Posts Tagged “church”
(my notes on Where The Two Roads Meet, by Christopher Vecsey)
The demise of Indians as obstacles to American expansion made them objects of commiseration to romantics and other sympathizers. (p. 96)
[The current term for the Catholic Church's attempts to missionize is inculturation, the idea being inculturation good, syncretism bad...]
“If inculturation is the evangelists’ systematic and conscientious effort to translate the universal message of the gospel into the religious categories of the target society, then syncretism is the inverse process by which those who have been evangelised try to retain vestiges of their own religion, not so much in opposition to the Christians as in reclothing the accepted tokens of Christianity in the appropriate aboriginal religious forms.” Manuel M. Marzal The Indian Face of God in Latin America, quoted in Vecsey, Two Roads (p. 143)
I am MUCH more interested in syncretism than inculturation. it seems to me that inculturation is simply the next step in colonialism: deciding for the other what of their own traditions can be worked into the replacement religion. The syncretism of AfricanAmerican, Haitian, Cuban Christianity is its power and richness, and that power teaches me and deepens my faith, not as a member of any of those cultures, but as a way of opening up the multiple mysteries of the Gospel.
An anthopologist uses the phrase “imperialist nostalgia” to describe the new evangelism of the contemporary Church. [Kozak, David. "Ecumenical Indianism: Kateri and the Invented Tradition"] Anthropologist Michael Angrosino says “there is an underlying assumption that inculturation is something that the Vatican, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, is in a position to grant; it is calling people to the truth and only uses cultural forms to induce people to heed that calling.”
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(my notes on Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, a collection of essays edited by James Treat)
The Christian church is made up of creatures on a planet that revolves around a small sun, in a small galaxy that is only a small part of the cosmos. As our knowledge of our creation grows and as our search for meaning expands, can we really continue to believe that the truth that forms the basis for our faith is exclusive or that God has chosen to reveal truth only to Christians? At the same time, does the realization of other truths have to mean that the rich history, tradition, and faith in the truth of Jesus Christ is any less vital? I do not think so.
We must begin to discover the vast, mutual ethical basis of religious experience and begin carving out theology with peoples of different faiths. We must begin to share our faith, not as a tool of conversion, but as a means of mutual spiritual growth in which learning becomes as important as teaching. We must begin to share in spiritual understandings, spiritual expressions, and even spiritual beliefs, not to convert, but to grow in understanding. We are compelled to do this not only out of self-interest (to strengthen our faith) but that in this sharing, we along with others may grow in our understanding of God’s purpose for creation.
from Indian Spirituality, Another Vision, by James L. West (Baptist Cheyenne)
in Treat, Native and Christian (p. 36)
the idea of three Testaments: the Hebrew Scriptures, Native American Tradition, and the New Testament, that there are perhaps multiple “Old Testaments” that can assume a similar role for Christianity as the Hebrew Scriptures… articulated by Steve Charleston (Episcopal Choctaw) in “The Old Testament of Native America”
the idea that the Native Americans are the Canaanites to the Israelite/Europeans, the indigenous people who must convert or be destroyed, who are the original inhabitants of the promised land, proposed by Robert Allen Warrior (Osage, Methodist) Response from William Baldridge (Cherokee, Baptist) tells the story of the Canaanite women who comes to Jesus to beg for healing for her child, who dares to say “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Baldridge says: “What happens next is a miracle: The Son of Yahweh is set free. The son of the god of Canaanite oppression repents. Jesus not only changes his mind, he changes his heart. He sees her as a human being and answers her as such. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly… and so, I believe, were the wounds of bitterness in the Canaanite woman.”
