new york

New York, Day 7

Rare Bible Collection at the Museum of Biblical Art

One of the many shelves in the collection.

One of the many shelves in the collection.

“We collect one book,” said Dr. Liana Lupas as she opened the door to the library. The Rare Bible Collection at MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art) belongs to the American Bible Society. It is not open to the general public, but it can be visited by appointment. I happened upon it last Saturday when the curator, Dr. Lupas, was gone for the weekend. The museum attendant gave me a card and said I could contact Dr. Lupas directly for an appointment. It was a long shot, knowing a visit would have to happen today, I was afraid I may not get to see it. Dr. Lupas called this morning and told me I could come visit today. And now, here I was only a couple hours later, standing before one of the largest and finest collections of rare bibles.

Dr. Lupas is as rare and extraordinary as the collection she curates. She is soft spoken and chooses her words carefully. But she also has no qualms about correcting my Latin pronunciation. “I would say ‘poliGLOta,’ not ‘poLIglota,'” she points out later on as I read the spine on one of the bibles. Eventually she informs me it’s pronounced “prinKeps,” not “prinSeps” (at least I got “editio” right). But somehow I don’t feel belittled or embarrassed, I’m just incredibly grateful she’s giving me so much of her time. She doesn’t offer much information about herself, but when I ask, I learn that her PhD is in Classics (Greek and Latin), that she taught for 21 years at the University of Bucharest, that her mothertongue is Romanian and that she has been the curator of this collection for some 23 years. From my time with her, I deduce that she speaks at least six languages (Romanian, English, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin), but I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually speaks six more.

The 1440 Wycliffe manuscript is the collection's most valuable book.

The 1440 Wycliffe manuscript is the collection’s most valuable book.

There are at least 7,000 languages spoken in the world today and the Bible is available in at least 2,600 of those. I’m surprised, I expected the second number to be higher, especially since she’s just told me it’s the most translated and reprinted book of all time. And then she explains that even though 2,600 is only a little over a third of the world’s languages, at least 96% of the world’s population have access to a Bible in a language they can understand. You see, there are languages with fewer than one hundred surviving speakers. These are languagues that will soon disappear. And many of these disappearing languages have portions of the Bible available to them, just not the Bible in its entirety (Hebrew and New Testaments). She tells me there is a consortium of Bible translators, the purpose of which is to produce a translation in any language that has at least 100,000 speakers. It seems like a big number at first, but that’s barely one tenth the population of New York City! Speaking of numbers, Dr. Lupas’ collection contains 46,000 specimens. That’s also the number of taxi drivers in New York City, by the way (and can you believe that only 170 of them are women?). That’s a lot of bibles.

If I look nervous, it's because I am holding the most valuable books in the collection.

If I look nervous, it’s because I am holding the most valuable books in the collection.

Right around this time, Dr. Lupas asks me to leave my back pack behind and directs me to a staircase, “Wait, there’s more?!” I wonder. This whole time, we’ve only been looking at one third of the collection, there’s a whole other floor. When we get to the second floor, she explains she is now going to show me the rare bibles. I feel like I’m in a movie as she scans her badge, there’s a beep and a click and she opens the door to a temperature-controlled room. My heart starts beating faster, I’m about to be in the presence of old bibles. Really. Old. Expensive. Bibles. We begin at the very back of the room, where she pulls a small box and a small bible off the shelf. “These two are insured for one million dollars,” she tells me. I ask if I can take a picture of her holding them. She says, “No, you hold them and I’ll take a picture of you as a millionaire. And then you give me my million back” I hand her my phone, she gives me the precious books, and in her best teacher voice admonishes me, “With both hands!” I return the books as soon as I can, they’re making me nervous.

Dr. Lupas shows me her favorite Bible, the Complutensian. I asked why it's her favorite and she simply replied, "I love it."

Dr. Lupas shows me her favorite Bible, the Complutensian. I asked why it’s her favorite and she simply replied, “I love it.”

We walk over to a table with a pillow. Dr. Lupas opens the box and out comes a 1440 Wycliffe manuscript, which she carefully places on the pillow and begins to open. This is the most valuable Bible in the collection, but she doesn’t handle it the way you handle a delicate and expensive artifact. No, she handles it like its a faithful, long time friend…with love. My bible knowledge is very rusty, but I know enough to remember John Wycliffe as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation who among other things proposed translating the Bible into the language of the people. I mention remembering he got himself into a lot of trouble for his translation work. She corrects me again, “Well, no he didn’t. You’re thinking of Tyndale, that’s this other book. Although they did dig Wycliffe up after and burned his bones.” “Of course, Tyndale, that’s what I was thinking!” I add, in an effort to save face. She turns a few of the pages and allows me to take a photo here and there. It is a glorius book, and it is in perfect condition. I almost can’t believe I’m inches away from a Bible that’s over 500 years old. We move on to the smaller book, the 1530 copy of Tyndale’s Pentateuch, printed in Amsterdam. It was William Tyndale who was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.

