A celebration of the people at our stopovers during the Journey
Taken together, the little dramas of the stopovers on our journey through NYC religions communes our senses to the soul of the city. “Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty.”* Three weeks ago, we stopped at a second story storefront.
Peering up at Sadie and me are ten pairs of wide eyes, wondering what we are doing there. We are inside a small homey sanctuary set up in what used to be a small apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. By the windows to the front is a brown pulpit with a microphone. Behind the pulpit are two potted ficus plants with strings of multicolored fairy lights wrapped around them. A man and a woman — the woman I saw laughing through the open apartment window when I was standing on the sidewalk outside — are sitting between the shrubbery. Before the pulpit are five rows of brown folding chairs. On the wall next to the pulpit is a framed poster with Galatians 5:16 written in flowing blue script: So I say to you, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
The rest of the room is painted all white. Even the brick fireplace is painted over. On the mantelpiece are two vases with dark green and maroon eucalyptus sprigs. An audio player and a stack of CDs sit between the two vases. In front of the fireplace sits a man holding an electric bass. His leg rests on the large bass speaker sitting in front of him. From where Sadie and I are standing in the doorway, my knee is nearly touching the speaker. The room is so small that I feel like a giant Alice trying to fit inside the March Hare’s house.
I try to imagine how Sadie, A Journey’s summer intern, and I must look to those seated in this sanctuary, two sweaty young strangers who have just come in from the street. We are nearing the end of a long, hot Sunday in the field and were looking for the rest of our team. Maybe, they were at this small walk-up church, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism Ministries, Inc. We rang the white electric buzzer with a sticker above it proclaiming, “Church bell.” A four-foot tall older woman wearing a deep navy blue jacket and floor-length skirt opened the door and gestured us into the first apartment on the floor apartment before we could explain what we were doing there. Now, she corrals us towards the microphone at the podium.
“Would you like to say a few words?” Though she phrases it as a question, the lady is not asking. Those gathered in the room look up at me expectantly.
All of a sudden, I am reminded of a field day from last summer. The team is out on Fulton Street in Brooklyn just a couple weeks after then 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people gathered there for a prayer meeting with a handgun. Again, I am with Sadie, and we walk into a small church. The long, descending auditorium is empty except for two older women sitting close together in the front row.
“What do you want?” one of the women calls up abrasively.
“Hello!” I respond. “Is the pastor in? We’re visiting churches in the neighborhood—“
“No, he’s not here. If you want to talk with him you’ll have to make an appointment.”
“Great! What’s the best way to get in touch with him?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Okay. Well, I have a few questions we like to ask—“
“I’m not telling you anything! You have to talk to pastor!”
“Alright. How can I make an—“
“I told you, I’m not going to talk to you!”
Every question I ask makes the woman more agitated. At the time, I just feel her aggression, and I walk out of that church a little sore. It isn’t until later that I connect the pieces and am able to imagine that she was terrified. She had just read about a stranger walking into an African-American church and killing all the people he found there, for no more of a personal reason than that he hated what they stood for. She didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there. So, she was taking a stand for her church. If I was there to shoot her, she was going to go down defiantly. Instead of taking her aggression personally, I should have seen in her attitude something admirable. It’s scary to have a stranger walk into the place you consider home.
Yet, every time A Journey takes to the streets to continue our exploration of New York City’s religious sites, we are journeying into some of the places people hold most special and asking them to partner with us in our work by sharing their stories, experiences, and opinions with us. What is a journalist’s efforts without the cooperation of those she is interviewing? In fact, it’s a sort of hospitality when we are let into these spaces and invited to share the experiences.
So here we are, a year later, here are wide eyes peering up from the folding chairs at us, the strangers who had just walked off the street into their worship service. The ladies and gentlemen sitting in the chairs are old enough to have seen strangers be cruel to their congregations. The woman who let us in references the servants that they have lost to violence. Now, they are working in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing and finding ways of pushing long-time residents out.
Nonetheless, when we, strangers, knock on their door, we are welcomed. Pastor Catherine Owens, the lady who let us enter, asks us rhetorically, “How can I preach about love and then turn you away?”
Tony stands in the back of the room talking to one gentleman with a grey streaked beard and wearing a rose-colored polished silk suit. Sadie and I stay near the front talking with Pastor Owens. She explains what we have walked into. She calls the meeting a “circle,” a gathering of leaders from different churches in the area who meet on Sunday afternoon after their own services are done to encourage and worship together. It is a space where pastors who spend their entire weeks pouring their efforts into their congregants are themselves refreshed and refilled. This small group has been meeting since 2003.
Just as Pastor Owens is about to dismiss us with a benediction, a lady in the second-to-back row, wearing a bright kelly green suit, who had been clapping along with the singing, raises her hand.
Owens calls on her. “Elder MacDonald?”
Elder MacDonald hoists herself to her feet. “I tried to sit here and be quiet and be whatever I could be, but God won’t let me be quiet to our guests.“ she begins to explain.
One man calls out an encouragement. “Won’t let you be quiet!” he echoes.
So Elder MacDonald continues. “The Lord has mandated that I do something—with your permission, Pastor?” she refers to Elder Owens. “Would you all please go to the front? Every one of you!”
We follow her instructions and make our way toward the podium. Then, all of those gathered stand up and make a circle around Tony, Sadie, Moné, and me. As they move up, they clap their hands and say out loud, “My, my. Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord!” Elder MacDonald calls out in tongues, passionate in the moment.
Then, she begins to pray for us. The entire group ballasts her prayer with their own voices.
A torrent of words are crying out hopes for our journey. Demands for our safety are quickly spoken in gasped sentences. Pleadings are issued asking that our work would bring back results. Underlying the prayers is a respect for our work, seeing it in line with their callings as spiritual leaders. We are scouts in a big world. Through their prayer, they loved us using the tools they know best.
Moments like that aren’t a news story, but they are integral to the success of A Journey.
A Journey has now traveled through most of New York City. At every neighborhood, on every street, we have met individuals who have opened up and shared their personal histories, given us their take on how the world is going, or made us privy to their hopes for the neighborhood. We’ve collected stories and images from each neighborhood and have run features on many sites that we’ve visited.
However, many people who have offered us their hospitality have not fit into an article format and have not yet appeared on the site. That does not mean that their contributions and encouragements were any less imperative than those that we have featured.
To thank and to honor these wonderful people, we are starting a new feature called Sojourns. Each Friday, we will feature these interactions, not quite long enough to be articles but snapshots into the neighborhood and people we’ve met there. Some will be personal stories. Some will be scope stories, picked up as we interviewed people across a span of weeks and blocks and got an overall feel on a topic. We will run music and videos that have not yet been aired.
For however short or long we stayed with them, they’ve affected our own narratives, as Journeyers and as people. As you follow this new feature, we hope their stories, experiences, will lend something to you as well. Let us know what you think. More importantly, let our hosts know how much you appreciate them as they help others on their own journeys.
*From John Dryden’s remarks on Chaucer in “Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern"