisco. I was looking for the San Francisco Interfaith Council, where I would be meeting with Executive Director, Michael Pappas. What I didn’t know was that the SFIC is housed inside the historic Presidio Chapel. The chapel was built in 1931 by the U.S. Army and although it was originally used as a Protestant chapel it later became a space of interfaith worship. Today, the SFIC has its offices in the lower level of the chapel.

Michael Pappas, a former Greek Orthodox priest, has been the executive director of the council for seven years. The council’s list of accomplishments, initiatives and projects undertaken since Pappas assumed leadership is many pages long. He is a very busy man and I’m most grateful he made time to visit with me.

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

“People define themselves through crisis,” Pappas explained, “The council was formed as the result of two crises; homelessness and the Loma Prieta earthquake.” As with other interfaith organizations, the SFIC is concerned primarily with building relationships and being of service to the community. He tells me about the important role faith communities play in times of great need. He mentions, for instance, that when Katrina struck New Orleans, the faith communities jumped into action even before FEMA arrived, and after FEMA left it was again the faith communities who remained to serve.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the SFIC served as a primary convener for the city. Some 15,000 lay people and faith leaders from all major religious traditions gathered to observe this most significant commemoration. Pappas recounts how the invocation was offered by a Muslim woman, a very significant moment and no small feat. And he adds that these kinds of events are possible as the result of the relationships the council has been cultivating for over a couple of decades now.

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Pappas is deeply commited to this work. He tells me that for him it is not just a job. When he was in pastoral ministry, he was very active in ecumenical work, and soon enough that work evolved into interfaith dialogue. He talks about a real conviction to bring about what seems to be an impossibility. I ask him what that means and he talks about the importance of putting a human face to the faiths, needs, and suffering of those in the community so that others may better relate. When we talk about what makes San Francisco uniquely amenable to interfaith work, he tells me, “we live in a vulnerable place, this is the last place you can go before you hit the water.” But San Francisco is also, as he puts it, “a place of dreams and goals, a place where people feel that the can be.”

Did you know there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith? I certainly didn’t but I learned that and so much more during a wonderful visit at the Bahá’í Center of San Francisco. My time at the center was facilitated by Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly and a most gracious host. He gave me a primer on the faith. I learned about the Bab, who was the founder of Bábism and forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh. I learned about Bahá’u’lláh, who was the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism and the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. And I learned about `Abdu’l-Bahá, son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh. But most importantly I learned about Yen’s experience in the faith, how he came to find it and what it means to him. He told me about the individual search for truth that is central to the faith, and he emphasized that this is a social and civil faith. I ask him about this truth he was speaking of and with a big smile, he said, “Whatever you think it is, it isn’t.”

The Bahá'í Center

The Bahá’í Center

During my time with him I learned that Bahá’í Faith unites all religions and holds them all to be equally true. As the pamphlet explains, there is one Light (God) and many Lamps (religions). The accompanying illustration presents a succession of prophets, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh; all emanating from the same source. “I am all of those religions in order to call myself a Bahá’í,” says Yen. But I learn that Bahá’í is not simply an amalgamation of all the faiths that came before it. It’s not a religious potpourri as one might mistakenly think. Bahá’u’lláh received revelation from God and he was a very prolific writer. Yen explains with much excitement that Bahá’ís can access the words of Bahá’u’lláh directly as he himself wrote them. During a pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Yen was able to see for himself the manuscripts. He describes the beautiful calligraphy and the sense of awe that overwhelmed him. There are many volumes of scripture written by Bahá’u’lláh, some are prayers, others are directions for worship and life, others are revelation.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu'l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá'u'lláh.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu’l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh.

Our conversation continued as we walked through the many rooms of this beautiful center, a gift of a wealthy patron and Bahá’í. Yen showed me a meditation room, a couple of class rooms, a fellowship hall and a large auditorium. The auditorium is only used a couple of times a year for special holidays. Bahá’í gatherings are held every 19 days for prayer, reading, discussion and music. When he talks about the martyrdom of the Bab and the imprisonment of Bahá’u’lláh, he can’t help but become emotional. He holds back tears and apologizes. It is a very compelling and moving story of suffering and devotion. I ask what it means for him to be a Bahá’í. He tells me it is a personal faith more than a religion. He tells me, “The material world gives you plenty of evidence to support atheism,” and he shares that his wife (with whom he is very happily married) herself is an atheist. But his faith helps him draw closer to God, and he tells me it is “something in my life that answers my questions.”

