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Reading the Bible after 911. Part 5 of series

The dancer had never owned or read a Bible until after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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Andrew Nemr was one of the New Yorkers who started reading their Bibles after 911. This painting is hanging in Abounding Grace Ministries on 8th Street in the Lower East Side. In Luke 17, Jesus foretells the coming of the Kingdom of God. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

It was a morning that a dancer could kick up his heals. Blue skies, mild weather, limitless vision. Nemr was taking time with his Dad. He packed up a selection of CDs for them to listen to as they drove around on September 11, 2001. Andrew Nemr and his father Joseph were involved in that buddy activity of picking up a car from the auto shop.  On their way, they passed an auto accident, which unfortunately is not unusual on New Jersey’s roads overcrowded with maniac drivers.

Then, they passed another wreck, another, and still another. Nemr and his father thought, something is up. When they reached the car shop, the wrenches were laid down and the radio was turned up. The news: two planes had crashed into the World Trade Towers in Manhattan. The buildings had collapsed.

Everyone was trying to call their relatives and friends without success.  The Nemrs could not reach home either, because the cell phone reception was down. On the way back, they listened to the updates on the radio.

When they arrived back at their house, Nemr could see smoke rising at the end of their street beyond a hill that looked over downtown Manhattan. He went inside turned on the news to watch repeating images of the Towers collapsing for the rest of the day.

As he watched, his mind froze. He hardly noticed what was going on around him.  “Certain things mandate that you stop,” he reflects. The moments of hearing about the tragedy are less clear to him than the days that followed.

He could not get into Manhattan for several days since the city had closed all of its bridges and tunnels. When he finally made it into New York, he noticed “a sense of softness, of people being more careful, interacting with more care.” People drove slower and took time to greet each other on the street.

Nemr heard President George W. Bush declare Friday, September 14 as the National Day of Prayer for the country. Then, while he was in the city, Nemr noticed that Times Square Church would host a prayer service for the event. The church is known for its emphasis on prayer as a key tool for personal and societal change. The young dancer decided to attend.

When he entered the church, one of the men in the sanctuary approached him and asked if he had ever read the Book of Revelations.

Nemr said he hadn’t read the book. In fact, he had never owned or read a Bible.

The man urged him to go home and read it. “The Two Towers are in there!” the man explained.

That week, Nemr went to the Christian Publications Bookstore on 43rd Street in Manhattan to buy his first Bible, a King James Version. Christian Publications was a historical landmark for Christians in New York City. It had a lineage back to the 19th Century evangelical revivals and was the biggest Christian bookstore in the city.

Nemr began reading Revelations. The book is filled with vivid visions and grand symbols foretelling the future of the world. William Blake’s great paintings captured some of its haunting images. But like all visions, the language is cryptic and the symbols have multiple meanings.  It made no sense to Nemr!

Still, he decided, the Bible needed to become part of his faith. “If this is the next step, I have to figure this out,” he reasoned. He does not think it was a wrong decision to begin with one of the most cryptic books of the New Testament, because “sometimes it’s better to not know what you’re doing than to have all the backstory and then engage.” Being too prepared can sometimes be its own distraction. Nemr brought improv to Bible study!

After completing Revelations, Nemr flipped his New Testament to the first four books, the Gospels. He read through the stories of Jesus Christ’s human life, teachings, death and resurrection. Going at his own pace, Nemr took a year and a half reading the four gospels. When he finished the Gospel of John, who also wrote the Revelations, Nemr finally felt like he understood the big narrative of faith and where he stood in it. He focused on the importance of having a daily relationship with Jesus.

The last lines of John’s Gospel recount the disciples’ encounter with Jesus after he returns from the dead and before he goes up to heaven. Jesus describes the difficult work and death that one of his closest disciples, Peter, would have.

Discomfited, Peter looks over at one of the other disciples and asks Jesus, “What about him?”

Jesus counsels Peter that the fate of the other disciple is none of his business. “What is that to you?” he asked Peter. “You must follow me.”

In other words, Peter’s responsibility is to be dutiful in his own work that Jesus has given to him. Nemr latched onto this idea that each Christian should have a personal focus from Jesus. The dancer needed to trust that if he does what he supposed to do in following the Son  of God, then everything else will work out.

In 2002, Nemr would found the Legacy Tap Foundation with Gregory Hines. Hines was a compassionate mentor to younger dancers. Shortly later, Hines passed away from liver cancer. This loss of a leader, who was “a very open, generous, loving individual,” left a void in the tap world and in Nemr ’s own feelings too.

The life-changing cue for Nemr came three years later when Savion Glover’s dance troupe Ti Dii dissolved. Nemr was left hanging like a dancer without a backing band. What was he supposed to do next?

Out of the blue, a booking agency asked the dancer “to perform at a bar mitzvah. I don’t even know how they got my number!” He started to develop a new vision of his life.

He thought that he could create a hip trio that would do such events. So, Nemr invited Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Young to perform with him, Dorrance was  a dancer with electric energy who had performed with him and Savion in Ti Dii. She was so good and was getting better. (Last year, she received a 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant.) Young was a friend of Dorrance and was part of the New York production STOMP.

 

 

However, the agency said that they needed a larger group.  So, Nemr started to see his teaching gig as a training ground for his dance enterprise. He extended an invitation to some of his top students. The larger group developed a dynamic synergy. At that point, Nemr realized that he had the nucleus of a new dance company. He called the new group, “Cats Paying Dues,” sometimes abbreviated as “CPD.”

On January 22, 2005, the six-person company performed their first show, titled All For Love, at the Playwrights Horizons theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Nemr had always been the follower. He had never been the leader of a dance group. As a dance leader, he wondered who could throw him some cues about what to do. He reflected back on something Hines had told him. Hines “was very clear about what he believed in and what he thought was right, but would not often impose that on someone else. He was more interested in seeing what you would become—and if he could offer something, he would.” Nemr saw this as an example of the caring leader, which Hines was.

The new dance leader decided to redefine the dance company away from a purely economic center for creating dance pieces that would sell. Instead, CPD  would become  a space where his dancers could work on pieces that they cared about and explore the same reconciliation of body and dance that he had learned.

He also wanted to change the definition of an audience from receptors and reactors to thoughtful participants. Nemr says that up to that time, every concert he had ever been to used stage effects to control the crowd. Every time the lights flashed, the crowd would cheer excitedly. So, dance companies built flashing lights to evoke the audience reaction. Nemr suspected that the flashing lights had developed into a form of manipulation. So, Cats Paying Dues would shy away from such practices.

Instead, the company perform pieces that demonstrated certain emotions  but let the audience react to them naturally, not reacting to staged stimuli.

Nemr thought that he was taking a chance that this approach might not be good for commercial success. He resolved that at least if he failed, he would fail being honest with the audience.

 

 

In the small company, Nemr took on every role: choreographer, advertiser, agent, artist, and writer. By 2010, he was worn down by the overload. His post-911 question kept recurring to him: “What am I supposed to be doing?” The company was successful and a joy to watch on stage.

He paused his manic panic and reflected on the relation of dance to his search for greater meaning. He first reflected on the nature of tap dancing, “Tap dancing is not a person. It’s an activity.” So then, really the question is, “What service am I doing for people through this activity?” Questions leaped into his mind. Is this the place that I am giving maximum service to other people? “

He asked, “Would it be better to take the gifts that I have and the specific talent that I have and invest it elsewhere and in a different way? What would that do for people?” The answers all went back to the fact that he had become administrative heavy, people light.

He had assumed that since his gift was tap dance, his career would normally lead to administering a tap dance troupe. Now, he wondered, “Maybe, I have numerous gifts that manifest themselves in tap dancing, because that’s where they get to be applied most specifically. But maybe my mission isn’t tap dancing” any more. He needed to let go of his self-control and rigid administrative schedule and see where that led.

At that moment, Nemr decided to relinquish the control he was holding over his career trajectory in favor of letting God to come into his environment to give the cue for the next step. The dancer turned toward the Great Choreographer of the rhythms of the universe. Nemr came to an astonishing realization, “I don’t care if I’m a tap dancer anymore. I just want to do whatever God wants me to do.” He told God, “If you want me to leave it, I’ll leave it.”

The next step from God might be the appearance of an “inspired choice” from God or an inner direction that he couldn’t refuse. Instead, God’s message arrived at a bar delivered by a Shakespearean actor.

 

Photo gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religioins

 

Graffiti church

Nemr was dancing with an old time jazz band at the Telephone Bar on the Lower East Side on a night in 2011. After his dance set, he went among the audience and met the actor. The dancer traded notes with his new acquaintance and discovered that they were both transplants to New York City and were church hopping. The actor suggested that Nemr ought to visit Graffiti Church and hear the preaching of Taylor Field.

Located on East 7th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C in the Lower East Side’s Alphabet City, Graffiti Church began as a service center, a place where kids could go for after-school tutoring and homeless people in the area could find help. Young urban professionals who were moving into the neighborhood came to volunteer.  The social services then grew a congregation from a cross-section of the neighborhood. Field recognized that some of the attenders came from a “reading culture,” where information is shared through books. Others amassed their information through conversations and interaction. With this interesting insight, Field was able to style a church that could reach very diverse audiences by emphasizing different learning styles.

Nemr also saw a bit of God’s sense of humor in bringing the dancer to this particular church. He is not someone who feels exhilarated by starting early in morning. A late morning start is Nemr’s style of life. Except, Graffiti has only a morning service. And the church was located on the Lower East Side, “basically the furthest point from New Jersey in Manhattan!”

Not surprisingly, the dancer didn’t get to the church on time. Nemr stood in the back row of the church with the other barely-made-it-to-church crowd. Yet, the dancer choreographer found an advantage of seeing the whole performance and its audience together. As he listen to the sermon, Nemr noticed the informality of the service. There wasn’t a big tech rig on the stage and the lights did not flicker with the music or fade away evocatively when the preacher came up to speak. The musicians were not industry or Broadway performers, but were simply “cats who enjoy singing and playing.” Nemr felt instantly at ease in this unaffected atmosphere. His nervous sense of over-control by administrative process and the need for marketing hype just started fading away.

Just after he heard the pastor Taylor Fields preach, he texted a friend, “I think I met the pastor who’s going to baptize me.”  The dancer felt that he found a church that he could call “home.” He was excited because he hadn’t experienced this type of home before.

Whenever he wasn’t on tour, Nemr attended Graffiti. He also participated in Bible studies and navigated this new experience of being part of a church community. The Graffiti community felt “like a neighborhood, as if somebody took a slice across the socioeconomic spectrum and put everybody in one place.” Nemr vaguely called back to memories of his visits to other churches and seeing how the same religion could be represented in different ways.

He compared Graffiti with other churches that he had worked with. The Faith and Work workshop at Redeemer Presbyterian Church was “a very heady, young urbanite culture.” At one point while in Boise, Idaho, he had attended a Vineyard Church, which had a sister church in Manhattan. It was very “Midwestern, Holy Spirit-on-our-sleeve infused culture.”

Graffiti was “very service-oriented, practical” with “simple-term sermons” that anyone could understand and apply to their lives. Though Nemr understood that all three churches “were coming from the same root,” Graffiti had a grass-roots hominess that he could settle into.

 

Rev. Taylor Field is a writer, pastor, and social do-gooder around the city. There are 5 Graffiti centers in NYC. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religioins

Nemr felt like a child learning about a new family. He had all sorts of questions about belonging to a Christian community.

What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to act?

What’s appropriate in this setting?

What the delineations between Christian community, and people who are outside the Christian community? Are there guidelines for how to act in each one?

In early May of 2011, he was baptized by Field. In the basement of the church, Nemr put on the baptismal robe with the group of other men who were being baptized that Sunday. Concerned that he wouldn’t do it right, Nemr told Field, “I don’t know what to do—how does this work?”

Field assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s cool. Just let God use it.”

Well, that made sense to an improv dancer. Nemr headed up the small spiral staircase leading to the sanctuary. In the front was the bathtub-sized basin filled with water. Nemr recalls, “The moment itself was quite powerful. It was my first realization that Christian community is real, and it’s not merit-based.” Anyone, even him, could be included. Nemr started to feel out what this new spiritual path might mean for him while he kept his dance troupe going. The journey gave him fresh purpose to keep on going.

 

Keep on movin'. Photo gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Next: Improv with God. Part 6 of series

 

 

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