Today, Trinity Church on the Green, in New Haven
held its first Church Without Walls
, on New Haven Green. It was a much-heralded event, and one to which I looked forward: a lavish bag lunch was offered, and it was in the afternoon, when I had free time, the place was right. It promised to be an event of historic proportions: a return to the liberal Protestant social activism
of the 60's and 70's, a reconciliation of the tribes
and a chance to wrest the hearts and minds of the people from the narrow conservatism of the evangelicals
The problem is that the service seemed to be synched to a preconceived notion of who the homeless are and what they want to see in a religious service: simple hymns, based on spirituals, but contemporary, The Serenity Prayer and other 12-step touches, the you've-heard-this-one-right? 23rd Psalm, lay your burdens on the Lord, we're going outside the walls, bilingualism...OK, so in Boston, it was a roaring success. But....
In some ways, being homeless makes you a lot like most of the Middle-Eastern nomads, street folks, and the like that populate the Bible. King Nebuchadnezzar, who is arguably the richest man who features personally in the Bible, had only a middle-class standard of living, in modern American terms: what working Americans lack in gold and silver on their tables (and, of course, slaves and real estate) are more than made up for in having pantries full of food, closets full of clothes, warmth in the winter, coolness in the summer, plumbing, messengers that bring our words to the ends of the earth, transportation, the written word, medicine, and of course the products of modern banking. OK, so that's not me. (I've never taken care of sheep, either.) Like many people throughout the Bible, and in New Haven's homeless community, I've had to endure hunger, cold, robbers, sleeping outdoors for lack of safe haven elsewhere, and often, the feeling that I was living as a stranger in my own country.
It wasn't just one factor that made me leave -- it was all of them. I was cold. I was tired.(I was also a minute late, my bad.) Let's dispense with seats, and all stand! (Sorry, the ground is wet...and don't mind those tall, blonde, orthodontically-corrected Yale Bobos-to-be, blocking your view, they mean so well.) I felt talked down to. Let's sing some traditional/ we-just-made-them-up hymns! (Make up your mind, folks...) Gee, aren't we good people! Eh, we're going to be out in the sleet for you, poor souls, because you might not feel comfortable in our dark and spooky church (with the Louis Comfort Tiffany windows, the well-padded pews, and some shelter from the elements)! Lay down your burdens on Jesus, his yoke is light! (After hauling 35 lbs. all day, gravity worked just the same, and I felt unwilling to be pressed into service as a draft animal.) Let's say the Serenity Prayer! (I loathe 12-step programs, and the rooms they're held in.) Let's say the 23rd Psalm! (Why does everyone seem to think this is an easy poem to understand but me? As I said, I'm hazy on animal husbandry, and now I'm an edible draft animal?) By the time they got to the let's-all-go-round-the-circle-and-say-a-prayer, I felt like grubbing up lunch elsewhere, and left. (Eighty percent of all people past the age of twelve feel dreadfully put on the spot at these things, and try to say, with painful pauses, the boring details of what they think everyone else wants to hear, while the twenty percent or so who are natural performers, disinhibited, or just plain 'inspired by still, small, inner voices' tend to make everyone else feel uncomfortable.) I'd love to have the circular I gave back for my scrapbook, but I really don't think I'll be back.
Yes, I realize I'm not typical, by any means: I'm white, well-read and well-spoken, don't smoke, and have a position, albeit precarious, as a housekeeper for someone with a spare room. I have more than a lively spiritual life, suspended between O.T.O. mysticism and membership in Christ Church New Haven (plus, as you can see, a healthy lashing of skepticism in the British tradition). I believe that empowerment means empowerment, not "Surrender to a Higher Power". I believe that sugar-coating religion as therapy (or vice-versa) is to cheapen both. And I believe in the power of faith to transport, to inspire, and to transform even such a life as my own.
I realize that to many of those Bobos, even my own cultivated self would seem to be a member of a strange Third World tribe, that cannot intellectually comprehend ritual, can only see precious objects as a painful reminder of my own poverty, and can only think in terms of my own immediate (psycho-spiritual) needs. Therefore, I need familiar surroundings, nursery-rhyme lyrics, humble stories about beggars and talk about 'healing' in order that I might take more than a casual interest in their message. But I don't see it that way.
For as long as humans have had culture, religion has traded on people's sense of wonder: the vastness of the skies, the depths of inner space, the glory of song and image and word. Chauvet Cave is larger than a cathedral: even when people only had dirt and bare rock with which to express their faith, they did so with bold strokes and monumental images, life-sized horses and rhinos and big cats. In this season, sliding into Advent, the readings are from Revelation, with its lapidary depiction of cities of glass and gold, gates of pearl, doorways of precious stones. This is the imagery that spoke to people in an age when scarcity, not plenty, was the rule -- the modern response to it is more an expression of guilt for upper-middle-class America's own preciosity, not any real "kindness to the downtrodden". If there is to be a ministry to the homeless, let them be given the most awe-inspiring services imaginable, readings from Isaiah and Revelation and the Song of Solomon, the most ravishing, emotionally gripping music from the choir.
And then, lunch. With waitstaff. And chairs.
I hear next week, they'll sing "Kumbaya". Oh, brother....