Sometime around 3:00 pm I arrived at The Mill, a remarkable specimen of the new wave of coffeeshops (mason jars, pour overs, hipster aesthetic, you know). I was there to meet Josh Sisco, who is the pastor at Golden City Church. I had just enough time while I waited to make up my mind: I was most definitely getting a slice of toast with homemade Nutella to go with my single origin coffee. Oh yeah.

Josh arrived, ordered an iced coffee and by the time we sat down I already knew he was not your typical pastor. He is young, 26 to be exact, and he has the looks and charisma of a super hip rock star. He began to tell me his story about growing up in a suburban California and deeply involved in the Calvary Church movement. Young as he may be, Josh has seen his share of conflict and disillusionment, but he never lost hope or faith. He shares a quote someone shared with him, “Experience is the best teacher, but it doesn’t have to be your experience.” What this means for him is that throughout his life and preparation for ministry, he has been able to learn from the experiences of others as well as his own. And he has learned a lot.

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

“Calvary is a good model for the suburbs,” he tells me. But he believes that in order to meet the needs of urban citizens, the church has to find new models. When his parents came to Christ and made Calvary Chapel their home church, they also decided to move to the suburbs as a safe and wholesome place to raise a family. But that was then, and today, Josh disagrees with the notion that one should avoid the perceived wickedness of the cities. “My parents escaped the city and I ran to the city,” he says. His calling is clearly one for the city. He’s concerned about the fact that his generation and future generations will have no legacy. “Everybody is a transplant,” he says and then he jokingly challenges me to find a true San Franciscan.

Josh himself is not a San Franciscan. He and his wife came to the city to assume the leadership of Calvary Chapel’s San Francisco church plant. And, while he remains loyal and committed to Calvary, one of the first things he did was change the name of the church. He tells me he didn’t want to send a message that this church was a sort of franchise (Calvary Chapel is a network of churches based out of Costa Mesa, California). Golden City Church is decidedly a San Francisco church. As such, Josh dreams of a city in which people stay and create legacies. It is a difficult thing to imagine when San Francisco is overrun by the tech industry and the transiency of its employees. But Josh remains hopeful.

“Community” has become a bit of a buzzword when it comes to the new wave of Christianity. But it is important to understand why community is central to this new approach to theology and ministry. Josh describes it in generational terms, “The Boomers were high on commitment and low on community. Millenials are low on commitment and high on community.” I ask what he means by that and he explains that the suburban church model of the previous generation worked well with people who were willing to support the church financially even if they were not as involved. Today’s generation, by contrast, is more interested in belonging to a network of people in whom they can find a support system, not just on Sunday mornings in church, but throughout the week, at work, in the neighborhood and at the coffee shop. I find this very interesting, it harkens back to the notion of the early church.

“I don’t want to be a cool church, I don’t want to be famous. I’ve seen what that does,” Josh tells me. He is well aware of the hipster image and the assumptions people make based on it. With his bushy mustache, flappy hair and mason jar in hand, he fits the bill. “Just look at hipsters,” he exclaims, “most hipsters are Christian.” As I look around this hipster haven of a coffee shop, I realized I’ve never felt so square in my life. We can have fun at the expense of that hipster aesthetic, but the truth is that behind that image lies a driving desire for authenticity. This new wave of Christians are weary of labels, they’re not impressed by jumbotrons and Starbucks in the pews. They are hungry for real connections with those in their communities and their faith is very much centered around that yearning.

“We probably have sixty people on a good Sunday, if the wind is blowing just right,” Josh tells me. But that is perfectly fine for that. Josh represents a Christian demographic that feels lost in the megachurch. They’re much more interested in quality than quantity. It doesn’t matter that there are only six or eight people at his Thursday night group; what matters is that the difficult discussions and questions they have in this group will directly impact the sermon he delivers on Sunday morning. And when he delivers that sermon, his congregation won’t have to wonder whether it speaks to them; they know it does. They were there to help shape it.

