Church #63, Trinity United Methodist

Date: 9/14/14

Church name/type: Trinity UMC, United Methodist Church

Pastor: Jeffrey Matthews

Style of worship: structured with a follow-along bulletin and musical chairs style greeting time

Useful takeaways:
So I’ve actually been inside this church before. It was for a youth function back when I was more involved with youth groups. The service this day (and in summer) was held in a small chapel off the main sanctuary. There were probably between 20 and 50 people in attendance.

Music was good, being provided by acoustic guitar or pipe organ (the chapel had its own organ!) The group songs went through every verse and nearly everyone was singing, which I happen to like. I mean, if you’re going to sing, why stop at verse two?

We heard an interesting take on the story of Don Quixote. Pastor described him as a man who wanted a better world. He spoke of an impossible dream. This theme was also applied to the future of the church. It was unclear if Pastor meant the future of Christianity or Methodism in general or specifically Trinity Church, or perhaps Trinity Church the building. We heard it is nearing the 81st anniversary of the building. The pastor recounted some of the history leading up to the creation of the current building. It was actually the second rebuilding of a church that was lost to fire twice. During the building of Trinity, the congregation worshipped in a space that was a Jewish Temple called Beth Emeth. (That building is actually the current location of Wilborn Temple, church #47 on this blog!)

The last thing in my notes was a prayer wish that on the edge of the possibility of war we all remember to see each other everywhere as people; brothers and sisters. It’s a good wish of ever I heard one.

Problems/Improvements: None I can detect, besides the vague feeling of uncertainty implied by the sermon. Is this church’s future in question or was I just reading too much into an introspective sermon?

Church #62, (First) Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Date: 8/17/14

Church name/type: “First” Israel AME church (also searchable without the word first), part of the AME denomination, also member of the five FOCUS churches in Albany who together serve the inner city with educational programs, food and lodging

Pastor: Usual pastor seems to be named Reverend Smart. On this day we heard a guest pastor; Reverend Jimpson.

Style of worship: structured but not over-formal

Useful takeaways:
On this day I found my way into a pre-service coffee hour and talked with a few friendly people. During the service they have a visitors greeting time called “warm welcome”. I got smiles, handshakes and hugs. The teen sitting directly in front of me turned immediately to give me a big hug which made me super happy.

The musical instrumentation included drums, guitar, sax, and organ. I’m seeing a trend in churches with predominantly black membership; the music is often more modern and upbeat, falling into categories more like rock and jazz. Many denominations from European traditions use older, more solemn styles of music. I think I prefer the modern.

A piece I liked from the sermon was the idea of clearing away rubble in our lives. In particular, some items listed that we may want to be rid of included: self-pity, jealousy, and picking out single bible verses. This last one is interesting in that it suggests we shouldn’t rely on a bible verse alone without understanding the context around it. The point is one I often feel the need to make myself and it’s good to hear churches acknowledge it.

Problems/Improvements: Both the website and the printed material had errors. The website states that church service begins at 11am, I was told in fact it has started at 10am for quite some time now. Also there was an event advertised in the bulletin as “lunch and a word” purporting to be some form of bible lesson with free lunch. The location and date were listed wrongly.

Because of these errors I had to return on 8/17 to catch church, (having missed it entirely the first time a couple weeks prior) and was unable to attend any sort of lesson they may have had accompanying lunch.

Church #61, Mater Christi

Date: 7/20/14

Church name/type: Mater Christi, Roman Catholic Church- formed from the merger of St Teresa of Avila and St Catherine of Siena in 2009

Pastor: Father Kenneth Doyle

Style of worship: Short formally structured mass

Useful takeaways:
So this church is pretty full, and has a decent mix of ages and ethnicities. I think I see some Philipinos and (I think) some folks from Pakistan or India.

