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.

Church #57, South Bethlehem United Methodist Church

Date: 5/25/14

Church name/type: South Bethlehem Church, UMC

Pastor: Mark Ledbetter

Style of worship: Formulaic but very friendly; probably a lot of room for creativity within the segments of service

Useful takeaways:
Children’s Moment: This was delivered by a layperson (or maybe a deacon or Deacon equivalent?) named Paul. He talked about parties and invitations He said heaven is going to be like a party. There may be people we don’t expect, but God loves us all and he’s the one sending the invitations. It was kind of a nice reminder that we need to be good to everyone, not just those we like or those we’d invite to a party.

The sermon was titled ‘We are not alone’ – that is, of course to say we always have God. This idea is a bit of a cliche and pastor didn’t delve too deeply into it except as something of a reminder. A more interesting bit to the sermon was an emphasis on allowing the world to see Christ in us every day in what we do. Pastor kind of spring-boarded off the children’s time message that we need to remember to show others goodness and qualities like: justice, kindness, compassion. He pointed out that there is no room in our lives for: bullying, racism, homophobic jokes, and slurs. And sometimes we must show love by saying hard things to loved ones when they make such hurtful remarks.
I have to say I really appreciate the depth of such a message. It is hard to teach others tolerance, just as it’s hard to hear it from others that we have been intolerant. I am actually kind of inspired hearing this message. It’s hard to explain why, but I guess as someone whose views have changed, I feel hopeful. Hopeful for myself and others, that we can continue to be shown new better ideas and accept them.

More along the lines of an item for awareness, this church is only a couple of turns off 9W, but it still manages to feel tucked away from everything; it has sudden rurality. The road I took to get to it has one sharp sharp turn, one steepish hill, and is narrow enough to be a candidate for one way if it was in the city. This is nothing the church could fix of course, but might be good info if you went say at Christmas in a snowstorm.

Church #56, St Timothy’s in North Greenbush

Date: 4/27/14

Church name/type: St Timothy’s Church, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church America)

Pastor: Greg Tennerman

Style of worship: Parts of the service were organized into a particular order, but each portion was approached casually

Useful takeaways:
The entire service with hymnal page numbers and bible selections was printed on the church handout. There’s virtually no way to get lost and if you did, the pastor seems chill enough that it would be ok.

Another great thing, the seats are cushioned, with a rounded lower back. I’ve actually never seen seats like this. I don’t know if they work for everyone, but the little bit of low back support was really nice for me.

The sermon was about Doubting Thomas. It’s kind of tradition to tell this story on the Sunday following Easter because it’s the only story we are sure happened (first half anyway) on this Sunday. The interesting thing about the story is that Jesus appears to his frightened disciples and tells them to pick up where he left off. Then a week later they are still spending their day in a room with the doors locked! They haven’t gone out and taken a chance on Jesus’ words. They haven’t spread his news or healed anyone or helped the sick. This serves to remind us that the disciples are like us. We hesitate. What is it we are waiting to begin? What good thing should we be starting that we are not?

The last question the pastor posed was about signs of the resurrection. Of course we just had Easter and so the resurrection is still very close in terms of church calendar and in our minds. He gave some examples and told a few stories of miraculous (and possibly miraculous) occurrences. My favorite was the fish story. At one point the pastor owned a large fish tank with one little fish inside. One day, Good Friday no less, the fish went missing. Everyone assumed it managed to jump out of the tank and died. Come Easter morning, the fish was there swimming around like nothing happened! The question the pastor asked us was this: Is it proof of the resurrection for you? I love the open-endedness of this question. People see their faith very personally. And in different ways from each other. Of all the stories we hear, some speak to us and some don’t. Every person gets to decide what speaks to them. I like that.

Problems/Improvements: No one actually greeted me on their own before or after the service, although I did get a lot of smiles. It’s a little tough to say for sure how I might have been greeted had I not immediately tried to find my contact new friend Marilyn after service. The other unusual thing was the large number of visitors present for a baptism. Definitely not a typical week, so I guess I don’t really know if the greeting style needs work or not.

One other thing that is less a problem and more an unusual thing, is the building. It’s clean, painted and kept well, but not shaped much like a church. I thought it was an elementary school. I was going to park at the ‘school’ and examine my map program again to find the church when I realized I was at the church. Again not so much a problem per se but something to be aware of should you be having trouble finding it.