There is real concern among the reservation traditions of the impact and meaning of spreading the tribal teaching to anyone who has a spiritual or emotional need. The belief has always been that the Great Spirit and/or the high spirits are also watching others and they will provide the proper religious insights and knowledge to others. Therefore it behooves Indians to obey the teachings of their own traditions and hold them close. If they were meant for other people, the other people would have them. Such thinking has prevented most tribes from engaging in religious imperialism, and the humility underlying this attitude is admirable. (Vine Deloria, Jr. Yankton Sioux historian)
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I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.
I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!
We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.
On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.
Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.
We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!
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The ferry at New Roads was closed, so I had to drive down to the bridge at Baton Rouge and then back up to St. Francisville, where I found an RV Park right next to the Audubon History Site and talked Bill the owner into letting me set up my hammock in the back. Bill introduced me to Luke, a delightful man, a biker (of both kinds) who turned out to be the ideal host and companion for exploring St. Francisville. He shares my affection for history and churches of both the natural and man-made kinds, and because he has biked all the roads around here, he really knows where all the good stuff is. He also took me out for really excellent meals: you can taste the Cajun influence already, that’s for sure!
This RV park is a whole different experience than staying in a state park. Most of the people here are contract workers building bridges and roads nearby, so no-one is on vacation. Luke is the exception: he is retired, lives in Baton Rouge, and his trailer here functions as his house in the country. Both nights as I set up in my hammock, I overheard two guys sitting out around a fire talking, and even though I didn’t listen for all the details, the sense of a particularly male anxiety was palpable even in the snippets I did hear: talk of work and money and the effort to win the approval of fathers. These guy-guys definitely do not have it easy, and it helps me to understand where that weird America-first anti-immigration political rage comes from even though it’s misguided and confused about the actual economic roots of these guys’ insecurity. It must be terribly lonely to be a man in this sort of milieu: a wife and children are responsibilities, not companions. Awful for men, awful for women, I really wonder how this model has lasted so long.
Thursday afternoon I went over for a tour of the Oakley Plantation, the house where John James Audubon worked as a tutor for four months, during which he painted the first 32 plates of Birds of America.
Not quite Rilke in Duino Castle writing the Sonnets and Elegies
in a white heat after ten years of writer’s block, but pretty damn close! Audubon was in his mid-thirties, with a wife and children, and pretty much bankrupt and a failure when he headed out here and took this tutoring job and began his incredible project. Seeing his little bedroom here, walking in the woods he ranged to find birds to model for his paintings, was a really moving experience.
I had not really thought in advance that of course this place he was living was a plantation powered by 250 slaves. The oddly unfriendly woman who gave me the tour pointed out the master bedroom tub, a metal basket shaped sort of like an upright half-papaya with the seeds removed. The only way a person could sit in this tub would be spread-eagled and helpless to move or get out, except with the help of another person: the slave attendant, of course. I keep trying to make sense of the implications of having that level of intimacy and dependence on a person you don’t even regard as fully human, a person you own the way you own a car or an iPod. I begin to feel like an ignorant innocent: this is not a fun sexy little game of BDSM, this stuff is for real, and I begin to understand what obscenity really is.
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I spent a few days in Natchez camping at the state park just out of town and alternating working at the library and the cafe during the days. Natchez is one of those towns that revels just a little bit too much in its own beauty, if you know what I mean. If it were a person, it would not be able to pass a mirror without admiring itself. But it was a great place to hang out these gray rainy days: comfortable and well-equipped places to be indoors, an attractive downtown to wander around for an afternoon walk, and an empty and peaceful park not far from town where I could hang my hammock for cozy nights. Although one night my headlamp caught the eyes of some biggish creature who wanted to come out of the ravine near my hammock to check out the dirty dishes I had left out to be rinsed by the rain. I was already zipped into the hammock, so I yelled and kicked at the tarp and made enough ruckus to scare it away. I finally feel like I am officially no longer solely an urban person, ’cause I was happily asleep a few minutes later.