The sermon was on the parable of the wheat and the weeds (or tares). The priest took the usual interpretation of this story and related that it spoke of final judgement. The story describes the farmer collecting the wheat and tares then separating them after the harvest into a pile to save and a pile to be burnt. So those not accepted into heaven are relegated to fire in this metaphor. Father Doyle made a point of cautioning us not to see this story as a source of fear. He reasoned that God created us as a sort of project, hoping we would turn out successfully. If the project was a massive failure God could scrap it at any time. We therefore think most people do make it to heaven. We are always working to be good and when we do sin, we repent of that sin and keep trying.

Interestingly, this brings up something I mentioned in a past post. Repentance in certain Protestant churches is seen as a big one-time occurrence. It is supposed to be the massive life changing event of accepting Jesus. The Catholic idea of repentance seems to be simply the admission of wrongdoing- the equivalent of a confession. I find the Catholic version of repentance more realistic. I myself feel like I am continually working to not commit wrongs. Goodness doesn’t just flow from me via knowing Christ. I still yell, I still misjudge others, I still react in anger. I know I have to face that and continue trying to do better. That, to me, is repentance.

I was literally four minutes late and the mass was basically in full swing when I arrived. Seems like they could hold off five minutes because it’s summer and people run late.

Again no coffee hour to hang around and get to know anybody. Am I weird for wanting one?

Church #60, Reigning Life Family Church

Date: 7/6/14

Church name/type: Reigning Life Family Church/ non-denominational

Pastor: Fred Sanles

Style of worship: Musical praise first, followed by message

This church visit elicited an interesting (and I might say confusing) mix of emotions and reactions in me. I experienced some strong negatives and strong positives.

Size and demographic: The church was small, around 20 people. It might be worth noting that this church has predominantly Black membership with White leadership. I don’t think any other churches I’ve visited have had this combination. Looking around the church website, I also noticed that the pastor and his wife specifically chose to locate and launch a church in Albany’s South End; they aren’t originally from South End or Albany. This may explain the unusual combination.

The vibe: This week I misunderstood service start time and arrived late. Because of this I didn’t get to talk with anyone before service began. After the service, I was immediately greeted and welcomed into a group of women sharing vacation photos. It felt like the weekly potluck dinners my friends host where you show up and you’re immediately ‘in’. I have to be honest here and say this doesn’t often happen at churches with predominantly Black attendees. Usually I am politely left alone or smothered with simple hellos and that’s the end of it. The fact that interactions in other churches of similar demographic have been limited was something of a mystery. The assumption I’d been leaning towards was that we felt the divide, culturally somehow and didn’t quite know how to find the similarities and just start talking, or when we did talk it became clear our lives were somewhat different. Whatever the cause normally, this week I felt like I was swept right into belonging.

After service I also tend to try to find the pastor and chat with her/him. Now, because I work to understand many versions of Christianity (and how they formed, church history, denominational differences, theologies, etc) I sometimes find I have much in common with the pastor. After all, most pastors go to school to understand things like theology and church history. This week however I found it very difficult to relate to the pastor and pastor’s wife. The pastor didn’t have very much to say to me actually. We had both been talking with other people and then spoke briefly, though it was mostly about the church website being unfindable. The pastor’s wife, however, tried to talk with me for several minutes. I say tried because she talked but it didn’t feel like we were making much of a connection. She showed me the church in a quick tour and introduced me to anyone who happened to be standing nearby. It all felt a little random. Then at the end of our conversation she told me she was aware the service wasn’t relevant to the younger generation. To fix this she said they were planning to have a weeknight service that was more ‘urban’. She added that the youth were more used to ‘rap and hip-hop’ and that they hoped implementing different music and technology would be better for the younger crowd. I asked her if she had gotten input from the youth with this plan and she assured me “Oh yes. This is what they want.” I guess I was hesitant to believe that was the case based on use of terminology. The terms she used: rap, hip-hop, urban, and technology are all very buzzy words that may sound good to some, but do they really convey anything relevant? Rap and hip-hop are musical styles. Kids today, as kids of every age, listen to different things. It’s somewhat naive to assume the entire younger demographic will be attracted by this specific change in musical genre and the addition of technology. Content is equally (if not more!) important. You cannot simply spruce up a message by using flashier effects and different music. You have to address topics your target age group is interested in. It also strikes me as misplaced to refer to these stylistic changes as ‘urban’. I know the word ‘urban’ is sometimes used as slang to replace the word ‘Black’. I also know technically ‘urban’ just means in the city. If the youth of this church are on-board with calling what they want ‘urban’ I guess that’s fine. It’s also fine with me if they have really requested rap, hip-hop, and splashier technology. It’s simply hard for me to ignore the fact that these ideas also happen to fit with stereotypes of what youth (and Black youth) are interested in. I seriously hope this doesn’t represent a disconnect between the church membership and leadership.

