LIANE HANSEN, Host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Today is Easter Sunday, the most important holy day in the Christian tradition. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict delivered his annual message and blessing. When the current pontiff's predecessor, John Paul II, died in 2005, Suzanne Strempek Shea had a revelation. Although raised Roman Catholic, Shea felt a disconnect from her church and was amazed by the passion and devotion shown by mourners at Pope John Paul's wake. It inspired a pilgrimage. Shea decided to visit a different Christian church every Sunday for a year. And she began on an Easter Sunday.
Suzanne Strempek Shea joins us from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Welcome, happy Easter.
M: Happy Easter, Liane, thank you.
HANSEN: Tell us about that first Easter Sunday service at the New Mount Zion Church in Harlem, New York.
M: Well, it really was my destination for the morning because it was going to be so different from the service that I normally would attend, which would be a very early, very pomp-filled, procession-filled, Polish-American Catholic Mass. So when I wanted to start this book on Easter Sunday, I thought I would choose a place that was very different from that. And I had a cousin that had toured some churches in Harlem and gone to listen to the music and some services, and she just was really overcome by this one particular church, New Mount Zion.
She said, you must go there. And my husband and I took the train and there we were in a very different town than my Western Massachusetts home village. We were in a church that was very loud all of a sudden when we walked in. There was music and drum-beating, and people were just having the most wonderful time physically, which I was not used to, certainly, in the Catholic Church. You just enter and kneel down and that sort of thing. And here was, I'd say about two-and-a-half hours of just really outwardly joyous celebration.
HANSEN: How did you decide which churches to visit? I know you wanted to stay with Protestant denominations, but how did you actually narrow it down?
M: Well, I started with the Protestant. I wanted to explore the rest of Christianity other than Catholicism. You know, I didn't have a lot of money for the travel budget, so I tried to make it as economical as possible. So let's say if I heard that Southwest Airlines was having a sale to Omaha, I'd look up and say, well, what's the predominant religion in Omaha? Lutherans, I haven't been there yet. So I visited the Lutherans.
And you know, some were hung on hooks like for Christmas Eve Sunday, I went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, because I thought, well, I should, you know, venture to Bethlehem for Christmastime. And for Halloween time of the year, I went to a spiritualist church in Boston that includes the deceased in the worship. And so, you know, some of them were specifically for a time of year and others were just because I could get a good deal.
HANSEN: You also attended some that seemed to be unusual. What would you consider to be the most unusual service you attended?
M: Well, I really did love the one I mentioned, the Spiritualist Church because for most of the worship, I was the only person seated in the sanctuary. There was the doorman who stayed behind me standing who had let me in and the pastor, but I had this wonderful experience of just trying to imagine all those who had passed on sitting around me and my deceased dogs on the floor at my feet.
And it was really a beautiful experience, and I loved that. And this was not - the Spiritualist Church was not something that I had even known of before.
HANSEN: Although you said you wanted to attend Protestant services, services in Protestant denominations or other than Catholic because that was the faith that you were brought up in and you were familiar with it. But you did go to a Catholic service in Baltimore.
M: Well, it's actually called the New Catholic Church, and it is one of several that I visited that is aimed at a lot of people who don't feel comfortable in a traditional Catholic church. They are opening their arms and their doors to people of a lesbian, bi, gay, transgendered community. But it was just such a lovely experience of community, and I didn't know anyone there, I just felt so welcome.
And that was the great thing about a lot of these churches. No one asked me for my membership card on the way in. I was just, you know, made to be part of the gang and that was a great thing Sunday after Sunday, most of them, I'd say.
HANSEN: What did you discover about faith in America?
M: Well, the wonderful thing is that we can have it. And you know, certainly any day of the year, you can make your long list of what's wrong with this country or any other, but on the list of what's great about it is if you want to become, you know, a UCC member, or if you want to...
HANSEN: That's United Church of Christ? Yeah.
M: Exactly. Or if you want to say, I'm going to go every Sunday morning and stand by that tree in my front yard and think good thoughts - that's my religion, that's wonderful. This is not a country in which you are forced to pay tithes to anything - you're forced to become a member of something. You know, what I'm finding is that people, you know, we can get together and worship, we do get together and worship.
It's a wonderful thing that I have this in my head, sort of a slideshow that any given Sunday morning, there are millions of people in a small church on a reservation, in a very remote church in, let's say, in one of the towns ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. In Times Square in a church that used to be a giant show hall, you know, things like that. You know, we're all gathering and we're praying to the god that we think is the god, and we're asking and we're thanking. And it's just - I think it's a real beautiful thing.
HANSEN: Suzanne Strempek Shea is the author of "Sundays in America," published by Beacon Press, and she joined us from the studios of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thank you, Suzanne.
M: Thank you so much, Liane.