On Wednesday, I crossed the Natchez bridge and made my way down the roads closest to the west side of the river: I was too wimpy to bike in the cold and wet, so I drove very slowly through this lightly settled area: it’s the place where the Red and the Atchafalaya join the Mississippi, and the Corps of Engineers has a network of control structures designed to prevent the Mississippi from joining the Atchafalaya instead, which would leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans orphaned. I remember reading about it in John McPhee’s book, The Control of Nature, but to actually see this Herculean and (according to many scientists and engineers) doomed effort was pretty intense. (You can read more about it and see some pictures here.)
And then I suddenly came upon St. Stephen’s Church, a gorgeously maintained little Episcopal church and cemetery that would perhaps look more at home in an Old or New England town than way out in this strange forsaken place dotted with a billion dollars worth of hulking dams, miles of sugarcane, and signs for Angola Prison on the other side of the river. The church was consecrated and named for the first martyr by “the Fighting Bishop,” Leonidas Polk, whose name came up as long ago as Columbus, Kentucky. (It was he who invaded previously neutral Kentucky, which then asked for Federal troops to defend the state, which ended up putting it in Union hands for the rest of the war.) Polk seems to me an inexplicably complex character: almost completely incompetent as a general, but beloved by his men nonetheless, he was also a rich planter who owned five hundred slaves. Five hundred slaves. I’ve never read a sermon justifying slavery by a person like Bishop Polk, and I think it would have to be kind of fascinating to watch the moral contortions.
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After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!
I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!
Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.
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It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.
On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.
I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.
In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.
(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)
At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.
And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!
But that’s not all!
My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.
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I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.
I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.
I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.
The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!
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I had planned to go to Al Green’s church on Sunday in Memphis before the Mormon opportunity came up, so right after the Mormon service I headed over to the other side of town to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Al Green has been presiding for thirty-five years. Luckily, the service started at 11:30, a deeply civilized hour for church, and it was everything you might imagine Al Green’s church would be: incredible singing, an outrageously excellent band, dancing in the aisles, powerful preaching, a warm welcome to us visitors sitting in the back pews, and that feeling, that wonderful feeling of God’s love repairing every rift, wiping every tear, that radical righting of every wrong that the black church embodies in every gesture, every utterance. When I was taking care of my mother, I listened to gospel music at full volume every single day. It’s what got me through the hardest time of my life. And while I don’t honestly know whether the Full Gospel Tabernacle would actually welcome someone like me any more than the Mormons would, the fact is that not one word that was said there on Sunday locked me out or pushed me away. I’ve been reading a book called The Theology of American Popular Music which helps me understand why I love the black church so much. I really may end up there for good one of these days, who knows?!
A couple of months ago, a generous stranger wrote to me and told me about the research the geo-physicist Maria Beatrice Magnani is doing on the faults that lie under the Mississippi River, so I sent her an email and we met up Sunday afternoon for a really amazing and interesting coffee. I hope to have more to tell you about all this down the line, but in the meantime I just want to expostulate about how great it is to meet another river-lover, from Umbria of all excellent places!, who is a really fine scientist with the soul of an artist. How cool is that?!
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The last week has been a very different experience from the whole river trip so far. Last Sunday afternoon, when I paddled in to the Shelby Forest boat ramp about twenty miles above Memphis, Mary had met a couple, David and Shawna, who live in Memphis and had come up to Shelby Forest on a Sunday afternoon fall outing. It turns out that David is a real, honest-to-goodness riverboat pilot, straight from the pages of Life on the Mississippi. How’s that for a busman’s holiday: heading to the nearest boat ramp on your day off? David has been piloting towboats on the lower Mississippi (and the Orinoco, too) for something like 35 years. And he’s a literary pilot, a poet and a real reader. How cool is that?! And Shawna is a musician, she plays the cello, as well as being a nurse, and her uncle is a mandolin maker in Vermont who Mary knows, so it really felt like we had run into members of our extended family out there on the boat ramp. David had read the article about me in the New York Times, but hadn’t gotten around to emailing me — clearly, that wasn’t necessary: the river gods had already decided we should meet.