Church #55, Terra Nova Church

Date: 4/13/14

Church name/type: Terra Nova Church in Troy, a nondenominational variety of Evangelical, affiliated with Acts 29

Pastor: Ed Marcelle

Style of worship: not overlong, sermon bookended by praise, communion is possibly every week

Useful takeaways:
I liked the way we were given the option to choose either juice or wine as the sacrament. The individual holding the cup actually held two cups. They were clearly labeled ‘juice’ and ‘wine’. No big deal, no explanation needed, take the one you prefer. Perfect!

Crowd- This church has a mostly young demographic. This is important because it helps the probability that the church will stay vital and alive. I’ve seen churches struggle with aging membership. To not have to worry about it on an immediate ongoing basis is nice.

I had some real issues with several of the things said in the sermon. I tried to write the pastor’s words down as faithfully as possible, but in many cases I’ll have to paraphrase. The sermon was in regards to verses from Luke 13: 18-21 and 22-30. The first bit is a couple of metaphors about the Kingdom of God. First it’s compared to a mustard seed which grows to an enormous tree that birds may roost in. Next it’s compared to a small bit of yeast which makes a ball of dough rise. Neither metaphor for growth is really a problem as such, but it becomes important to know just what the Kingdom of God means. I always took it to mean heaven. In my interpretation, heaven is given an expansive quality. Maybe it keeps growing as more people enter? Heaven will never be full!

The pastor seemed to go in a different direction. Eventually it was clear he saw the Kingdom of God in terms of people on earth who are getting it right- the correct type of Christians bound for heaven. He went on what felt like a tangent about how important it is to get the Christian message out. Conversion. He seemed adamant that we basically become obsessed with our Christianity, that we need to never lose sight of it and always seek to spread the word to others. He even used the metaphor of a virus spreading from person to person, which, is a little weird, right? Should we really think of Christianity as something that invades us without our permission and makes us ill? But it sounds like what we actually want isn’t important. The pastor made a point of saying we need to stop shying away from the word submission. He then immediately followed up by reminding us that “Men are called to be the head of their household.” These two things are both issues that deserve their own posts, but I’ll try to be brief. The idea of submission is tricky. Who or what are we submitting to? Anyone can claim we ought to submit to them. Anyone can claim it’s because God says so. But submission is another way of saying, stop questioning. That’s just not something I’m in favor of. Maybe as a theme there’s a good way to use submission…but I haven’t found it yet. This coupled with the immediate reminder that wives submit to husbands suggests a hierarchy common to Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Namely that women answer to men, who answer to the male pastor, who answers to God. It is foolish to suggest that all men will know better about spiritual things than all women. At least with a pastor there is some training that had to happen first.

Taking things back to the Kingdom and it’s growth, pastor said this is hard for us to see because the Kingdom in Anerica is not that big. He said- there’s maybe 1%-3% Evagelicals here? So right away that excludes me, as I don’t self identify as Evangelical. Thanks for leaving me out of the kingdom, dude! The pastor went on to describe incorrect ways of looking at the Kingdom, including pluralism and universalism. I found his descriptions of pluralism and universalism to be rather shallow. He described people who say all religions are right and that there’s no difference between a Christian and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. Then he challenged us to put these pairs of people together and tell them they are exactly the same, to see how well it goes over. That strikes me as a very flawed understanding of what is meant by universalism and pluralism. I don’t place myself in either category, so maybe I can’t speak to this fully, but as I understand it, neither of those schools of thought claim that everyone is identical. It’s about where the focus lies. Is the focus on our differences or our similarities? Pluralists and universalists seem more about seeing similarities and understanding that decent people can come from any religion, not just one special brand of Christianity.

And finally there’s the assertion the pastor made about an inclusive heaven. He said that there are people out there who think everyone gets to go to heaven. Ok, that’s true. But he followed by saying, “if all go to heaven, there is no good and evil, no consequences.” This is blatantly false. Does this pastor actually think that God is the only thing stopping humans from killing and stealing from one another? Does he see all atheists of incapable of self-restraint? Of course there are consequences for evil here on earth. If I punch someone in the face, I can’t just tell people, “I recently became an atheist so it’s fine!” I’m going to need to face an angry bruised person and probably the police. There are actual secular reasons for the things we do on earth, and I’m surprised the pastor can ignore this so nonchalantly.

The entire sermon was one I had very little use for. It seems like the pastor hasn’t actually met any of the groups he criticized. If he has then he clearly hasn’t gotten a true understanding of where they are coming from. That strikes me as an important piece of knowledge for one who wishes to convince others.

Overall: Actually this was one of my favorite weeks. I met someone through the blog who invited me to this very thought provoking church and then stayed around to talk with me afterwards. It’s clear we don’t agree about some stuff, but the talk was good. I like meeting people invested in their faith, and hearing what they have to say.