As he talks of what the church must be about today, Josh reflects on the fact that the previous generation was so moralistic. The church has been too concerned with telling people what’s right and what’s wrong. His church ideal, however, is one that practices loving the world, not judging it. Yes, everybody is nice and tolerant, but, he says, “Christians can’t be tolerant,” he says. There’s a pregnant pause, he knows he’s startled me, he says, “This is going to sound really conservative at first, but then I’m going to flip it on you.” He goes on to explain that the church and Christians should be about serving others, not merely tolerating them, and he asks, “How can I be tolerant of those I’m here to serve?”

These are great questions, and millenials love asking questions. It is in this that I (a Gen X/Millenial inbetweener) identify with millenials the most, this insatiable curiosity. Christians like Josh and the many community churches that are popping up all over major cities and urban centers are much more comfortable with paradox than those who preceded them. “Good and bad is relative,” says Josh, and furthermore, “moralism is an idol.” Whereas the previous Church model spoke in terms of either/or, Josh says “both, or neither, or something else entirely.” He does not disdain the church he grew up in, the church that prepared him for ministry. He is firmly rooted in the faith of his upbringing, it’s just that he has seen a need for a new church model and he’s been called to fill it. And, it seems that the establishment is catching on. In a hopeful tone, he tells me, “The church has stopped answering questions that nobody was asking.”

Herchurch

Herchurch

Questions keep conversations going; they are an engine of progress and change. And in San Francisco there is another faith of Christianity that has asked a very difficult yet simple question: what about the feminine aspect of the divine? Earth-based religions have venerated the feminine divine for millenia, but as far as Abrahamic religions are concerned, God has been understood and spoken of almost exclusively in masculine terms. Herchurch (a Lutheran church also known by its original name, Ebenezer) has taken on as its mission “to embody and voice the prophetic wisdom and word of the Divine Feminine, to uplift the values of compassion, creativity and care for the earth and one another.” I happened upon Herchurch as I was driving to Redwood Tuesday night. The purple church is hard to miss and on its side hangs a large banner announcing Goddess Rosary, Wednesdays at 7:00. I figured this was something I had to experience for myself, I haven’t heard of any Goddess Rosaries taking place in Kansas City!

Goddess Rosary

Goddess Rosary

I arrived a few minutes early and was immediately greeted by a couple of parishioners. A few minutes later, Pastor Stacy Boorn welcomed me to the church and invited me to have some organic, gluten-free, tomato soup. We talked for a minute about my project and she invited me to look around the church and take as many pictures as I wanted. It’s good to feel welcome, comfortable and accepted when you’re about to experience an unfamiliar tradition. As I made my way through the nave, I noticed icons and statuettes depicting manifestations of the Divine Feminine from all manner of traditions and cultures. There was an altar for the Virgen de Guadalupe, there was an icon of Christ Sophia, images of Mary Magdalene, there were prehistoric images of fertility goddesses, drums, candles, incense, bells and water. The church was dimly lit and as night fell, I found myself completely at peace in this quiet and sacred space.

The rosary prayer begins promptly at 7:15. During and at other times participants are welcome to use the prayer stations throughout the nave. The spoken prayers are as follows:

On the large beads:

Our Mother who is within us,
we celebrate your many names.
Your wisdom come
Your will be done,
unfolding from the depths within us.
Each day you give us all that we need.
You remind us of our limits and we let go.
You support us in our power
and we act with courage.
For you are the dwelling place within us,
the empowerment around us,
and the celebration among us.
Now and for ever. Blessed Be.

On the medium beads:

Hail Goddess, full of grace,
Blessed are You
and blessed are all the fruits of your womb.
For you are the Mother of us all.
Hear/Heal us now
and in all our dreams/needs.
O blessed be, O blessed be. Amen/Ah-She

On the three small beads:

Mother, Maiden, Crone
(The Our Mother is attributed to Miriam Therese Winter, the Hail Goddess is adapted from Carol Christ)

Prayer stations inside the nave.

Prayer stations inside the nave

After the first round of the rosary, there was a period of quiet contemplation. Participants visited the different stations to light candles, ring bells and offer incense. Then the rosary was spoken once again. When the service was over, promptly at eight, we gathered in the foyer to eat soup, drink tea and chat. It was a lovely time and I felt warmly welcomed. If I were a local, I would certainly visit again, and again.

Pastor Stacy Boorn

Pastor Stacy Boorn