Sundays in America

A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith

by Suzanne Strempek Shea

Hardcover, 313 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Title
Sundays in America
Subtitle
A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
Author
Suzanne Strempek Shea

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Book Summary

Moved by the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the award-winning novelist offers her observations on the Christian faith, following her yearlong pilgrimage of mostly Protestant churches around the United States.

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Excerpt: Sundays In America

SUNDAYS IN AMERICA

A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith


BEACON PRESS

Copyright © 2008 Suzanne Strempek Shea
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-7224-0

Chapter One

NEW MOUNT ZION BAPTIST CHURCH

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Happy Resurrection Sunday!"

The greeting is a new one for me, but far from the most unusual thing about this particular morning.

Yes, it is the Sunday on which Christians celebrate Jesus's Resurrection, but I'm used to hearing plain old "Happy Easter." At the church in which I was raised, add to that "Wesolego Alleluja!" and "Chrystus zmartwychwstal!" But I'm not in Polish America anymore. Ten minutes earlier, the Manhattan Transit Authority's Number 2 subway delivered Tommy and me forty-five minutes north from our hotel in trendy Tribeca to 135th Street in Harlem. Tommy's Celtic DNA usually makes him the least pigmented person in a roomful of even the most blinding Caucasians, but right now both he and I are the palest people around.

The contrast is not unexpected. I had wanted this Easter morning to be the polar opposite of my traditional church experience, in location, building, congregants, and worship. So on Holy Saturday, Tommy and I traveled south three and a half hours by train, leaving our quiet New England village of l,992 for a city teeming with 8 million. Rather than attend Catholic Mass at a middle-class, 99 percent Caucasian, Polish American church one mile up the street, where the biggest neighborhood problem is the installation of a sewer pipe slowing traffic outside its doors, I would visit a Baptist church ministering to an economically challenged, largely African American community in which, one late afternoon earlier this week just a couple of blocks away, a homeless woman had been murdered on the street. Songs, prayers, and readings delivered in Polish would be traded for English; Eastern European pomp for swaying, shouting, and drum banging.

And it was the beat that told us we were headed in the right direction. "I think I hear music," Tommy said as we turned off Seventh Avenue at the Met Foodmart and started up 140th, walking past a playground in progress and a row of neat brick apartment houses. Across from a senior center stood the eighty-one-year-old New Mount Zion Baptist Church, a small sandstone-colored brick building sandwiched between two more sets of apartments. I felt a zip of excitement. This slender, unassuming church with one of its two doors already open would be the start of my pilgrimage. Where would I stand in a year? What would I carry in my head and heart and soul by then? I took in the triptych-style stained-glass window rising two stories above the open door; the white cross jutting per pendicular to announce New Mount Zion to all who pass; the roof that rises to a crossless point, its apex framing a round-topped opening revealing a patch of Caribbean-blue sky. Cars edged the front walk, where half a dozen adults stood chatting, dressed in the kind of glitzy attire I am more used to seeing on parents of the bride than on people headed to church-even on such an auspicious morn.

When I'd phoned the previous week to ask how early we might need to arrive to get a seat, the receptionist had answered with a peppy, "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!" and gave the 10:45 starting time. I was surprised when she said I need not arrive any more than fifteen minutes early. For Polish Catholics, Easter is the biggest holiday on the church calendar, topping even Christmas. I'm accustomed to arriving a good forty-five minutes ahead of time on a day that sees wall-to-wall crowds, including worshippers who might have stayed away the rest of the year but who are here today doing what's known as Easter duty. To this day, a version of the same Easter procession in which I walked four decades ago in my red-and-green grammar school uniform and First Communion veil still helps mark the morning, as Confraternity of Christian Doctrine students join the choir, societies, altar servers, and priest in circling the church to resounding hymns brought over from the old country: "Wstal Pan Chrystus," "Wesoly Nam Dzien Dzis Nastal." When it comes to this morning's service, I have no idea what to expect. My just-as-white-and-just-as Polish-Catholic cousin Joanne, whose marriage to a Jamaican man inspired her to investigate a range of black cultural experiences, recommended New Mount Zion after a service there drove her both to musical rapture and soul-sprung tears. Whatever was going to happen for me, I wanted to experience it inside the building, rather than in front of the flat-panel TV screen in the entryway. So Tommy and I stepped through the doorway to our first "Happy Resurrection Day!" I'd responded with the familiar "Happy Easter," as I'd not yet sat through the two-hour-and-fifteen-minute service in which I'd learn the term to use.