Church # 54, First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush

Date: 3/30/14

Church name/type: First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush (in Rensselaer) recently merged with West End Presbyterian Church/ PCUSA

Pastor: David Moore

Style of worship: A more compact format than I’ve been to in ages, closer to an hour in length, all the parts were written out in the bulletin/program so anyone can follow along. The peace and announcements were done very casual and open.

Useful takeaways:
Church appearance-
A lot of older churches struggle with the falling-apart look, but I was impressed by this church’s clean and fresh interior. I gather they’ve painted recently, and it definitely makes the place look current.

The sermon was about the story in John chapter 9 of the man blind from birth. There were two big takeaways for me. First the question put by the disciples to Jesus was, “Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?” Jesus tells them it is neither. Then he gives a strange answer. He says the blindness is an opportunity to show God’s works. I like this first because it works against the old-school (but not dead) notion that problems in life directly correlate to how good or bad we have been. I’m not talking about things with an obvious direct correlation (drive drunk-> lose license, for example). I’m talking about the idea that God punishes transgressions by harming people. There are various forms this notion can take, ranging from blaming poverty on immorality, to believing mental illness is caused by demons who got into a person compromised by sin. The idea of consistent direct correlation of sin and earthly punishment leads us to ask wrong questions like the disciples did. What was the sin? How did this person deserve their problem? Jesus tries to give the disciples a new way to look at this. He tells them (and us) to treat it as an opportunity instead of playing the blame game. And this was my second big takeaway: we are called to help if we can. Jesus doesn’t show us a light show, or a musical number, or a dance routine. He does something actually useful for the blind man. I think it’s an important point highlighting outreach. And in this case Jesus reached out to someone who everyone expected deserved the problems in his life. We need to be reaching out to people. We especially should not hold back our efforts based on who we think deserves our help. We can be wrong about things, just like the disciples were wrong to think sin caused a man’s blindness.

At the end of the sermon we were encouraged to look at things with new eyes the way Jesus tried to get the disciples to do. Pastor talked about a person from an older generation who was a closeted gay man with no hope of being able to come out. The state of the church at the time would never have been ok with it. Now we are starting to look at things differently. We are seeing with new eyes. Acknowledging different sexualities as ok is a big deal. Some churches and denominations are turning themselves inside out over this issue. It’s nice to see PCUSA taking a reasonable stance on same sex relationships.

Problems/Improvements: This place needs a website. I mentioned it to them as well. It’s just so important today because that’s how the younger generation gets information. For all the internet can tell me, this church doesn’t exist.

Church #53, Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church

Date: 3/23/14

Church name/type: Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist- affiliations include: Hudson River Frontier Missionary Baptist Association, Empire Baptist Missionary Convention of NYS Inc, National Baptist Convention USA Inc

Pastor: Reverend Elgin Joseph Taylor

Style of worship: Formatted but in a way that seems mildly flexible.

Overall Impression: Good!

I actually have a lot of different things to say about this one. I guess I’ll start by giving my general impression. I liked this place. The people greeted me but didn’t overdo it. One woman named Penny greeted me before service and then spoke to me at length after service about the church. I don’t mean to say she was pushy- I was driving the conversation by asking about the church. She told me the pastor was new(ish) and had only been at the church about four years. I asked about the push or lack thereof to get current attendees to join either the church or Christianity. She told me the church and pastor are relaxed enough that one can show up frequently and not be hassled. That squares with the vibe I felt on Sunday. I didn’t get either a desperate “please stay!” or a high pressure “give your life to Jesus or Doom!” This might actually be a place I could show up again and feel comfortable.

Now, I’d like to describe the building. The outside looks in good shape, the sign appears new. Once inside you must ascend a somewhat daunting staircase to the sanctuary. The steps are just a little steeper than they need to be and this makes the trip a bit slow and ponderous. Just as you’ve despaired of finding anything special at the top of what seems an ill-designed stairway, the sanctuary swings into view. The space is bright and sun-kissed, lit by large but simple stained glass windows the color of watermelon candy. The floor is gently sloped downwards toward the altar as you might find in a concert hall. The benefit to this is twofold. First, you can easily see the altar area from wherever you decide to sit. Second, this design makes it easy to approach the altar as the gradient gives you a boost, almost like some combination of God, gravity, and the building designer want you at the center of the action, down near the altar. Above the altar are the giant, decorative pipes of a pipe organ. Above the pipe organ the ceiling is white, but highly detailed with lines and flat pieces like shingles. The whole effect of the ceiling is like that of a cake with lined and woven icing. The sanctuary is thus, very inviting.

