Communion with our homeless brethren at the Nazarene Church in Berlin, Wedding

Evangelische Alte Nazareth-Kirchengemeinde Berlin – Wedding

Protestant Congregation in Wedding, Berlin

Church on Leopoldplatz

Beggars and panhandlers are a common sight in Berlin, enough to provide a daily dose of ethical and social quandry. I don’t know whether they are all homeless, or why they are begging. One young man who I frequently see during the day near my stop, face down prostrate with his open hands held up, a sign asking for vegan food. Another older man who has no hands, sits in the evenings, arms outstretched, no sign needed. I see the same ones now over time, know their routes and their ‘Spiels’ as they ask for money, deposit bottles, donations for the homeless newspaper, or another request. If I gave every single one a Euro every time they asked, I would indeed go broke pretty quickly. I read several articles about how to deal compassionately and humanely with panhandlers, and the first suggestion is usually to look them in the eye and acknowledge their humanity, even when saying one could not give money. I had mostly positive results with this approach, except a few cases like where one woman shouted me down, calling me a liar when I said I had no money. I am practicing how to be compassionate and loving without putting myself at risk. Some days in Berlin, the cigarette butts, graffiti on every surface, people spitting everywhere, the smell of it all…just makes me want to retire to the countryside far from any other human.

The mailbox on my street: From -Eff You to Finding the Impossible
Nothing is Impossible – the mailbox down the street

But some days, my heart is so bursting open with joy and love for my fellow humankind that I’m like a walking wound, with no skin—like my heart is so open to the teeming humanity around me that I can barely tell the difference between myself and the armless beggar, or the poor vegan. What I then considered, was just giving them all hugs. A renewable resource, those hugs after-all… The urge arose deep within me to embrace them, acknowledge their humanity, as it still shines through the brokenness of their particular situations. You know those people who hold up ‘Free Hugs’ signs…? But that would be crazy to do with homeless people, right? They often stink of excrement, are dirty, they are the reason people I know try not to touch anything in the metro, keeping one hand ‘clean,’ using only one hand to grip the handles. Once I, and at least 15 other people abandoned a subway car for another because the stench of rotting human emanating from a homeless man was so overpowering. Our sick, wounded, handicapped, addicted, homeless, jobless fellow humans—for whatever reason, they keep reminding us of our own condition—they’re just farther out on the spectrum. How many of us are one paycheck away from the street?  

The Protestant Alte Nazarenerkirche, or Old Nazarene Church in Wedding (built in 1832) stands in the middle of Leopoldplatz, where almost every other day of the week there is some kind of market or festival. It really is the center of town, the village square. Thousands of people pass by this church daily, if you count the two metro lines running underneath the square, you could get into the hundreds of thousands. And yet on a Sunday after Easter, there were barely 20 people at the communion service at 10am, including pastor and organ player, and two of them clearly belonged to the homeless community.

There was an organist accompanying the service, the pastor sat down and sang with us as our small troupe attempted to sight-read the hymns. The atmosphere was cosy, welcoming, informal and safe. Chocolate Easter bunnies were laid out on the table set for the after-service coffee hour.

The pastor was young. Very young. And he addressed this issue in his sermon about how difficult it is to be young and openly Christian in Berlin, a city where 60% of residents are non religious, and only 30% identify as Christian. He described being at parties, events, gatherings or any other place where people under the age of 50 congregate, and what a show-stopper it is to say that one is Christian—much less a minister. I can relate. I went to Seminary myself, and continue to experience the buzz-kill that can occur when it comes up in conversation. It is definitely not cool to be Christian in many circles, that much is clear. If I had a dollar for every date I’ve been on where when the topic arises of my having almost been ordained, a lengthy explanation must follow—I could feed that vegan for a week. Despite Joel Olsteen and other highly successful popular “people-who-make-their-living-preaching” folks, we’ll call them, it remains a decidedly uncool profession in many strata of modern society. I’ve learned to deal with the hail of preconceived notions that might come hurtling down upon me when this issue comes up in certain contexts, but it’s still an ongoing project.

The pastor continued in his sermon about how it is not only difficult to openly stand by one’s faith, but to act upon it—doing good deeds and living out the Christian precepts of loving thy neighbour is always challenging. He gave the example of how we pass by the beggars and homeless in the streets, and avoid them in the metro because they smell, and yet they are our brothers and sisters. My ears were ringing! 

