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.



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.

New York, Day 1

St. Malachy’s – The Actors’ Chapel

It’s been a long day, but a very rewarding one, too. My flight was delayed and so I ended up having a shorter evening than I had planned. As I reviewed my maps and locations, I decided to see what might be within walking distance of my hotel. St. Malachy’s (The Actors Chapel) is only about a 17 minute walk from the hotel and as I looked at the website I realized that if I left immediately I could make it in time for Adoration. So, I got my things and started walking.

Lighting the altar candles  at the beginning of Adoration.

Lighting the altar candles at the beginning of Adoration.

Right in the middle of the Theater District (directly across from The Book of Mormon) sits St. Malachy’s. Built in 1902, this relatively small church is a center of solace in the midst of a bustling community. The church is known as The Actor’s Chapel due to its strong connection to Broadway’s artistic community, dating back to the 1920s. Inside the entry of the church, you’ll find a chapel built to St. Genesius, patron saint of actors. Many famous actors and artists have attended mass here, from Douglas Fairbanks to Antonio Banderas.

You wouldn’t have guessed any of that if your only experience of this church was tonight’s Adoration service however. The atmosphere was one of utmost reverence and peace. The liturgy started promptly at 6:30 and the sweet smell of incense filled the air. There were hymns, prayers, a reading from Scripture and then about thirty minutes of silent meditation. I was struck by the serenity and the solace felt within those walls, even as only feet away from us the city was alive and loud. The sight of a group of people from all walks of life, of all ages, and diverse ethnicities, men and women, gathered to slow life down and be still never ceases to amaze me.

A stealthy photo of the organ. I don't want to be disruptive or disrespectful and I'll be sure to ask permission next time.

A stealthy photo of the organ. I don’t want to be disruptive or disrespectful and I’ll be sure to ask permission next time.

As the service drew to a close, I turned to my pew neighbor and asked if she might have a few minutes to talk to me. She was a little shy at first, but who wouldn’t be when approached by a perfect stranger?! I briefly explained that I was interested in learning more about her faith and her experience at this church. Before long we were speaking in Spanish (although she’s called New York her home for the past forty years, she’s originally from Colombia) and we ended up visiting for a little over an hour. She asked where I was from. When I said Mexico, she seemed genuinely surprised. “What? How can you be from Mexico and not be Catholic?” I explained I was actually raised Protestant, and she seemed okay with that.

Cleotilde Romero is a devout Catholic. She attends mass every day and Saint Malachy’s is her church of choice, given that she lives only a couple blocks away. She agreed to speak for the camera and I asked her one question, “How do you experience the presence of God?” [What follows is the translation of her answer, which you can see in the videoblog] “The presence of God, in every moment and because of one’s faith, and in what one sees from other people’s actions, the love, the kindness of others, fellowship, friendship…the presence of God is everywhere. There is a Heavenly Father, one only, eternal God in which the whole world believes. And He is because of love, not because we deserve it.”

She told me all about her ministry in the church, years and years of preparing children for catechism and young couples for marriage. Her faith had been affirmed by years, decades, of witnessing God’s mercy and grace at work in the lives of those who sought Him. She encouraged me to do the same and she quoted Scripture like a Bible scholar. After a while I asked if I could take her picture. “You want a picture of me?” she said. And then she suggested we take it in front of the Lady of Guadalupe. “That’s your virgin,” she said, and she was right, La Virgen de Guadalupe is the Mother of all Mexicans.

Cleotilde wanted Our Lady of Guadalupe in the photo, since I'm from Mexico.

Cleotilde wanted Our Lady of Guadalupe in the photo, since I’m from Mexico.

The church was closing so we stepped outside and huddled under her umbrella for the next thirty minutes or so. She seemed so eager to speak and I was so eager to listen. Everything she said was so familiar to me and in a homesick sort of sense it was heartwarming, too. “So, you (Protestants) only believe in the Father, right?” she asked. I said, “No, Protestants believe in the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” With a face of great relief she replied, “Oh, praise be to God, that’s good!” I smiled and assured her that Protestants and Catholics actually have quite a lot more in common than not, and somehow it felt like I was talking to someone I’d known for ages.

I’m finding that if I can get over my own nervousness and fear, and if I can ask one or two questions, people are generally very happy to talk to me. Why don’t we all do this more often? It is such a good feeling to be able to connect on a deeper level with someone you’ve never even met. Here we were, standing in the rain, not wanting to say goodbye and all I did was ask one question. But I was worried I was taking too much of her time, and the bottoms of my pants were quite wet. So I asked if she might share a few last words for the camera. She said yes, gladly, and proceeded to give me a blessing [What follows is the translation of her parting words, which you can see in the videoblog], “May God bless you always, may His light be with you always, may you always be well. And in parting, may the Heavenly Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit bless you and give you the wisdom to know what He has in store for you.”

Sharing an umbrella.

Sharing an umbrella.