The Tyndale Pentateuch, 1530.

The Tyndale Pentateuch, 1530.

The collection owns very few manuscripts and they have mostly been acquired as gifts. I ask why that is and Dr. Lupas explains that the mission of the collection is to document the history of Bible printing, publication and translation. In the time that she has curated this collection, Dr. Lupas has added around 600 languages to it. I ask whether the fact that there are so many new translations being produced over the years presents any problems or challenges for her. Without skipping a beat she replies, “No. I’m a collector.” I tell her I’m familiar with a few of the translations, and I rattle them off, thinking I can impress her. “The New Revised Standard Version, the King James (obviously), the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, you know, most of them, right?” “Well,” she tells me, “if you count everything, there are at least 900 translations in English alone.” Not. Even. Close. I wonder if that’s a problem, or maybe even just strange – so many translations in just one language? Why? And she tells me these translations reflect the evolution of the language. That makes so much sense, the language is alive, word meanings change, words fall out of use, and so on. But, shouldn’t there be at least one authoritative translation? “There’s a Bible for everybody,” she responds.

La Biblia del Oso.

La Biblia del Oso.

I tell her I grew up with the Reina-Valera, does she have any editions of that. “Of course,” she says. Of course. We walk over to another case and she pulls out a magnificent tome about the size a paver stone. “La Biblia del Oso,” she smiles. The Bible of the Bear? I’ve never heard it referred to that way. Well, that’s because I’ve never seen a first edition. She opens the Bible to the first page and there it is, a bear reaching up into a honeycomb on a tree. I ask why Valera’s name isn’t there. “Valera did next to nothing, Reina did all the work.” That would be Casiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera. It turns out that Valera did a minor revision afterward, nothing really worthy of full partnership. The edition we’re looking at is from 1569, and it is absolutely beautiful.

“Let me show you my favorite Bible,” she says. Of course I want to see her favorite Bible! Biblia Poliglota Complutense (emphasis on the “glo”) or Complutensian Polyglot Bible, is a six volume edition, financed and produced by Cardinal Francisco JimĂ©nez de Cisneros in Alcalá de Henares. This is the first polyglot version of the entire Bible, published and printed by the Universidad Complutense around 1514 and 1517. On the page she has turned to, she points out the Hebrew on the right, the Greek on the left, the Latin vulgate in the middle, the Aramaic paraphrase in the bottom left and the Latin commentary in the bottom right. She explains the significance of this work; this is not just a translation of a holy text, “He wanted it to also be a manual for learning Hebrew and Greek.” The significance of this book is palpable, I feel like I’m looking at the Rosetta Stone of printed Bibles, and I’m at a loss for words. “Look at the typeface,” she says in the same tone a loving grandmother would show you a picture of her grandchild and proudly exclaim, “Look at those eyes.” These books, these bibles, they are her companions, her friends.

bibles07

Biblia Poliglota Complutense

“What does it mean for you to be surrounded by all of these bibles, for this to be your work?” She looks around, then back at me and says, “Well, it means so much. It’s everything.” There’s a pause and I hope it wasn’t a wrong question to ask. Then she adds, “I’m 73, almost 74, and I don’t want to retire.” We’re back on the first level where she shows me a few oddities. A Spanish language Manga new testament, with Jesus illustrated as a Japanese superhero along with his disciples, stands out. “What? What is this? How strange!” I ask, hardly believing this is in the same collection as those centuries-old Bibles. She shrugs and says, “I’m a collector.” I can tell our visit is about to come to an end, she’s already been more than generous with her time. She says she has a couple more things she can show me. I tell her I’m happy to stay as long as she’ll let me, until she kicks me out. “Well, I have a lot of work. We all have a lot of work.” And I think by “we” she means her and the bibles.

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New York, Day 6

The Riverside Church in New York, The Rev. Al Sharpton preaching

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

“The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international congregation which strives to be open, affirming and welcoming.” If there’s anything this church wants you to remember about them, it’s that. The message, or a variation of it, appears in worship folders, pamphlets, bulletins, on website, and the staff and volunteers will say it, too. Our tour guide, after the service, told us this is something of which they’re proud. It is evident that the church lives by this ideal, you can see it and you can feel it as you look around.

I’ve been fortunate to visit a great number of sacred spaces throughout Manhattan this week, and they’re all beautiful and awe-inspiring in their own right. But it’s been clear that it’s the people who gather there and form those communities that give these spaces life and meaning. Riverside Church is such a place. Yes, the building is as amazing as you can imagine a Rockefeller funded church to be. But it’s the church’s people and vision, from it’s very beginning until today, that makes it matter. A list of notable speakers at Riverside includes Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name only a few. And today I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Al Sharpton deliver a powerful message, entitled, “God is Here,” which was also the theme for the whole service.