So Wednesday, after Mary left, (a million thanks, Mary, for an amazing time!) I headed over to David and Shawna’s house, and I’ve been there for almost a week! It’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere on the trip so far, and I really needed the break, partially because I had some non-river-project work I needed to catch up on, and also because I wanted some reading time to get oriented to the southern part of the journey, and David’s library is full of exactly the books I want to read. And even though I’m staying in the same place, sleeping happily with Fred the cat every night, I must say I’ve been having some amazing adventures.
It happens that Shawna has decided to join the Mormon Church, and Saturday was her baptism. She generously invited me to come to the ceremony, so Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the appointed time, and was met at the door by a beautiful young man named Elder Bird, who was dressed all in white and barefoot. It became clear that Elder Bird was the one who would be baptizing Shawna. The service was done in a small chapel that has a pool behind sliding doors, which are opened for the actual immersion. There were some hymns, people testified in a deeply heartfelt way (there were lots of statements that began “I know…”), David read a beautiful translation of Rilke he had made, (I’ll try to post it soon), and the whole ceremony was a very compelling combination of simple, specific ritual and informal, sincere preaching.
At the reception afterwards, Elder Bird and his fellow missionary, Elder Meyers, began to explain some things about how the Mormon Church is structured: for example, there are no paid clergy, the Bishops and Presidents and so on are lay leaders, the missionaries have to raise the money to support themselves on their two-year travels. Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon do not supplant the Old and New Testaments, but are meant to extend the Bible, perhaps not unlike Mohammed’s approach to Christianity in early Islamic faith? (How much trouble am I in now?!?) Congregations are determined by street address: you are put into a particular ward when you register. There are three services at this particular church (at 9 and 11 am and 1 pm each Sunday,) and it’s determined which one you go to based on your address, not on personal choice or any other affinities.
All this, plus the authentically warm welcome I received from every single person there, made me decide I would go back for the Sunday 9 am service with Shawna. (David is not likely to convert to Mormonism any time soon.) It was fascinating. I really think that Mormonism might be the most quintessentially (white) American religion I have come across. The lay leadership, the multiple testimonies, with their curious echoes of Quaker and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are part of it. The fact that happiness is central to the religion is another striking thing. Happiness?! Straight out of the Declaration of Independence, but hardly mentioned in any church I’ve ever gone to. (I just checked. The word “happiness” does not appear in the NRSV of the New Testament at all. The word “happy” appears precisely once in the NT, to describe how the tax-collector Zacchaeus felt when Jesus consented to visit him.) And check this out: I would swear the bread of the eucharist was Pepperidge Farm white bread and the wine is of course water, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol.
The other striking thing is that family is elevated to being right up there with God. There is the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. And then there’s the other Trinity of God, spouse, and children. It’s powerful, people. And all the church groups are gender-based from childhood. Powerful.
I understand in a new way how gayness really messes everything up for these folks. Not so much because of sex, but because it disrupts the clarity of gender roles. Would you put both women of the lesbian couple into the women’s group, or send one to the men’s group? How would any of this get decided without breaking the whole neat and tidy structure? So, yes, you just have to reject gay people because the structure rests on a very clearly delineated set of assumptions which cannot easily be altered.
And I’ll tell you, I sat there in church feeling very strange and terribly lonely. There’s something very excellent about having this whole edifice to reinforce intact families and spousal love, aligning the messy strange difficulties of human love with the eternal love of God. It’s really a great idea to have this whole network of traditions and people to help you make sense of intimacy with your God, and with your beloved, and with your children. And there’s no way on earth I could ever participate in any of this. And my heart goes out to my gay ex-Mormon friends: I begin to get a glimpse of how awful it must be to be forced out of this clean, well-lighted place, away from these otherwise completely generous and lovely people, and into a world where each of us has to figure it out on our own.
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