At the end of the service everyone rose to receive communion. As we stood in a small semi-circle around the altar, across from me I saw the homeless woman who lives on Leopoldplatz, who I’ve also taken communion with at another church down the street. I’ve often seen half-clothed and consciousness and half covered by some dirty blankets somewhere around Leopoldplatz, but today she was standing upright, sipping from the chalice as I did. To my left was another homeless gentleman who looked to me for guidance on the communion procedure. I looked to the lady to my right, as I was also there for the first time. After dipping my wafer in some juice, and eating it as the others did before me, the pastor closed the circle by taking hands with those standing next to him, and saying a prayer. We all followed and as I grasped the dirty hand of my brother to my left smiling, I thought, this works. This is my hug. One step at a time, for now.

the altar where we are all one

 

 

Catholic Chapel in Playa del Carmen – Mexico

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo

I was missing the sun as Spring in Berlin was taking her sweet time to arrive. So I began thinking about Mexico, the Caribbean sun and the beaches, and the lovely time I had there in 2017. I didn’t have much time to see everything that the amazing Yucatan Peninsula has to offer, but I started flying into Cancún and going down the coast via Puerto Morales, to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and then across the peninsula to Mérida, Valladolid and seeing some pyramids along the way. Well, to be precise: seeing one of the new seven wonders of the modern world! Yes, Chichén Itzá really is pretty awesome. Despite it being a gazillion degrees, and there being a gazillion other tourists competing for selfie space, yes, it is truly amazing and worth the visit. 

Safety in Mexico

Don’t be too alarmed by the bad news that often makes its way out of Mexico, aimed especially at US tourists. There is certainly plenty of shady dealings happening in Mexico, but my experience as a white female traveler there was one of being very privileged, safe and secure. I can highly recommend travel in Mexico, while taking the usual precautions mentioned in many great travel blog guides. There were a lot of tourist and municipal police patrolling the tourist areas, although someone told me that they are often not very well-armed and are there more often than not to deal with drunken tourists, rather than locals being any type of threat to said tourists.

I didn’t rent a car while there either, which—as in every country—increases your chances of having encounters with law enforcement and corruption. I took the ubiquitous taxis around the city, and hired a driver to take me to visit some nice cenotes, and then hired the same driver to take me to my next city. He was lovely and friendly, and brought his wife and child along for the last leg, as they were going shopping afterwards. There seemed to be way more drivers than customers, so everyone and their brother was giving their card and trying to hustle for the next gig, so keep that in mind, and as usual, always ask about the fare beforehand. 

Playa del Carmen

I stayed in Playa del Carmen (Playa for short) for five nights, at a humble little Airbnb in the northern end of the city, in the high 80s street number-wise. I was able to walk to the beach and head northwards, finding a beautiful fresh-water cenote that flowed into the sea. Walking ‘to town’ for dinner didn’t take long, and although I found the main drag la Quinta (5th Avenue) to be a rather dreaded mix of drunken-tourist-trap cum hipster-hippie-commercialism, I kept finding myself drawn there, walking the length of the Quinta several times.

standard tourist trap store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa Del Carment
Standard tourist store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa
Religious figurines for sale on la Quinta

La QuintaYou can buy anything, and I mean anything, with no prescription in the pharmacies that line La Quinta—they seem to specialise in the viagra—and all the stores, bars, restaurants compete for your attention with different types of music blasting out onto the street, competing with the wandering mariachi troubadours. At some point I had had enough, and looked at the map in search of a church, and its promised quiet and respite from the La Quinta scene.

Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen

the side view of the chapel

I found a little chapel listed on the far southern side of town where I had not yet been, and hailed a cab. My limited Spanish allowed a conversation with the driver who knew where the chapel was, I found out that he was a Mormon himself, and had converted from catholicism after meeting Mormon missionaries. 

The chapel was well-maintained and freshly painted, and upon entering….full of music pumped in by loudspeaker! I guess they also had to compete for ambience. The altar area was backed by a window looking out onto Los Fundadores Park and the iconic Portal Maya, a 50 ft. high, arched beachside sculpture depicting men and women in a swirl of water and wind right on the beach.