It was not the first lesson of this trip. The day before, I discovered that it's not such a great idea to hang your belongings in that little closet at the front of the Amtrak car. Because, in the excitement of arrival in New York City, it's easy to breeze right past that closet without retrieving your stuff, which means that, come Resurrection Day, you may be walking into church wearing your baggy green L.L. Bean raincoat rather than your nicest blazer. Would that normally matter? Not in the churches I know. Catholic chic has changed drastically in my lifetime, the meaning of Sunday best morphing from suits and ties for men and nylons and dresses and even gloves for women, to a unisex combo of baggy Levi's and Red Sox hoodies. Attire certainly can be a way of honoring your creator, but in this day and age of shrinking church attendance, might it not be more important to celebrate that someone has shown up at all rather than that she's shown up in Gucci? Not so at New Mount Zion, where rows of women in pastel suits embellished with pearls, lace, embroidery, and sequins adjust the angles of their wide-brimmed flower-bedecked hats with hands swathed in matching-color gloves, and men in suits of sherbety tones, spotless white, and dramatic black remove fedoras as they step over the threshold with mirror-finish shoes. Even the toddlers are decked out: the boys seem ready for a day on Wall Street in their three-piece suits; the girls in layers of fluff and yards of ribbon are treasures from a confectioner's window. Tommy and I, in black corduroys and blue skirt, respectively, move self-consciously, our matching green ripstop nylon making loud sawing sounds. We quickly choose a pew-third from the back in the right-hand-most of three sections of seats-and just as quickly are greeted again.

"Welcome! Happy Resurrection Sunday!" This from a fortyish woman in the aisle, glowing in a night-cream-pink suit with flowing bell-shaped cuffs. "Welcome to New Mount Zion!"

"Greetings! Praise Jesus!" This from an older lady in disco-gold dress and jacket, who sidesteps her way between pews.

"Happy Resurrection Sunday! We're glad you're here." This from a middle-aged woman curiously attired as a nurse. Fitted white dress, matching hose and shoes, a white skullcap pinned to her hair with white bobby pins. From above her left breast dangles a badge, silver, with the words New Mount Zion, and a name-Johnson. Her white-gloved hands grasp ours solidly. Nurse Johnson then steps the few yards to the back of the church, where she joins three other women in matching dress.

Never have Tommy or I been made so instantly welcome in a church. Or comfortable. These pews are upholstered-an odd luxury to Catholic haunches used to hard wooden benches. You could easily relax here for a few hours without having to shift around-or even get up for a Kleenex: frill boxes await on every windowsill, a flesh sheet puffed out like the wing of a dove. And the absence of kneelers makes for a novel amount of legroom. As I settle in, the sun's rays brighten the white walls, accented with blond wood, and turn up the contrast on the four pairs of stained-glass windows that pop color along each side wall, beginning at the main level, continuing up through the balcony and ending in a peak just beneath an arching dark wood ceiling. My focus lingers there. I check for cracks announcing our presence, as I will in each and every church I attend this year. I see none-but it's early yet. I turn my attention to the front of the building. In my church, that's the location of the big altar on which stand life-size statues of Saints Peter and Paul flanking a similarly sized Jesus. When we students were assembled in the church and the nun in charge went into the sacristy, it was rumored she climbed inside the Saint Paul to spy on bad behavior.

Up front at New Mount Zion, there's not a statue to be seen. Instead, a pair of wide wooden organs bookend a drum kit cozy in its Plexiglas surround. One level up, behind a metal railing through which half a dozen lilies throw their thickly scented blossoms, hangs a choir loft of a space, a big wooden pulpit at its center. The loft is empty right now, but there's a feeling that the start is near. More and more worshippers file in, some women in furs, several carrying tambourines, many holding Bibles the size of the Manhattan phone book. For the unequipped, tucked into the wooden pocket in the back of each pew are red hardcover copies of the New International Version of the Bible and the New National Baptist Hymnal used by what is currently the second-largest religious group in the country, with an estimated membership of 90 million worldwide-47 million of them in the U.S.A.; that's one in five Americans. This post-Reformation movement was founded in Holland in 1609 by John Smyth, a former Anglican priest who preached the "believer's baptism" of total water immersion at the age of informed adulthood, rather than the symbolic splash on the forehead in spiritually unconscious infancy. Second only to the Roman Catholic Church in American membership, and second worldwide to the Pentecostals, whose ranks are zooming due to evangelism in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe, this country's fifty Baptist organizations include the divisions of Southern, American, and Conservative.

Pretty sure I'm not going to know any of the words, I ask Tommy if he can reach a copy of the hymnal. The woman in the pew in front of us turns and asks, "What you need, baby?" Pretty sure she knows all the words, she hands me hers.

I browse the program we were given at the door, seven unstapled pages behind a cover color photo of the sun rising and the words "Christ is risen Alleluia!" Page 1 is the order of worship, which lists the prayers, hymns, announcements, and the theme for the sermon: "Turning Grief into Joy."

A cloud of white suits walks slowly up the aisle. This is the choir -men and women of all ages-lining up as the Reverend Dr. Carl L. Washington Jr. lifts a microphone at the front of the church. He wears an ornate long-sleeved black coat that flows to the ground with a few interruptions of decorative white stripes and piping. He looks to be in his late fifties, balding, mustachioed, and tall, and maybe it is the slimming black, but he is rotund in a way you don't notice until he angles sideways. He speaks loudly and deeply and sincerely: "We give thanks to the Lord for the gifts he brings. For his mercy endures forever." Here he slows-"Spirit of the living God" -then pauses before imploring, "fall fresh on me."