The hypothesis I set forth with for this project is that faith is narrative, that narrative gives life meaning and that understanding what gives meaning to other people’s lives creates a more emotionally connected world. Tonight I believe this more than ever. I don’t share Cleotilde’s faith, but in the process of listening to her story and genuinely trying to understand, we developed -if only for an hour- an emotional connection. I may never see her again, but I will not forget her.




PEOPLE: A Present Firmly Grounded in the Past

“Both of my grandfathers were bastards. I think this is important to my story,” says Velia Calcara. She’s definitely got my attention, so I keep listening. “One was born at the end of the 19th century, the other at the beginning of the 20th. At that time there was a great stigma attached to being an illegitimate child. So, right off the bat, even though their mothers tried to raise them with a certain set of beliefs, they could feel the rejection and the judgment, certainly in the Catholic Church, which was the predominant religion in Mexico, and they ended up pulling away from the Church. Not the faith, but the Church.”

Velia was born and raised in Jalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. Growing up, she experienced first hand the blooming of her hometown, a small city that was quickly becoming a cosmopolitan center for education, culture and the arts. She tells me about her mother and father, about the baggage they carried from their respective fathers and about how they raised her with Catholic teachings, but with a weary relationship toward the Church. “The faith was passed on to us but not the submissive attitude toward the priest, not the inflexible rules of the church, and not the rituals of the church and the rigid set of behaviors and practices,” she explains. When I ask what that meant in practice she says, “For instance, in my house we ate whatever we wanted during Lent and we were grateful for it. Forget about the fact that the Church said ‘no meat during Lent,’ we ate it. I did go to catechism and received the sacraments, but I don’t remember my parents insisting on going to mass and confession, or any of the common practices of a Catholic family.”

"Church is a suit that doesn't fit me well," says Velia Calcara.

“Church is a suit that doesn’t fit me well,” says Velia Calcara.

She spends the better part of our meeting telling me about her past, and she makes it a point to outline the main events, people and circumstances that shaped her views of the world as well as her understanding of God and spirituality. Her father had a significant part in shaping Velia’s independent and strong-willed character. “Some of my good friends were in the Girl Scouts, so of course I wanted to join. But my dad said no. I didn’t understand why. But, you know, Girl Scouts was so religiously based back then and my father didn’t want me to all of a sudden, I don’t know how best to say it but, he didn’t want me to lose the freedom of belief and mind that I had. I probably was 10 or 11, but I was not ruled or governed by any strict religious rules.”

As a young adult, It was another family member who would have a deep impact on the way Velia would see the world and her place in it. “When I was 19 or 20, I had an aunt whom I loved very, very much. She introduced me to metaphysics. And I found that very interesting, very logical, and in a way simple to understand.” As she tells me this I realize I’m not quite certain I know what metaphysics is, so I ask. “Understanding logically your reality, what surrounds you, understanding how things manifest in this world. Although I never went deep into that, it helped me make sense of a lot of things I was going through at the time.” She explains how being a teenager in the 80s, in a burgeoning cosmopolitan city and witnessing so many major world events was so foundational to who she is today.

So, I want to know more about who she is today. I’ve known Velia for about a year, but we haven’t had much of a chance to really talk until now. She tells me she’s been thinking about a question I asked her the last time, something about whether there was ever a time or a place in which she felt she fit in. “I don’t fit in,” she states, takes a breath and continues, “I’m too much of a rebel to be a good Catholic, I question too much to be a good protestant Christian and I like my freedom too much to comply with other religions. Religiously, I don’t fit anywhere, and…I’m brown…and, I’m a woman. So, no.”

Like most of us in the minority, Velia is keenly aware of the fact that she is perceived as other, as different, as not-from-here. Perhaps this is why she is so intent on speaking up for equality, “We live in a multicultural society and I have a problem when people refuse to interact with other human beings just because they don’t practice the same set of beliefs, or because of their sexuality, or because they don’t have a religion, per se, they are atheists. I think that respect is crucial for the success of a community.” Our conversation lapses into Spanish whenever she wants to drive a point home, such as when she quotes Mexican founding father, Benito Juarez, “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” (“Among individuals as among nations, the respect to other people’s rights is peace.”) This is one of her maxims, I learn.

“How do you identify,” I ask. She replies, “I would say I was brought up Catholic but I am not a very good practicing Catholic.” I almost want to say, “You could’ve fooled me!” But then she clarifies, “I’m a believer with a Catholic background.” I wonder what she believes, how she believes, does she pray? “Believe it or not, I pray,” she tells me. I ask her to elaborate. “My praying tends to follow the two main Catholic prayers, Padre Nuestro and Ave María. Every now and then, out of interest since I didn’t learn it as a young person, I pray the Rosary with a couple of friends. And some times I do a free prayer, more like a meditation, when I need to quiet myself down. I consider myself very intense and I can build up anxiety very easily.”

Our time is running out, but I want to make sure I understand what prayer means to her. “I don’t believe in praying like asking Santa for a gift. To me when you pray, you’re trying to be in touch with your Creator. Often times I pray for guidance because I’m spiritually blind and deaf and my ego gets in the way. And I pray for acceptance.”