The Portal Maya next to the beach, next to the chapel
Entry to chapel
program, English for ya’lls!
tourist police keeping everyone safe, including limbless beggar

Sign on chapel saying:

“Currently considered as a symbol of identity and foundation of Playa del Carmen, Nuestra Señora del Carmen Chapel was built around 1960s by founding families of Playa del Carmen stones of Maya ruins, sand and sea water were used for its construction.” Sign dated 14 November 2015

the chapel interior

The setting is striking and beautiful, and the chapel does represent the best of the area. The chapel walls inside had very interesting shell-lamps too, which I thought might look good on my dream-villa that I will build someday. Right next to the chapel is a park which leads to the beach and pier. There was an art fair happening, and I found some lovely local products for gifts, and came across some nuns, selling handmade cosmetics. Totally my thing! I’m all about nuns having fun.

beautiful shell lamps
Nuns selling their goods at the art fair next door in the park

In fact, I can’t wait to return to Mexico. I could eat tacos every day. In fact, I did while I was there! My record was eating three meals in one day that involved corn tortillas. There is so much more to explore in Mexico, and I am working on some posts about the rest of my trip, especially the highlight – La Ruta Conventa!

Jehovah’s Witnesses

For years I was being chased by Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to hereafter as JWs). One day I finally went to see them. Freely, willingly, on my own terms. 

There isn’t a corner of the world which hasn’t been covered by missionaries from this religious group, known for their door-to-door evangelism. They are also popularly known for conscientious objection to military service, refusal of blood transfusions and to salute the flag. Most people come in contact with them in (at least here in Europe) in public transport where they stand around in groups at stations distributing their Watchtower magazine and other religious literature. 

There were the times when the JWs came knocking at my sister’s house in Pennsylvania and my then 8-year old niece was pretty confused as to why we told her not to answer the door, as if it were the boogeyman! Teach the child to be welcoming to strangers and be friendly, but then only selectively? What moral quandaries we experienced. They had a way of persisting and making things difficult and uncomfortable. The social fear of having to ask someone to leave, of rejecting someone in general on whatever level became unavoidable. How many times have I heard people joke about how they would or should just answer the door naked, and/or invite them in to participate in an orgy, as a way of dealing with their persistence? I even read an entire Reddit sub-thread about it! Many people are really genuinely perturbed, disturbed, and put-off by conversion efforts, myself included until recent years. 

I wanted to know what I had been trained so well to avoid, so I looked up the nearest Jehovah’s Witness church and discovered how I was already very uninformed. They don’t have churches, but Kingdom Halls. They don’t have mass or liturgies, or services the way I was used to in the Protestant/Catholic tradition. I really knew nothing about them, so again went to the interwebs for info:

I will spare you my attempt at a summary and just post the recap from Wikipedia for some general categories that you can read about if you are interested:

“Jehovah’s Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

The “distinct from mainstream Christianity” is where things get problematic with religious authorities, local and state governments, and has resulted in the denial of freedom to practice their religion already from the early days of the movement’s founding in Pittsburgh, PA in the late 1800s. In fact, although the JW now have over 8 million members worldwide, and a very professionally developed and international presence through their publications and evangelism, they are still persecuted all over the world, most recently in Russia, where it was added to Russia’s registry of extremist organizations in 2017 and had its assets seized and members jailed. In Germany however, JWs were granted official legal status as a recognized religious denomination in 2005.

So on a Sunday last spring, I found my way to the Kingdom Hall in north Berlin, past graffiti-adorned buildings, walls, subway, and trash-strewn streets and parks. Sunday mornings in Berlin often leave clues to the late-night festivities that are usually cleaned up by the sanitation workers midweek. But on Sunday mornings the broken glass and Döner kebab wrappers are still fresh. 

When I enter the building I am immediately assessed by a kind, elderly greeter-lady at the door as a visitor, and assigned a young woman to be my guide for my stay. We’ll call her Rachel, the woman who became my Jehovahs Witness pal. Rachel is beautiful, in her mid-30s and wearing a skirt and conservative, tasteful outfit. I look around and realize that I am probably the only woman not wearing a skirt. Oops. The building is large and has several conference rooms, one of which is hosting a talk with discussion this morning. That is where Rachel takes me. 

We sit in some very comfy chairs and listen to the lecture with 30 or so other people. I observe that everyone is reading along in their Bibles, or on their phones, iPads or other device, as the speaker quotes from the Bible. I am seriously impressed by the enthusiasm and scholarly commitment every single member displays in following along the argument and checking all the Bible quotes that are referenced. It is like a combination of Bible-study and lecture, with full audience participation. I know some other churches that would be overjoyed with even half that level of interest in scripture. Rachel does all she can to let me know what to expect, what is happening, and generally puts me at ease. After the 20-minute presentation, there is a sort of sharing, discussion period, where again, everyone chimes in with their own thoughts and points relevant to the Bible selection at hand. I also realize that the whole thing is being broadcast in some way (not sure if it was by phone or some other technology) to elderly members who were at home, who were also then able to contribute by speakerphone to the discussion afterward. No-one needed to be left out!

