Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Report/Sundays In America - Spring

As I was driving to church on Easter Sunday, 2008, I heard Suzanne Strempek Shea on NPR discussing her book, and I went right to the bookstore after church and ordered myself a copy. When it arrived, and I saw she was going to visit one Christian church per week, I thought I would travel along with her, reading one entry every Sunday for a year.

This is one of those books I wish I'd written; and am surprised no one has done so before this. It is a perfectly wonderful idea. I'd loved to have sat alongside the author in all those pews, but reading the book is the next best thing. I am going to divide my book reports just as she divides her book, by the seasons. Today was the last Sunday in spring, and so I begin. I want to give a sense of each church, but I also want you to know there is more than I talk about. I want to whet your appetite so you, too, may read this marvelous book. I'm not always going to write in complete sentences; sometimes there will be fragments I jotted down each week.

In her introduction, Suzanne Strempek Shea tells about her childhood ride to church. She describes various focal points along the way, and then mentions "the dazzling white clapboard church at the top of the hill."

This was not the church to which we were headed. Ours was another half mile or so up the road. I wasn't certain what type of church the white one was, but I knew from an early age that it was not Catholic. So I always felt sorry for the people I saw walking up its stairs. As nice as they might look all dressed up in Sunday best, as kind and as good as they might be every day of the week, the sad truth was, they were going to hell. That was the fate of Protestants, I was taught at my parochial grammar school. ... The folks entering any other type might believe in God, but they somehow had the rest all wrong. The details weren't ever explained, but the big point was made: they were doomed, and if we kids ever so much as set foot inside one of their churches, so were we. Oh, and only after the ceiling caved in.

She decides to go on a "pilgrimage" to discover what goes on in those churches she was forbidden to enter in her childhood. She begins on Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday: New Mount Zion Baptist Church - New York, New York

I check for cracks [in the ceiling] announcing our presence, as I will in each and every church I attend this year. I see none - but it's early yet.

Great example of both her sense of humor and how what we are taught in early childhood lingers throughout our lives to some degree.

A church with kleenex on the windowsills - that's a church I'd like to belong to. Mostly I just cry at funerals, and especially during the hymns, and occasionally in a regular service, the words of a hymn or a prayer can bring tears to my eyes, but nothing, nothing like needing a kleenex.

Second week: Colorado Springs Cowboy Church - Colorado Springs, Colorado

I am thrilled by the church's name, having spent my childhood in one of two uniforms - that of Sts. Peter and Paul grammar school and the American cowgirl, switching each weekday afternoon from plaid jumper, clip-on bow tie, and beanie to fringed shirt, jeans, boots, five-gallon hat, and Annie Oakley holster.

Only one 'real' cowboy there, and he's the one without any cowboy garb.

Third week: First Baptist Church - Spartanburg, South Carolina

Belonging to this church is not a Sunday morning - forget about church the rest of the week kind of place. In the announcements, there are listed a "new friends" barbecue, a men's rafting trip, and a "tail-gatin" event for students, with the chaplain of the University of Georgia Bulldogs (a football team) as the guest speaker. Six thousand, yes you read that right, people go to the Sunday services. That is three times the population of my entire town. I simply cannot fathom that many people, all looking in the same direction, so to speak, all practicing the same beliefs.

A woman takes Suzanne under her wing as soon as she enters the church, bringing her to the pew.

Some people say 'I don't want to join First Baptist, it's too big.' But it's just that many more people to love you," she says, and grabs my right wrist in a hug.

Imagine being loved by six thousand people. Imagine knowing six thousand people. I simply cannot. But no wonder there are forty-two thousand U.S. churches. What a sense of belonging they must all have. And as I said, all sharing the same beliefs. I don't know anyone who shares the exact same beliefs with anyone else.

A little side note: In a state which is about 30% African American, there was one black man at the service attended by the author. She didn't judge. It was just an observation.

Fourth week: Arch Street Friends Meeting House - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The author kept waiting for the man who will "get things rolling" as she sits in the meeting house.

My frame of reference for the start of a worship service is the arrival of a male in symbol-bedecked floor-length garb. ... But after maybe ten minutes, I figure it out: the worship is already happening.

Honestly, could anything be so completely different from the week before? I don't think so. There is no one telling anyone what to believe or showing writings from the Bible to explain why. People occasionally speak, very briefly, but for the most part, there is stillness for an hour's time.

For someone who's never gotten past a few seconds of meditation, I'm really surprised by how time has flown, and how rich was this experience, a longer and quieter version of one of the things I like best about Mass - quiet time to reflect, renew, realize.

The reader learns a bit about Quakers, and about Philadelphia. There is a sign which says, "Philadelphia's religious history is the nation's." I was astounded to read of how very many denominations had their start in this city of Brotherly Love.

Fifth week: First Church of Christ, Scientist - Boston, Massachusetts

Another week, another vastly different experience. This seems to be a dying, or fading church. The building holds thousands, yet fewer than a hundred attend. No children, and the author soon finds out why; the service is boring to her, with lots of silent reading. Although I do not know much about this religion, I'm quite sure it is rather a self-sufficient one. There is a lot of study on one's own to learn about it.

Sixth week: St. Spyridon - Newport, Rhode Island

This week the author went to a Greek Orthodox church. She was pleased to see some paintings in the church after weeks of plain surroundings. It was odd because people came into the service at any time; there was no offering; and people blessed themselves whenever they felt moved to do so, not at regular times during the service. Most of the time the liturgy was sung. And when it came time for communion, the priest actually asked her friend if she was Orthodox. Only then may she receive. The non-Orthodox may go up afterwards and get a piece of bread, which is called "antidoron" meaning instead of the gift. Shea didn't get a sense of joy which she feels should be the heart and soul of the celebration. Perhaps it was just this particular church, since her converted friend's church isn't quite the same.

