catholicism

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.

 

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San Francisco, Day 2

Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), Buddha’s Universal Church, Insight Meditation Center

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776, five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1782, a new location for the mission was selected and the a new building was dedicated in 1791. This building still stands today and is most commonly known as Mission Dolores. It is the oldest intact building in San Francisco and it is in a sense the city’s namesake.

There is something that immediately stands out to me when I visit a sacred space and it is an almost palpable sense of quiet and peace. Even in the midst of a bustling neighborhood, these places of prayer, worship, congregation and meditation are havens of peace and solace. Misión San Francisco de Asís is a popular destination for tourists. It is still used for worship on special occasions, but for the most part, those who visit do so for its historical significance.

Inside the Misión Chapel

Inside the Misión Chapel

As I entered the chapel, I was taken away by the simple beauty of its design and construction. I took a few photographs, made my way through the chapel and sat down to take it all in. Before too long, the handful of visitors left and I found myself completely alone in the chapel. It was so still, so quiet and so peaceful. It was just a priceless ten or fifteen minutes in which to contemplate the importance of this place. How many people have worshipped here? How many prayers have been raised? How much history is contained within these four-foot-deep adobe walls?

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

The Mission Dolores Basilica stands right next to the Misión San Francisco de Asís chapel. It is a magnificent building that a vibrant congregation calls home. As I made my way through the Basilica, a group of children rehearsed for their acolyte duties. Mass is celebrated every day of the week. On Sundays, a Spanish language Mass is celebrated, too.

With only a few minutes to spare, I traveled from the Mission district to the heart of Chinatown for a meeting at Buddha’s Universal Church. A few days ago, when I got a call back confirming an appointment to visit this Church, I could barely contain my excitement. Buddha’s Universal Church is not open during the week and services are only held on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. So, I was rather thrilled to learn that Alan Chan, one of the lay teachers, would give me a private tour of the church.

Buddha’s Universal Church is a unique congregation. As Mr. Chan explained, this is a deliberately westernized Buddhist congregation. The main worship area is arranged much like a contemporary Christian church. Instead of meditation cushions on the floor, there are rows of theater-style seats. Instead of a shrine, there is a platform and even a pulpit. There is a choir that sings during Sunday services and well, most obviously, this is a church and not a temple. But there is no question about the fact that this is a Buddhist center in the Mahayana tradition. There are exquisitely designed images of the Buddha as well as other symbols of Buddhism such as lotus flowers and bamboo shoots. I ask Mr. Chan about all of this and he explains that the Church caters to second and third generation Buddhists who have been born in the U.S. and are more Western than the generations before them.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan is an optometrist by profession, he is a very kind and enthusiastic representative for the church. Many of the founders of this church, which started as a small gathering at home, are members of his family. As we walk through the facilities, he talks about the fundraisers and all the work that went into building this magnificent church. Entire families would make and sell cookies to raise money, “We called it cookies to concrete to church,” he tells me with a smile. The church was completed and dedicated in 1964.

“Our religion is very logical,” says Mr. Chan, “Meditation is about reflecting upon our actions.” He explains how a focus of Mahayana Buddhism is to work on the inside, to endeavor to make the heart and the mouth agree. It is no good, he says, to scorn another with our thoughts while offering a kind word. Instead, the object is to make our intentions and our actions agree. This is a message and a practice that is available and relevant to most people, and that is one of the reasons the church strives to be accessible to the Western mindset. Although most of the members and congregants are American-born Asians, he tells me the church also counts a good number of non-Asian congregants in attendance. “We cater more to the English-speaking community, so our services are always bilingual,” he tells me.

I’m amazed at the beauty of this place. There is so much light, both natural and artificial, and rooms appear to materialize out of thin air. Here’s a library, there’s a class room, but how? I didn’t notice them when I came in! And then we make our way to the rooftop, where a beautiful garden provides a place of respite and a wonderful vantage point of Washington Park and the San Francisco skyline. Here Mr. Chan draws my attention to a tree, the main feature of the terrace garden. This is a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in India, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Think about that for a minute or two. I’m still thinking about it, many hours later.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha's Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha’s Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

An hour or so later, our visit comes to an end. Mr. Chan, my gracious host, sends me on my way with a full heart and a heavy back pack. His generosity has extended to a precious gift of an eight volume set of Buddhist texts, The Pristine Orthodox Dharma, written by leaders of the Church.

photo 4My day ended at the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City, where I attended meditation and Dharma talk, ¡EN ESPAÑOL! Although I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism, this is the first time I’ve heard teachings in Spanish, and what a precious gift it was. Andrea Castillo, a Stanford PhD and long-time practitioner under the teaching of Gil Fronsdal, has been leading a Spanish-language group at IMC for about three years now. After a thirty minute period of silent meditation, Castillo gave a Dharma talk on the subject of “ecuanimidad.” I listened with excitement as the Dharma came alive in the language of my childhood. I’m excited to finally learn the Spanish word for mindfulness, which is actually two words: “atención plena.” Our session ends and Dr. Castillo takes time to visit with me. I have so many questions and she is so kind with her time. We exchange contact information and she sends me home with the Spanish translation of Gil Fronsdal’s “The Issue at Hand,” which in Spanish is titled, “Viviendo en el Presente.”