After the talk, I go downstairs with Rachel and chat for a few minutes about how I am interested in visiting churches, have studied theology in general but am not seeking membership in a new church. She is very sweet, kind and genuine, and I did have some more questions about whether the JW’s have communion or priests, or whether women can be in positions of leadership (my standard research questions) but there wasn’t enough time to really delve into it. I read later that in JW women are a big part of public ministry, but do not hold congregational leadership roles. This is in part based upon the ‘restorationist’ nature of the movement, which strives to restore the church along the lines of how it was in the first century after Christ, the so-called apostolic era when women and men were spreading the new faith (described in the Acts of the Apostles). I left Rachel with a grateful heart and thought to myself, “Well, that was nice, but I doubt I’ll see her again.” Berlin has over 4 million inhabitants after all. But…

Two weeks later, while shopping in Karstadt Rachel walks by and we greet one another warmly. A week after that, I saw her standing outside the S-Bahn! She was handing out flyers with two others, all well-dressed, young and equally sincere. This time I greeted her like an old friend. I only had two minutes to talk before hopping on the train, and she said upon parting, “You know, it is all based upon the Bible, the Bible is the only true word of God, the Bible is the basis for everything!”

I know she really believes what she says; with a tone of certainty and slight urgency. It became more clear to me then why I have been asked, when describing the church I attended, whether it was Bible-based. The question initially surprised me because I hadn’t found myself in many discussions about biblical accuracy yet. There are many people claiming to have revelations, insights, further wisdom to impart from the spiritual world. People who believe that the Bible is the only necessary and true revelation will, of course, care about this. 

I haven’t seen Rachel again, but I now smile at the JWs I see in the metro, as they hand out their literature. 

This Vice article about this same congregation in Berlin is interesting and has photos of the interior of the Kingdom Hall.

Entry to Kingdom Hall Hochstraße 3, 13357 Berlin

Kingdom Hall

Program – Multi-Kulti
Follow the demure skirts to the inner courtyard
Really? The Kingdom of God is under that building?
Very multi-lingual

Notre Dame Paris

I was shocked and horrified to see the images of Notre Dame burning yesterday. Some things we assume will always be there, for when we are ready, able, or willing to go and see them. But as the Greek masters said: Everything changes, and nothing stands still. Sometimes the change is gradual like the slow erosion of sandstone, other times change is violent and sudden, like when a fire engulfs a building and it is gone.  

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/16/world-leaders-react-to-devastating-notre-dame-fire-in-paris

I grew up like many American girls having Paris associated with romantic getaways and ultimate displays of adventure and romance. Paris is for lovers! Etc. Yada yada. When Prince Charming failed to materialise and to whisk me away on his private jet to Paris, I decided to take matters into my own hands and give myself a short visit Paris for my 36th Birthday in August 2014. Seeing the images of the ancient building going up in flames made me think, as everyone in the world is now, of my own encounter there. I am grateful that I made the effort to go see this iconic, historic and important cathedral. 

I walked past in the afternoon and decided my sunlight hours were too precious to stand in line to get in, so I resolved to return in the morning for mass. I was moved by the priest celebrating quite confidently with hordes of tourists/parishioners/believers of varying levels of piety and interest filling the space. As I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos, I decided to make an exception to my usual custom not to bust out the cameras during a service (which is how I was raised in my church with no photography during sacraments) and I took a few pictures myself.

Visitors lining up to enter cathedral in the afternoon
Notre Dame in the morning
Model of cathedral inside
Celebrating as a form of tourist attraction

As for Paris overall, this photos sums up my experience: Tourists everywhere, obscuring and dwarfing the actual attraction—and the realization that I am one of them.

Trying to visit Mona

When I heard the news of the fire yesterday, I immediately thought of one of my favorite songs by Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the song, Joan eventually surrenders to the fire, becomes its bride. 

Well then, who are you?” she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke
“Why, I’m, I’m fire,” he replied
“And I love your solitude, how I love your sense of pride”

      Read more: Leonard Cohen – Joan Of Arc Lyrics

The destructive power of fire to consume human accomplishments is again—through the magnifier of social media—brought to the consciousness of everyone on the planet in this tragedy. But hopefully, this event can ultimately remind us of why we cherish historic buildings, art, and the achievements and events of the past. And what we hope for the future. It is not just about preserving old buildings for the sake of it, but for us as a culture, and as a society to contemplate what role religion and art shall continue to play in our lives. Here we can be comforted by the story of the Devil in Goethe’s drama of Faust, who never quite manages to ruin things afterall.