Useful takeaways:
Although it seems likely the pastor’s wife is out of touch with the younger generation(s), the attempt to relate to youth is at least admirable. I hope they can find a way to actually do it in a productive, respectful manner.

We heard that laughter releases good chemicals into the bloodstream. Laughter is something we should do more of.

I also thought the end of the message regarding unity was nice. We need to put up with one another. That sounds about right.

Well the bulk of the sermon didn’t really do it for me this week. I noticed some strong contradictions and a few disconcerting patterns. One thing that bugs me is when a message feels forced on the listeners. I mean, yes, obviously I choose to show up at these churches and hear what’s being said. What I’m talking about is when the message is spoon-fed to an audience who is then meant to regurgitate the words verbatim just so the speaker can be sure it’s been received. It treats the audience like children. While I understand a speaker feeling like he is speaking to a bunch of easily distractable toddlers, I don’t want to know that’s how I’m being seen. In this case I got a similar feeling from the repeating technique Pastor Sanles was using. He just kept giving us phrases to repeat back at him. It was weird. It was mildly humiliating. It was vaguely brainwashy. I don’t mind reading things collectively. Churches do this all the time with statements of faith like the Nicean Creed. But the repeating thing was done in small bites with no printed guide. I couldn’t be sure of what we were all talking about until the very end. At least with the Nicean Creed you can see the words you are about to recite and decide if it’s something you want to declare out loud.

Disconcerting bit number two was the assertion that worry is a type of sin. Already this creates it’s own problem. I mean- if it bothers you that you sin through worry, it will probably cause you to worry more. The pastor went on to say that worry would lead to fear which would let the devil in. Great, now we have to be concerned this little worry-go-round is going to lead us directly to the devil? Worry is definitely a problem, but calling it a sin that can lead directly to evil seems like a really unhealthy and unhelpful way to think about it- especially given the fact that there was no further elaboration. Can we at least have some strategies for avoiding worry (and therefore sin)? I think it’s a major problem that the sermon did not immediately stop and address this.

The third thing that struck me as problematic was an odd idea about prayer and healing. Pastor Sanles said we are praying over and over for healing but not being healed. The repeated prayers are (according to Pastor) precisely why we do not receive healing. He instructed us to stop praying and just have faith the work is already done. I guess on the one hand I feel like this is trying to say something helpful. It gives a reason prayers are not answered and offers a solution, albeit a strange one; stop praying. On the other hand it calls into question the faith of the unhealed, which is a way of blaming the suffering for their pain. I’m not ok with that.

Another little bit of negativity came while the pastor was describing his recent attempts to fix his washing machine. His point was something about how faith in God helped him achieve success. In the middle of the story he stopped to explain that he’d asked his wife to hold the flashlight for him as he worked. Then, she tried to tell him how to fix it! He laughed as if this was already a great joke and added, “I told her to go back to her garden!” Lest any readers think this was an inside joke on her personal skills (some individuals are better at gardening than mechanics after all), he then added, “and the husbands said AMEN!” So it was meant as a funny joke that’s only funny if you are sexist.