Memorable bits of the service were the guest welcome and the liturgical dance. During the welcome they simply asked guests to stand and acknowledged they were glad we joined them that morning. The church was well-filled with people, but I didn’t get that- all turn your eyes on the newbie– neck turn that happens sometimes. I have not talked before about liturgical dance. So, in the same way we reach out to God through song, there is dance that is meant to be more prayer than performance. Liturgical dance is usually a slow series of movements that correspond partially or minimally with a piece of music suitable for church. The variety of liturgical dances I’ve seen are set to taped music, presumably to keep them uniform and keep the music from distracting from the dance you are seeing. This day’s liturgical dance was no disappointment. Four individuals took up places along the altar and performed. Meanwhile dancers stood in the aisles with long fans covered in fluttering fabric. Their motions were soothing and beautiful, and did feel holy in a way. I very much enjoyed the liturgical dance.

There were some other things I noticed as well ranging from intentional messages to subconscious messages this church was sending. There was a youth near the front making random movements and sounds, but bigger by far than a toddler. I imagine this young person was challenged in some way and the noises were not meant to be disruptive. What’s more, no one around was shushing or stopping it or acting annoyed. I tend to see this as a positive thing. If a mom or caregiver feels comfortable bringing an untypical child to a place, it speaks to the environment being one of welcome. In a broader sense I wonder if a church like this one (that encourages more noise from the congregation in general) is a better choice for someone with similar difficulties over, say, a church where silence is encouraged. It’s probably easier to have crying baby in a more vocal congregation as well.

Something I liked from the direct message (before the actual sermon) was the mention of fasting. I don’t remember if the term lent was used.* However I’m always happy when nuance is used, especially in defining ‘fasting’. Not everyone should be fasting from eating food. I’ve never done a food fast on purpose and my health issues dictate I should never do one. The pastor mentioned that we ought to fast, but he included the important qualifier that fasting need not be food. We can fast anything as a way to get closer to God, make us realize we are lucky, or just gain insight into ourselves. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve realized this or written about it on this blog, but it’s so nice to hear from the pulpit. One good point from the sermon itself (most of which I liked) was the point that sanctuary is not the building we worship in, but rather the presence of God we meet with. This was as from Psalm 73 verse 17. The gist of the verse is a man complaining that evil men reap good rewards. He wonders why, and can’t figure it out. Then he enters the sanctuary and finds peace. If we can find this place of peace, that’s good. I don’t mind someone having this and I think we all find it in different ways.

*The Catholic Church I was raised in pays an awful lot of attention to lent, but some denominations do less so. They may even drop the term altogether.

Church #52, Antioch Christian Fellowship Center

Date: 3/16/14

Church name/type:
Antioch Christian Fellowship Center, I didn’t check for any affiliation.

Pastor: Usually led by Pastor Donald Stewart, this time we were led by Minister Tolliver

Style of worship: Casual structure with the usual songs, scripture, sermon, and prayer

Overall Impression: I like it.

I was really dubious regarding this church at first. The building isn’t very new, and the sign out front looks like it hasn’t been changed in about ten years. But it’s accurate! There is church at this building at 11am and people are there. On entering I found my way upstairs to the sanctuary. About 15-20 people wound up showing up for service. I gather this is usual. I was greeted in a casual way by the speaker up front. The atmosphere of the service was very open, such that changes in the format were easy and acceptable. I felt like the lack of formality was the way to go. No one shied away from reaching out to me during hymnal sharing or bible verse comparison. Yet at the same time they didn’t go out of their way and make me feel like an outsider. I was there and that was just fine. It’s nice to get that, especially in a small church.

The sermon was a nice collection of ideas following the instructions: Stop, Look, Listen, Obey. Much of it was about how to listen to God and let his presence guide us. We have to stop, because uttering the first thing to enter our minds is often a bad idea. Settle your heart first and think before you speak. Listen and look means we need to notice what God is telling us. Jesus lived a life full of love; one we can follow. Obey means deciding to follow God. We were told it’s a choice and that it’s either God or not. I tend to look at things more broadly, I suppose. We choose things every day. And if something we do is a mistake, there will be chances to make better decisions in the future. I see following God more as a process than a single choice.

At the end of service things were relaxed and we were closing with announcements in more of an open forum. The speaker thanked us all for coming and me for deciding to walk in the door. She said ‘If no one else tells you this today- I love you.’ This is probably my favorite interaction at any church. Minister Tolliver had a real sincerity and concern in her. This day I felt it towards me, but I imagine this is something other people have felt from her as well. Last week I was wondering if I’d be able to feel any real connections with people from single visits- apparently I can. And it’s really a nice feeling.