When I woke up this morning, I was not sure what kind of worship experience I wanted to have. I decided I would crowdsource – calling on my Facebook friends to help me make a decision. I posted the following as my Facebook status:
Y’all want to help me pick a spot to visit for this week’s My52WOW- BK experience?
- Brooklyn Society For Ethical Culture -an inclusive humanist community that focuses on both social justice and personal growth.
- Zen Center of New York City – Each Sunday they offer a program that includes liturgy, beginning instruction in zazen (Zen meditation), zazen, and a talk by the teacher or senior student. The Sunday morning services introduces the practice of Zen and gives you a feeling for how training takes place in the Mountain and Rivers Order.
- Church of Gethsemane: a Presbyterian church that was created by and for incarcerated persons, formerly incarcerated persons, their families, neighborhood persons and people who feel called into ministry with the poor.
A few hearty friends weighed in — and in a thoughtful fashion, one asking “where is your head this morning? What kind of experience do you need? (I have amazing friends!)
When the count was over, the tally of suggestions were:
- Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture: 2
- Zen Center of New York City: 2
- Church of Gethsemane: 9
- 1 or 3: 1
- 2 or 3 (leaning towards 3): 1
When it became clear that The Church of Gethsemane was in the lead, I asked:
“Now I’m curious why everyone is saying 3. So interesting. Anyway, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate”the help!”
Some responses that caught my eye were…
- “…when I saw 2, I first thought I need that Zen. Then I read 3. And it feeds the soul. Esp(ecially) in this day and time, understanding redemption and second chances is critical. And community and supporting one another is necessary.”
- “I am fascinated by (The Church of Gethsemane). Sounds like a “faith with works” kind of ministry.”
- “(The Church of Gethsemane) drew me in immediately.”
Told you I have thoughtful friends!
So, setting the intention that I would visit the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture and the Zen Center of New York City in the future, I prepared to visit The Church of Gethsemane, which I discovered in Week 5 when I visited The Rock Blossom Sangha, which meets in the church’s basement.
Like my friends who were drawn to the church’s mission, I too was excited to be in the presence of a congregation that was being so intentional about helping those who may need some help – and that others in society may not be so quick to help.
I walked in, and was only one of a few. I was immediately greeted by several kind members of the congregation wanting to know who I was and why I was there. I let them know that I was just visiting, and in typical My52WOW fashion, tried to draw as little attention to myself as possible. It was clear this was a true community – people were greeting each other warmly. There were many exclamations of gratitude as it appeared that one of the members had been ill for quite some time and was back in church on this particular Sunday. People seemed genuinely happy to see her and thankful for her recovery.
In some ways, the service was like the myriad of services I have attended in the past – there was singing, a call to worship, a sermon, announcements, an offering was collected.
But there were other aspects of the service that were certainly remarkable – letters read from individuals who are presently incarcerated, sharing their stories, their thanks for the church, and their promises to seek out the church when they are released so they can be of service too. There were announcements about individuals currently on death row – the bulletin stated that there are presently 3095 people on death row in the United States. Names were read of those who were scheduled to be executed in the month of July. There was a moment of silence and prayers for “peace, healing, and strength for the family and friends of those on death row…as well as the family and friends of their victims.” Because this was a Christian church, the prayer was that “those on death row may come to find peace through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if they have not already.”
Suffice it to say, there was one thought running through my mind the entire time I was at the service.
This was, in fact, #5 of The 52 Things I Learned During My (First) 52 Weeks of Worship:
I was further humbled when the congregation, as many congregations do, took some time to share their struggles and their victories. The stories ranged for stories of concerns for loved ones, requests for prayers by those who were trying to walk through challenging situations, and sharing gratitude for positive steps made forward in the lives of church members and their loved ones.
I sat and listened, thinking of all the things that I belly-ache about from time to time, and I thought: the stakes here are so much higher, and amid all of that, a community has come together to take care of each other, help each other, and ensure that nobody feels discarded or beyond forgiveness or redemption. To underscore that everyone is a child of God and worthy of a second chance. That no one is regarded as “expendable, worthless, or useless” – these are words that came from one of the prayers that we prayed during the service.
I am not one to compare pain. Everyone has challenges, everyone goes through things, everyone is put to the test in this life. There are consequences to every single decision that one might choose to make. But, certainly the playing field is not always level, and that has consequences as well. And as I sat in that congregation, all I could feel were waves of gratitude for my life, for the experiences I have had and the people who love and care for me, even in the times where I may feel alone.
In Week 43 of my book, I discuss how I spent some time serving in the prison ministry of my home church in Chicago, now about 20 years ago:
I was taken back to a time when I volunteered in the Prison Ministry at my home church, Trinity. Weekly, we would visit men in a specific program within the prison. We were not allowed to ask them why they were in prison. Our purpose was to see these men as members of the community who were paying their debt to society for whatever transgressions they had made. We were there to help them as they were preparing to make a new start when they were released.
Every week, I visited the prison, went through the security procedures, left all my valuables with the guard, and participated in discussions with this subset of the prison population who had high promise for clean futures.
Until one day.
During our visit, a prisoner escaped from another section of the prison. A uniformed officer came to share with our group that we were “on lockdown,” and there would be “no movement.”
Unsure of what that meant, I asked one of my fellow ministry partners, and found out that we wouldn’t be able to leave until the situation with the escaped prisoner was under control.
Let’s just say, I wasn’t thrilled about that.
Our hour-long session turned into multiple hours, just sitting and talking with these individuals. I was scared that we would be in prison forever, and then mentally chided myself for feeling that way. No matter what, eventually we would go home, but—for the prisoners in this facility—there was no going home at the end of a nice chat session.
Hours later, we were allowed to leave. I went to my car, exhausted and a bit disappointed in myself—and that was my last visit to the Cook County Jail with our Prison Ministry.
I never said I was perfect.
All I could think about when I was sitting in the pews of The Church of Gethsemane is, “Do Better.”
My heart was speaking to me, saying Do Better, Help More, Do More. Because to whom much is given, much is expected. And in this life, I have been blessed with much.
When it was time for visitors to be recognized, unsurprisingly, I was the only one. I was given a microphone, and I shared that I was new-ish to Brooklyn, and that I was worshipping with them as part of My 52WOW-BK journey. I told them that I was honored to spend some time with such a powerful ministry, and I meant it. I kept it together, but really I was overcome with emotion. Because my project is one thing, but these folks in this church are doing the work. God’s work. It was such a different feeling than I had as I contemplated the evangelism that was part of the message at The Brooklyn Tabernacle the weeek prior. It was a feeling that this is what it is all about. God helping us to help each other and help ourselves. Even as we individually, and collectively walk through dark times, challenging times.
I spoke to the pastor and a few of the parishioners after the service. I was offered food, help, MTA cards, a ride to church – all types of assistance – things that might make me feel comfortable that this could be a church home. I thought about all the places of worship that I have visited and how I would really like to figure out how to support this ministry in the future. I will figure out something. Because this project is not just about dipping in and out of worship communities without connection. When a ministry speaks to my heart, as this one did, it would be a terrible thing for me to ignore that.