After a few initial words, Rev. Sharpton addressed the incident a just a few days ago of Eric Garner’s death, resulting from an argument with the police and ending in his death as a result of a police chokehold. This is a devastating incident that has New Yorkers reeling over racial tensions and excessive use force by the police. When Rev. Sharpton received the news, he said, “My mind went back twenty years ago, where I went to the same Staten Island, same precinct, young man named Ernest Sayon had been killed by police men in an altercation very similar. The march that weekend was led by myself and others, the march yesterday, led by myself and others. Twenty years ago, the mayor’s name was Giuliani, the commisioner’s name was Bratton. Twenty years later, the mayor’s name is DiBlasio, the commisioner’s name is Bratton. There’s a lot different twenty years later, yet, we will see if a lot remains the same. One thing that is different is that there’s a video this time.”

A historic pulpit.

A historic pulpit.

Rev. Sharpton went on to talk about the thing that bothers him most in the face of this tragedy, the fact that the nation does not seem to react with a sense of humanity. “Have we gotten so cold and withdrawn?” he says, and he continues, “And does the faith community this morning, churches all over the city of New York gathered, do we deal with this moment with impeccable laryngitis, not even addressing what children in the streets see?” “God is here?” he wondered. And then he added, “Well, maybe the reason people doubt it is those of us who claim to represent God show up missing in action.”

Rev. Sharpton’s faith demands action. It is a faith that is evidenced by advocacy in favor of the opressed, by fighting for justice. President Obama, speaking about Sharpton, is quoted as saying he is “the voice of the voiceless and a champion for the downtrodden.” Sharpton’s faith and social justice work are deeply intertwined. When he talks about gun violence in cities like Chicago, he says, “God is here? Well, where are the representatives of God?” He continues, “We’re comparing notes, like were in some Olympic competition of murder, seeing which city has the worst gun violence. Yet, the people of faith have not challenged gun manufacturers, have not challenged the congress that will not even pass background checks. Can you imagine members of congress that want photo ID to vote but no background checks to buy a gun?”

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

I find this approach to faith very compelling. Rev. Sharpton talks about a faith that demands involvement in our communities, a faith that is shown by how we fight for equality and justice. This is a faith that doesn’t shy away from getting involved in the political system, where change can actually be made. The way we know God is here, he contends, is by how God works through us to effect change. He remembers a time when, whatever happened in the world, there were people of faith leading the way and setting a moral tone. He laments the fact that while on one side of the Manhattan the economy is booming, on the other side people are starving. “Same island!” he remarks. “Yet we take our Bibles on Sunday morning and we get our favorite hymns ready. And we sing to a God beyond the sky. But I’ve come to tell you, God is not up here, he’s down here.” And if God is down here, he continues, “He knows what we did and what we didn’t do.”

“God is here. But, are you here with God?” asked Sharpton. “And if you are how is that demonstrated in your life? What have you done to enhance social fairness, social justice and equality. God gave you life so you could bless other lives.”
YOU CAN WATCH THE WHOLE SERVICE AT RIVERSIDE CHURCH’S WEBSITE!

If you don’t have a lot of time, start at 00:39 for an excellent introduction by The Rev. James A. Forbes, or skip to 00:54 to where Rev. Sharpton’s message begins.

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.

 

 

 

Going to New York

Did you know that there are at least 1,079 houses of worship in Manhattan? That is, of course, as of the latest edition of “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship,” by David W. Dunlap. This book and I will become best friends over the next week or so as I visit and explore sacred spaces in New York. Of course I won’t be able to visit even a fraction of the places listed, it would take a solid year if I could visit three sites a day! My intention is to visit as many as possible, however, particularly those for traditions and religions of which there is very little representation in my part of the country.

I'm packing a few other things, too. Don't worry.

I’m packing a few other things, too. Don’t worry.

Visiting churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship is a wonderful way to get a sense of what the faith means to the people who practice it. And it is precisely the people I’m most interested in. One of the highlights of my trip is sure to be a Ramadan Iftar Dinner organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, the Peace Islands Institue and the Union Theological Seminary of New York. I’ve been in touch with the ICNY and I’m excited to visit and learn more about the work they do.

Faith, religion and spirituality are probably not the first things that come to mind when you think of New York City. But I knew from the beginning that to get a good sense of what faith narratives across a pluralistic landscape look like, visiting some of the largest and most diverse cities in the country would be necessary. So, NYC was an obvious choice and the blurb on the back of my new guide and friend confirms this:

“Throughout much of its history, New York has been regarded as a kind of modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, a place where sin and wickedness and danger are everywhere in abundance. But there is another side to the story as well, a tale of faith and devotion, of great preachers and respected theologians, and of grand and impressive religious edifices…” -Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society and editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.

Needless to say, I will be taking copious notes and lots of pictures. And, if you want to follow along, you can do so right here on the blog and by following me on Instagram: @storiesofdevotion. I will be posting several photos and updates throughout my visit. Here’s to new stories, new faces and new sacred places!