“Who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

The fire isn’t the end, but the beginning of the next phase of development.

 

Stami Leben Glauben Evangelical Church Lörrach, Germany

Stami: Glauben Leben Church in Lörrach, Germany

Not all my church visits begin with touristy curiosity.

I drove past this building on the way to the grocery store many times (my favorite discount chain Aldi is around the corner), and though I wondered what the deal was with the slick blue and green logo high on the side of a squarish new modern-looking building, it didn’t occur to me to just Google it. How many buildings, stores, houses—churches—do we pass by every day, most we don’t even notice, some stand out. Why is that?

Then one Sunday morning I awoke with a heavy heart, emotionally and physically exhausted and feeling hopeless from a break-up that was still unfolding, I looked online for “churches near me” (yes, turns out a lot of people type that in to Google) to find something that I could get to in time. Sunday-service for all generations every Sunday at 10:30! Stami Leben Glauben it was.

Stami meant nothing to me initially, but sounded vaguely German, the motto “Glauben Leben” is a play on words. Glauben means “faith” or “belief”, and Leben means both “life” and “to live”, so Living Faith, or Live (your) Faith is pretty good for an evangelical protestant church motto.

I was curious to find out what kind of non-traditional church could be located in what looked like a big toaster, and though Stami is part of the larger Chrischona International, an evangelical Protestant association of mostly German-speaking independent congregations, this particular building is their newest addition and not one of the quaint older ones.

Entering the church, I passed through the community rooms to the main hall, where already at least 300 people, 40 of which were children were gathered in plastic and metal chairs facing a stage. I was encouraged to find a free seat up front by an elderly greeter, but when I told him I was there for the first time and preferred to sit I the back and watch, he welcomed me and said something about picking up a welcome packet somewhere, and that sweets were involved. I sat down and was immediately awed by the technological set-up. Other than the large wooden cross on the back front wall, technology was the priority: a well-lit band on the stage fully outfitted with all the latest electronic gear, the drummer in a glass-walled booth, the projector overhead leading the congregation in song with the lyrics, multiple video screens hung overhead, no-one was on the stage without a microphone, and the whole show was orchestrated from the technician booth in the back.

I kept waiting for the service to start, but it appeared that there was some kind of youth action happening. There were huge wrapped presents on the stage, and then several young people proceeded to put on a full 20 minute skit and action on behalf of the Christmas Shoebox Charity for (poor, developing-world-type) Children, complete with audience participation Oprah-style (everyone look under your chairs for a gift!) and a boy/girl competition to gather said gifts and put them into a shoebox, all to demonstrate how it works. Then we got to watch a video about the Christmas shoebox program, and how they bring the Good Message of Christ’s love to poor children everywhere, by giving them shoeboxes full of toys and toothpaste. Well, that sounds a tad cynical, they also do other missionary work, but in this case, it was about getting the congregation on board to bring in their shoeboxes full of goodies.

Then they sang a song led by the big band up front, it was so simple that in a minute I was singing right along.

Darum danke ich dir so sehr

Ich gebe dich nie wieder her

 

Es ist so toll dich zu kennen Herr

Jeden Tag ein bisschen mehr

(English: That’s why I thank you so much/I’ll never give you up

It’s so great to meet you Lord/Every day a little more)

If I didn’t know any better, I say it sounded like a love song! I did feel a bit awkward when everyone started waving their hands in the air, although I’ve been to other evangelical churches or worship situations, it doesn’t cease to make me uncomfortable. I stand there with my hands behind my back, or in my pockets, maybe sway a little to the music, but even at a full-on rock concert, I’m not the type to lose myself and go berserk with enthusiasm. I gotta say too, the guy next to me looked similarly pained, but perhaps like me, he was waiting to hear The Word.

