The dream landscapes in some churches, mosques and temples are filled with rich, creative imagery and the most profound reflections about life. Very seldom is this imaginative layer captured in reporting about faith in our city. Our piece "Dreams and divine connections at the hair salon" gives the readers a small peak at this hidden and consequential dimension of New York City life.
Pete Hamill wrote a wonderful essay of advice to Hilary Clinton when she started her campaign for the job of U.S. Senator from New York. He said that she needed to get to know five hidden dimensions of the city. He could well have added a sixth hidden dimension, the religious dreams of New Yorkers. We have come upon a wonderful ethnography by Timothy Nelson that recounts the dream world of African Americans in Eastside Chapel. Although the setting is Charleston, South Carolina, the dream experience of the south has a real presence in African American churches in New York City.
Although God impacts words of knowledge directly to church members, he also communicates with them through dreams. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of spiritual dreams as an integral part of the religious life of Eastside Chapel.
Members view spiritual dreams as communication from God. Sometimes these communications involve answers to prayer about specific decisions. Darryl Lawson, for example, had an important position as lay leader at a Reformed Episcopal church several blocks from Eastside Chapel when he began visiting the church regularly. He became increasingly restless and dissatisfied with what he felt was the lack of spiritual fervor in his church, and at this time he had several very pointed dreams about that congregation:
The first dream I had, we were in church, and I got up to praise the Lord. And the pastor jumped up from where he was in the pulpit and said, "That's enough out of you!" He said, "We're not having that!" And I jumped up and said, "That's enough out of you too! I don't have to stay here and take this.” So I got up to walk out, and one of the ladies said, "I know you are going to Eastside Chapel." I said, "Well, wherever my soul redeemer says [to go], that's where I want to be." I was not even thinking about joining Eastside at this particular point, and as I walked out the door and got in the vestibule, I looked back―the entire church crumbled.
Mother Pinckney prefaced her account of the following dream by saying, "I know I been converted, because I go in Hell and get myself out. The [dream] was about a blouse, but I know it was my soul." She presented this dream to me as evidence of her salvation experience, a tradition that goes back many years in the religious history of African Americans.
See, I found myself in this place and it been hot and stinkin', smelly. Oooh! And the people been naked, both men and women. And I been walkin' through the place, and the heat had me hot, and my clothes been like stick to me. I don't know why I been walkin' through there, but I been walkin' on this thing, it was like a grate, and it was [made of] iron. And it been hot. I could see the fire down there under the hole. And the noise, some kind of noise like a great motor been grinding away. I walk along in that place, and oh Lord, I didn't want to be there. I don't now why I been in there. I know it been Hell, because fire been everywhere and stuff.
And people been moaning and groaning―it was terrible. Everybody been mean and ugly. Hell's slippery and slidy, and you slide down and then you go back up. and the briar been hooking on your clothes, and I could feel them tearing my skin while I been running. And I mean the hounds of Hell been behind me. I could hear them growling and barking and there's people and all, everybody been behind me. And it was this straight place I had to run up. And I look back and I see the frogs and snakes and all the things I am afraid of―all that been behind me. And I run and I run. but I couldn't get nowhere, like it was like a tunnel. Then, I started singing something and when I started singing I saw a light way down to the end of that tunnel and I know I been home safe.
Mother Pinckney's dream exemplifies a tradition in African American religious experience that goes back at least a hundred years. Mechal Sobel has analyzed the language of spiritual dreams reserved in the historical record, including those of the ex-slaves collected by Clifton H. Johnson in the volume God Struck Me Dead, and one of the most common themes she identifies is that of "the detailed journey or travels of the Soul from Hell to Heaven."
Not all dreams that members consider communications from God are clear in their meaning. Often the dreams are full of symbolic imagery that is not so transparent, and if this happens the members will tell the dreams to the pastor so that he can interpret them. Deborah Watson told me:
The dreams that I've had! It's been so spiritual it had me coming out of the dreams like I'd come out of an operation. You know, it's like a total reaction or a different physical change, you know. And I've not been able to cope with it until the Lord showed me one night the spiritual dreams that I would have, and I relates it to my pastor and tells him about the dreams...and he relates and teaches me. That's how I was taught on how to deal with your dreams.
Reverend Wright spends a good deal of his time trying to interpret them [dreams] for members. One time I arrived in his office for an interview and he was poring over a large Bible dictionary. Sandra Davis had called him earlier that morning and told him of a dream in which she had a guardian angel with a strange name, and he was looking it up in the dictionary for her. Not surprisingly, he sometimes tired of this role. At one Saturday night prayer meeting, after Sherline told a dream that she had during the previous week that she didn't know the meaning of, Wright exhorted the group to start asking God directly for interpretations rather than depending upon him.
Although dreams are usually considered a medium of communication, however oblique they may sometimes be in their meaning, Mary Jefferson told me how a dream broke her addiction to cigarettes. A heavy two-pack-a-day smoker for much of her sixty or so years, she had been hospitalized for possible cancer of the kidneys several years before I interviewed her. While in the hospital she had tried very hard to quit smoking, but found she was unable to do it.
Sometime while I was in the hospital [I dreamed that] an angel came.... this [was] a huge [man]--the most gorgeous thing you ever seen―and he came in that hospital room and he lift me out of the bed, and he took me across the Ashley [River] to the street Lilly Jackson lives on. I just went down the street to get the 51―to get the bus and go on home. And when I got to the corner, this woman from our church, she was standing there. She sent me to [where there was] a box with arms and legs and wings [inside]--and they were alive. No other parts of the body―just those things in there. And I went to the box, and I look in there, said "Ooooh." And this other angel in the box snatched me in, and he start beating on me. I [managed to get] out, and I just stretched my arms out and said, "Lord, what do I do now?" And this voice came from above me. And it was a strong voice that said, "Fight!-Fight with all your might!" And I went back in there―and before I knew it, everything was beat up to a pulp―it was like Jell-O, and I put my hand in there, it started oozing around my fingers. And then I smelled it―it was nicotine. I went back to get a bus from there to go home, not knowing that the first angel was there waiting for me at the crossroads. He pick me up and put me back to the hospital. And I didn't smoke any cigarettes from then on.
Stories like this―of deliverance from substance addiction, of healing from illnesses and physical deformities, of miraculous financial provision in times of hardship―make up the bulk of the testimonies told. Accounts of divine intervention into every aspect of ordinary life, down to the commonly heard prayer of thanks to God for "waking me up" each morning, "clothed in my right mind" with the "blood still running warm in my veins" attests to how completely intertwined the spiritual, physical, and social forces are. This kind of indirect religious experience has a long tenure among African Americans. In his review of the historical record Black Belief, Henry Mitchell concludes that "this tendency to see the providence of God in every good experience was virtually universal among slave believers, and very common among all blacks. Narrative after narrative relates some straw of good fortune in a haystack of adversity, and celebrates it as evidence of the care and concern of the Creator of the universe."