Friday, March 29, 2013
Sundays in America
Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
© 2008 Suzanne Strempek Shea
The outpouring of devotion that followed Pope John Paul II's death stirred Suzanne Shea: why hadn't she felt like that in a long, long time? And how -- where -- could she experience such an intensity of religious feeling again? And so, armed with a seeker's desire to find That Something Out There, as well as impressive traveling budget, she spent a year visiting American churches, one each Sunday (and some few on Saturdays, the 'traditional' Sabbath), touring communities both close to home in New York, and as far as Hawaii. The churches ranged from the huge to the humble, and spanned every denomination you've heard of and some you couldn't have possibly imagined, Taking notes, Sundays in America is her chronicle of that year of church-shopping, one which allows readers to play voyeur, experiencing the services and beliefs of churches they're curious about, but would never go into -- and one which might provoke thoughts to what they're looking for at church.
I've read a work like this before, in Hemant Mehta's I Sold my Soul on eBay. A Jain-turned-atheist, Mehta wanted to explore Christianity, but figured...why do it for free? He offered his church attendance for sale on eBay, and the winner -- interested in reaching out to nonbelievers -- asked him to visit fifty Christian churches of all kinds and critique them so that Christians could learn what they might do better. Mehta liked energetic services with easily understood messages, exemplified in Joel Osteen's megachurch, and panned both high-church liturgical services and low-church bible-thumping. Shea approaches churches from a different angle, however, as someone who believes the faith, yearns to feel it more fully, but has never ventured to do so before because the nuns who raised her threatened her with hellfire for even visiting another church. Here, she visits an astonishing variety of churches, from the standard American faiths (Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist) to quirky up-and-comers (Mormons) to the bizarre (a church which worshiped God and John Coltrane). *A handful of niche churches, like the chapel at West Point, are included as well. The author took care on some Sundays to choose an appropriate church: she visits the West Point chapel on Memorial Day, for instance, and a kooky Christian Spiritualist community on All Saints' Day.
Shea's account quickly revealed her personal tastes to be simple, but refined: she recoils from huge productions like Joel Osteen's megachurch, stares glumly at the unadorned walls and unfrocked preachers in Protestant churches, and finds the focus of some congregations on spiritual warfare (fighting actual...demons?) and hate-campaigning to be flabbergastingly strange and distasteful. More to her style are the meditative services of the Quakers, or those of Catholic-like denominations, with formal liturgies and generous decor. But she appreciates some of the novelties, as well: the intense emotional energy of places like New Mount Zion Baptist church and their enthusiastic inclusion of the congregants in the service as doing more than repeating lines appeals to her. For Shea, a this-world spiritual approach is paramount: she delights in churches with social programs like food pantries, and scorns those that only focus on helping their attendees avoid God's Imminent Wrath.
I found Sundays in America quite engaging, as the author and I seem to look for many of the same things in a faith community, in regards to the emphasis on helping others and the abscence of hate politics. Her story allowed me to find out a bit more about a few denominations, amused me with some of its bizaare visits, made me appreciate having escaped my childhood Pentecostal background by forcing me to revisit it, and stirred me with her accounts of visiting the Quakers and a few other groups whose emphasis on simplicity and mindfulness I greatly appreciate.
For those curious about the varieties of Christian religious experiences, this could prove very much worth your while.
* I used to say I went to the First Church of Frank (Sinatra), joking that we sang the Voice's standards and read devotions from The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Living. Finding out that a church existed that actually did that, with another artist, was startling to say the least...