Seventh week: Cadet Chapel, United States Military Academy - West Point, New York

The author visits one of the five places of worship at West Point on Memorial Day, feeling it was a fitting place to be on that day which honors fallen soldiers. The service was listed as simply 'Protestant' and she liked the sermon, but there was nary a mention of the Iraq war or dead soldiers. This strikes Shea as very strange. So often in the rest of the country, the focus of Memorial Day is hooray, the start of summer. She thought here at least there would be prayers for the 2,474 soldiers who had died at that point. But no.

Eighth week: Trinity Evangelical Church - Peterborough, NH

A member of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Only 256 churches; formed in 1948 because of the liberal bent some people felt the Congregational Church had. The author doesn't get a sense of conservative politics here. The pastor, dressed in regular clothes, says:

... we welcome you. I don't know there are many places to come to and be told 'We're glad you're here.' If you don't hear me say anything else today, know that: We thank God you're here.

This is a people run congregation (hence, Congregational, I would guess) for whom there is no one between them and God. The author likes this "involvement."

Ninth week: Trinity Episcopal Church by-the-sea - Kihei, Maui, Hawaii

I think Hawaii must be a touch of Paradise. Warm air, beautiful, lavish foliage, and heavenly smelling flowers. I smelled a lei when I was in sixth grade, and I still remember it as the sweetest, most wonderful fragrance. The church was the ruins of the first Protestant church in Hawaii. There is open sky, and plants growing. The sound is that of birds. The minister's words that stay with Shea after the service are: "God has more love for you and this world than we will ever have hearts to receive." Like most Catholics, she must remark on the similarities between the Episcopal and Catholic churches. In fact, she recalls her uncle refuting her childhood admonition of not attending a Protestant church because "the roof would fall in." He said to her: "They only tell you that so you won't find out it's the same thing, only without all the hocus-pocus, confessing, all that."

Tenth week: South Royalton Ward Meetinghouse - South Royalton, Vermont

Wow, she goes from NH to Hawaii and back to VT. This Sunday she is among the Mormons. In my childhood, a neighborhood woman became a Mormon, and went looking up on the hill across the street for some lost book of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It turned out she had a mental problem, but in my little girl's mind, I always connected Mormons with this poor woman and her search. Shea tells us a bit of the history of this church: how over a few years time, God and his messengers appeared to Joseph Smith, who was born here, teaching him this new religion of which he became the founder. This particular service doesn't inspire the author, and in fact, simply bores her. But I liked the idea of fathers standing up on this Father's Day and talking about how they feel about being a father, and their love for their own fathers. I also rather like the radio and television ads for this church, with their emphasis on spending time with children and really taking care to help them through life's difficulties. I admire their refusal to drink alcohol or coffee, or smoke. And I think I've even read something about the Mormons and vegetarianism. That said, I don't know much more.

Eleventh week: St. Sebastian Catholic Church - Baltimore Maryland

I wondered how long it would be before this Catholic woman visited the church of her birth. She writes:

This is not your parents' Catholic Church. But if you're looking for an alternative, it might be yours.

The bishop is a woman and the priest gay. It is:

one of a small and growing number of churches created for those who desire a Catholic connection but are unwelcome for worship at a traditional Roman Catholic church.

The order of the service is the same, and the Communion is done the same way, but the heart of her time there is this:

Unabashed love is as much the structure of St. Sebastian's as the wood and bricks and mortar. And shouldn't that be the first fact in any church that claims to serve God?

So there we are, the eleven weeks of Spring visitations. Each week impressed me. Sometimes I was moved to tears by my feelings. Other times, I was unaffected and read it as a purely cerebral, oh that's interesting, kind of experience. I am so enjoying this weekly visit, this weekly learning.


  1. Nan, I'm so glad you are reviewing this book. I need to see if I can get a copy. I get only 4 Sundays a year off from my church, and usually we spend one or two of those at the church my son pastors, so I don't get much variety. I always wish I could keep my job and visit other churches as well. This might be a way to do it.

  2. I keep coming back to read parts of this post and it appeals to me on so many levels. Will have to get the book.

  3. I love this litle tour Nan. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to summer and possibly a Methodist church. :)

  4. I got this book after you mentioned it. I might join you for the summer tour, but I may just start from the beginning and read one a week like you have (out of season though). Thanks for sharing!

  5. Nan, does she travel around the country just to attend these churches or does she find a church when she is in the town visiting already? It is something I think I'd like to do.

  6. This has been on my TBR list since I heard about it. Now I will put it up at the top!

  7. I am so very pleased with each of your comments. This is such an incredibly interesting book. And as jar says, it appeals on many levels. I think you would all like it very much.
    Joyce, I think in your case it would be called a 'busman's holiday!' :<)
    Maggie, there is a Methodist church coming up the fourth Sunday in summer; in Enfield, Connecticut.
    Kay, you could always read the spring section straight through, and then begin the one Sunday at a time. I'd love to be 'with' you each Sunday.
    Janet, she seems to have a connection to some of the places; a friend in Hawaii, for example. Or she gets an idea like going to West Point for Memorial Day. I'd really like to do this, too. Even if one went to just one denomination, it would be interesting. Thanks for commenting, and it's good to have you back in the blogging world.
    Laura, I just know you will enjoy it.

  8. Fascinating - not something I'd be able to do, as I need to spend my time in one church, building up my relationships with the church family - but, to read, how interesting!


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