sacred spaces

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

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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 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.