His delivery is dramatic and effective, the words given their own time and emphasis, as if he placed them each inside individual boats for the trip to our ears. The organ hums softly before the choir repeats three times in drawn-out majesty: Spi-rit of the liv-ing God, fa-all fresh on me.

The organ kicks in at a punchy pace and heads throughout the church nod as the choir fills the front and faces the congregation in three long, loose lines. The congregation, now standing, claps, shimmies, raises arms, agitates tambourines. From the balcony on down, throughout the church, nearly everyone sings along: Be praised forever. Be praised forever. Be praised forever, and ever more ...

I'm sold. This is, in short, fun. You can move. You can be moved. If you remembered ahead of time to bring it along, you can beat on your own bongo. Tommy and I exchange the same delighted smiles and wide eyes we do at the start of a concert we weren't sure would be any good. This is the most noise I've ever heard in a church. And it is very cool noise. Especially because none of it is scripted-thanks to John Smyth, who decried as sinful any worship involving a text. At Mass, I'm used to holding a missalette and following along, reading in not-too-jazzed monotone the lines prefaced by the prompt "ALL." Here, I am one of maybe 350, allowed and encouraged to shout whatever the heck I am moved to shout-not that I have yet. For now I stand and marvel as the song concludes to applause and "Praise Jesus!" and "Glory!" and "Amen!" Pastor Washington invites us to join in the Lord's Prayer, which is the same Our Father I've been saying all my life, except for veering off to a "for-thine-is-the-Kingdom-and-the-power-and-the-glory" ending, where I'm used to a conclusion of "and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen."

The ending used here, from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, jolts me anew to my setting. I glance heavenward. The ceiling remains intact. The choir launches into a song in which praise him and lift him up are repeated many times. From their seats throughout the main floor, various women take to their feet and jostle tambourines. Maybe twenty additional people choose to stand. You move as the spirit sparks you, sitting or cheering; there is nothing stating that all should respond with a hum or a thank you, Jesus, or an amen. Response issues from the congregants, with conviction and in celebration.

As the choir begins to step from side to side in time with the slowed, trilling organ, a middle-aged woman in the right-hand section of the choir begins to sing. Her voice is at once enormous and intimate, and a ringer for Phoebe Snow's. Li-ving, he loved me, she tells us. Dy-ing, he saved me ... The choir backs her but she needs no help or filler. The congregation is seated now and the beauty of her voice is melting us into the seat cushions. Three rows ahead, a man nods to the slow beat, and even from behind I can sense his sadness. He sticks out as one of the relatively few adult males present among the hundreds of women and children, and women and teens-most of the teens female-in the congregation. The pastor now appears on the second tier, joined to his right by a younger, thin, and totally bald man in a dark brocade tunic, and to his rear by another of the women in the nurse's outfits, with a traditional peaked cap right out of Doctor Kildaire. Things look serious-these men have their own medical crew. But their messages are delivered as joyously as those of the rest of the morning. Guests are asked to stand, and twenty-two do, Tommy and I and a man in the balcony the only whites. Faces turn, smile. We are applauded. More shouts: "Welcome to Zion!"

Next comes the sort of housekeeping I'm used to hearing at the beginning of a Mass. The death of a niece in South Carolina is mentioned, and those who reached out to two bereaved families in the past week are thanked. A Christian education trip to Buffalo will leave the following morning. "I just want to remind you who are going to Buffalo to be on time," the pastor says. "We're leaving at five thirty, y'all, Amen?"

"Amen," the congregation answers.

Presentations of floral bouquets are made to two of the oldest women in the congregation. Mother Maxwell and Mother Tally stand as teen boys sweetly deliver the gifts. In the program I notice that the list of ill and shut-in church members includes names prefaced with the designations "minister," "trustee," and "sister." In my Catholic upbringing, "sister" means nun. But I've been called Sister Shea by a black friend who grants her female friends that title. On this list, Sister Dorothy Nibbs, Sister Mable Runchess, and Sister Louvenia Kelly maybe aren't sisters, but they are indeed Sisters.

Whatever your title, in this church you are expected to tithe. That's a major topic in the bulletin; page 4 covers the practice, defined as an "external, material testimony of God's ownership of the material and spiritual things of our lives." The fact that you can find the word "tithe" in Genesis 14, and in twenty-eight subsequent Old Testament locations, is noted, as is the fact that tithe translates from Hebrew and Greek to "tenth." Which boils down to an expectation to donate to the church a tenth of one's time, talent, and, yes, finances.

I'd never heard much about the topic in my church, other than the word mentioned in a few Gospel readings. But collections have been taken at every Mass I've attended, via a basket at the end of a long stick that an usher spooned through each pew. Here, congregants walk row by row to a small table in front of the drum kit and deposit their donations onto a brass plate.

(Continues...)