Finally I will mention a point that was made and later contradicted. Early to mid-sermon we heard that following God might require us to fight our senses and our emotions. Not that I think this point makes a lot of sense, mind you- but even if it did, the later part of the sermon spoke of needing to follow our instincts in figuring out what God has in mind for us. Call me crazy, but ‘senses’ ’emotions’ and ‘instincts’ all sound rather interchangeable. Here we are being told to follow God by ignoring what we detect inside us but also to trust what we detect inside us. I hope every week’s sermon doesn’t contain this much contradiction.

Website: For whatever reason it’s virtually impossible to find the church website online. It just doesn’t turn up at all via google search. Here it is so you can check em’ out yourself Reigning Life Church

I am very torn. I found a possible gap in the leadership vs congregation and saw serious problems with the sermon. If I was truly in the market for a “home church” I don’t think I’d return to hear more nonsense from the pulpit. On the other hand I was welcomed warmly by several members who even seem to be approximately my age. I guess I find this frustrating because I like friendly people; I just couldn’t bring myself to attend a church that preaches so much I can’t get behind.

Church #59, St John the Evangelist and St Joseph

Date: 6/22/14

Church name/type: St John the a Evangelist and St Joseph, Roman Catholic

Pastor: most of the mass, including homily, was done by the deacon- Greg Mansfield

Style of worship: Shortened Catholic mass – it was interrupted by a double baptism

Useful takeaways:
I’ll start by describing the church, because I like doing that. This church has so much going on visually, but in a kind of balanced and subtle way. Upon entering and looking around, I noticed the space is tall and white with crests and domes that merge into each other gently at the ceiling. All along the sides of the church there are stained glass windows and raised, painted stations of the cross. If you glance up a little higher you note saint statues perched up of ledges. All around this same area are paintings of saints and biblical scenes. At the front left of the church is a large white PietĂ -esque statue. At the front right is a life-sized, realistically* colored crucifix Jesus. Near the crucifix is a child Jesus statue clothed in a robe and holding an orb. (It is just like one my grandmother used to have in her house for which the robe was cloth material and could be changed! I forgot to note whether this was the case at St’s John/Joseph) Also impressive is the giant pipe organ over the entrance at the back of the church. If I had to guess I’d say it has maybe 200 pipes. Several more saint statues are at the back of the church. Surprisingly, it did not feel the same as the painted color explosion I felt at St Sophia’s, the extremely decorated Orthodox Church. The imagery wasn’t overwhelming and I was truly surprised that so much could fit so unobtrusively into the space.

The sermon was short, I suppose in attempt to make time for the baptism; so short in fact I missed it. I really thought it was a simple intro to something longer, then when church was over I noticed I’d written no sermon notes.

I did make note of a couple of my thoughts on the bible verses. I am finding I do this more often at Catholic churches and I think I can guess why. For one thing the readings are always separate from the sermon, allowing a little time for me to reflect on what I think about them. Another reason may be that the strict formality expected at a Catholic church lends itself to a very clear, crisp enunciation of the verses. A third reason may lie in the dialect at these churches being similar to my own.

This Sunday I was caught by a verse from Deuteronomy. God is talking to the Israelites who are suffering in the wilderness. He says, “I brought you here to test you. To see if you would keep my commandments.” Normally I don’t agree with a sentiment that suggests God plays games with us to make sure we will stay faithful. This time it occurred to me that maybe this verse is about the intersection of suffering and goodness. It’s easier for me to be good when I’m feeling good. If I feel hurt and angry I’m more prone to lashing out at others. This verse conveys the idea to me that we all need to remember to be good when things are bad. God expects us to behave ourselves even when other factors make it hard for us. It’s not easy, but we can’t stop striving for it.

With so many members, maybe they should staff more than just one door with greeters.

There was no after-church gathering time/coffee-hour.

I had very mixed feelings about the notice in the bulletin for a support group for those with “same-sex attraction”. I’ll talk more about this my next post!

*By realistically colored, I mean Jesus looks like a fair-skinned white person with dark hair.

