Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Italian family wanted to hear live Gospel music while they were in New York, so we took them to a church in Harlem, which I felt was inappropriate in many, many ways. Race issues, religion issues, cultural issues, but mostly people are there trying to find salvation and for us it's a rip-roaring good time concert hall. The Refuge Temple Church is used to "visitors" dropping in more for the music than the community or the Word of God, but my own religious upbringing had me coming to the church — a white person in an all-black church, no less — with a huge burden of gravity. I mean, I wore pants! In the middle of a hazy, hot and humid New York summer!

But the Sunday experience, at least at the Refuge Temple Church, is a radical departure from the solemn deference that (I was taught) is the Lord's due. They were essentially partying with God, singing, dancing, screaming out loud when the Spirit moved them, throwing up their arms like you see crazy glosso people doing at the Down South megachurches, but — I don't know — it felt genuine, not some ideomotor effect. Nobody was trying, God simply became "found." To me, trying to put forth a stolid veneer, the Gospel celebration was profoundly — I want to say "annoying," but it wasn't; it was — infectious. How has Roman Catholicism missed out on this?

What bothered me was the tithing, having people in a (relatively) poor neighborhood sacrifice a tenth of their money, plus the weekly donations, plus a monthly membership fee seemed cruel, although I don't know if I'm in a position to judge. That money does go back into the community, just not the parts of the community that'll keep Brooks Brothers from opening an Anglo power suit store on 125th Street. What bothered and impressed me was a line from the (first) preacher's sermon. Not a sermon, really, just a list of things we're all thankful for, growing more enthusiastic and manic by the second. He had that stereotypical African-American preacher sonorous voice and punctuated cadence, and I sort of wanted to know if he speaks that way off the pulpit, too. Anyway, list of things we're thankful for, went on for about five fueled minutes, but the very first one (of course) was that we're thankful the Lord chose to wake us up this morning.

I have never been thankful for waking up in the morning. I never thought about it, but even if I had... and it dawned on me — there's one guy somehow sleeping through this whole service, but in general — the congregation here actually is thankful that they woke up this morning and I became choked up in reverse schadenfreude. The service, not the words — of which there aren't many and even fewer that are understandable — but the sum total of the atmosphere, is an affirmation and I'm truly jealous. On the other hand, we stayed ninety minutes for the "first half" of the service, so I'm not really missing that part.