Unvisited Church, Grand Street Church of Christ

Today’s church report will be a little different. There is one church that’s been on my list to visit which I’ve been avoiding. I’ve decided I’m not going. It’s a church whose location appears to be someone’s house. Frankly that’s intimidating. A church building acts as more of a public space. One can enter without knocking or asking permission during a specific portion of Sunday and often other days too. But in someone’s home it feels different. Without being invited it seems intrusive. Without knowing anyone there it seems unsafe. So I’m attending from afar this time.

The church has a handful of videos on YouTube under MrPastorPeter. There is was a blog: Grand Street Church Pastors Blog
The last blog entry is from 2010. Ostensibly it continues at a new site…but the link doesn’t work. YouTube is much more current. The video on top is from 3/17/13.

The video is about 15 minutes long and of poor sound quality. It includes sermon of around 9 mins, an unintelligible message from a woman which might be prayer*, and the lead-in to communion with Lord’s Prayer by the deacon who is being advanced to pastor in one week’s time.

The content of the sermon was very simplistic. It compared the Christian life to running in a race. There only seem to be a couple similarities however; you have judges and they decide if you win. In this case winning equals going to heaven. We were also told that God loves us, we have to do our best, and that we are saved by grace which we do not deserve. I fail to see how both these metaphors can work. Winning a race and receiving a prize is more like the opposite of getting something undeserved. Besides the sloppy content, the delivery was halting, as if the pastor can’t read or speak well. He even mispronounced several words.

The church video ended with communion. The three members we already saw came up to take communion and two additional women also. If all members took communion this is a congregation of five adults- and the baby that the pastor was holding at one point.

Overall I found it to be definitely Christian but also extremely disorganized and amateurish. I probably don’t need to attend one for real if this is all I’d find there. Since I’m not even sure it still exists attendance might be impossible anyways.

*This isn’t a criticism of content. The sound is so poor I can’t make out what this woman is saying except ‘amen’ at the end.

Church #58, First UMC Rensselaer/ Iglesia Emmanuel

Date: 6/1/14

Church name/type:
The church is called First United Methodist and is part of UMC the United Methodist Church, but also goes by the name Iglesia Emmanuel

Pastor: Mariana Rodriguez

Style of worship:
The service was about half music, half message, with communion at the end

Language: Spanish was used extensively but portions of the service were translated either by a churchgoer or by the pastor, repetition style. I was able to understand much of the Spanish and it strikes me that the very thing I’ve complained about in the past- Christian phrases and special meanings- were the things I caught when in another language.

Useful takeaways:
The music was really great and there was a lot of it. I was at this church for around three hours. Granted the service started a bit later than advertised. The sign lists 2:30 as service. It was probably closer to 3:15. But the music was a significant part of the worship. Everyone was singing boisterously and clapping or using percussion. Several songs were mixed Spanish and English. A couple were Spanish only. Everyone was just having so much fun singing. It really felt awesome.

The sermon had some good points. It was of course a little harder to absorb because a lot of my focus was on the Spanish. Part of the sermon related how God cares for us and gives us good things. But it was also made clear that God doesn’t take away all troubles, so that we shouldn’t expect God to magically make everything great. This has a nice balance, although I think it needs much more elaboration to fully make sense. And as I said, the Spanish translation may have contributed to loss of part of the message.

Communion was really nice. The entire church stood in a circle and we all took communion at the same time. Its kind of hard to describe why this felt so nice. I think it may have been the intimate number of participants. There were about 12-20. After this we sang again.

Problems/Improvements: I had a disappointing conversation with the musician after church. He had asked me elaborate why I no longer worshipped in the Catholic Church. I started to talk about church governance and the Catholic Church not being able to listen and change. He pointed out the the people could be corrupt. I answered that the leadership could be corrupt too. I said I thought there were many ways to read the bible and interpret it. He started to argue that the bible is very clear, you just have to read it. I tried to point out some discrepant interpretations for verses, but the conversation just kept going back to him saying, “No it is very clear.” I found myself saying, “I respectfully disagree.” He just pointed out how the bible is clear. Again.