The main pastor was away, so the youth pastor took the reigns this Sunday, and his sermon was a bit like a Ted Talk with Clip-art pictures in a Powerpoint presentation. It went something like this in summary:

Life is like a labyrinth (picture of a labyrinth). We don’t know the way out, we need help, and God is there to help us. (Picture of a guy with his head in his hands). Nicodemus also asked Jesus at night for clarification (picture of nighttime). Doubting Thomas also asked God, “When will you show yourself to me?” (picture of doubtful looking person). Peter wanted to do everything with Jesus but then denies Him at the crucial hour. We also want to do right by God, but fail and have weaknesses, (relevant image, at this point I forget which one). The young rich man asked how to get into heaven but went away sad because Jesus said to give up everything, (picture of a sad guy). We also experience in our lives how we have to let go in order to find true divine happiness. The last stock image is of two obviously happy women. The pastor describes the woman who kisses Jesus’ feet, saying “You made everything possible”. He then quotes Romans 6:36, the wages of sin are death and reiterates that Jesus Christ is eternal life. He is the greatest gift of all time. May you recognize Him. Amen.

We’ll call it the shotgun approach to preaching. Say it all! Reference every major story and personality from the New Testament in fifteen minutes! See what sticks. When you only have people’s attention for a few minutes once a week, you gotta make the most of it.

Despite the style, culture, and presentation of this sermon being nothing like what I am used to, I indeed felt relieved, comforted, and understood hearing these words! It was precisely what I needed to hear. Being filled with adolescent-grade feelings of rejection and soul pain enabled me to be open to a sermon of similar quality. I needed to be reminded that even though my relationship was ending, it didn’t mean that I was unlovable, God loves me. And the main point of the sermon that jumped out for me was that, like the young rich man, we must let go in order to find the divine. Time for me to let go of the things I thought I wanted, the things I do even have, and follow Him. I had my pick of stories and teachable moments, and I found the ones that spoke to me at the time I needed to hear it. This experience is the mark of The Good Message; this is the meaning of being a follower of Christ.

I guess if you’re not hurting, or in emotional or psychic distress, if everything in your life is going fine the way you want it to, hunky-dory is your keyword, and you are content and satisfied with your lot, then you might not find yourself in a church very often. But if you are looking for the divine, and your fellow man and yourself for that matter disappoints yet again, then Jesus is still there, getting the message across through His most-varied of followers.

I wandered out of the hall before it was officially over, an hour is all I was mentally prepared for and it wasn’t clear when it would be finished. (There was more singing and then it was done). I started looking around, reading their literature by the entrance (Bring Christ to the Arab refugees of Europe!—a missionary flier), and then began chatting with an elderly lady in the front room near the coffee who quickly took me under her wing. Turns out I was standing in the “seniors corner.” She was lovely and showed me how to first reserve a chair, because the place fills up quickly once the service ends, and then get coffee and fresh pretzels. Who needs wine and bread when there’s southern German coffee and pretzels? Wink. She explained to me how almost as soon as they moved into their new building they outgrew it, now that they have over 100 children. In addition to the thriving youth and children’s work, they also do refugee and social work, and many kinds of missionary work too.

The greeter from the beginning found me and brought me my welcome packet, complete with gummy bears as promised, a program and a nice pen. My collection is growing. Another elderly couple sat down and the conversation continued, covering church-life, the beauty and quality of life of the region near Basel, and the growing wealth-gap in the world. The gentleman says that he read that ten men control 50% of the world’s resources! I reach for another pretzel. Gotta even things out somehow. I ask whether they have always come to this church. No, they used to be mainline Protestant. His wife sheepishly admits that she prefers Catholic mass to other Protestant sects, “If you’re going to go for ritual, might as well do it the right way,” she says. To say that this place lacks ritual would be, well, besides the point. According to their website, Stami Leben lists a summary of the points that keep their community healthy as an acrostic of the German word for grace: GNADE. In English however, it would be Community, Discipleship, Prayer, Service to others, and the Gospel for everyone. Not much mention of sacraments or rituals, but common experiences defined through service, prayer and missionary work. They do have the bread and wine once a month, as many Protestant churches do, but it is symbolic.

The experience of community, prayer in song, and the Gospel was very real for me that Sunday, despite the cultural unfamiliarity. Meeting people who welcome with open arms anyone who comes in their door, is the sign for me that the divine is indeed at work.

Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity

As it is still technically Epiphany season in some churches, the topic of the Magi and their gift-bearing visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem shortly after his birth is still on my mind. I was reminded of my own visit to Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity there in 2013, a pilgrimage of sorts to see this most famous of birthplaces.

To refresh our memories, the Gospel of Matthew in the second chapter recounts Jesus’ birth in a house in Bethlehem and the Magi coming from the East with specific gifts, following a star. The Gospel of Luke recounts how Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered there for the census and were visited by shepherds after Jesus was born, in what must have been for Mary quite an experience, in a manger. For an excellent modern interpretation of these events, see the following video from Saturday Night Live.

Mark Chapter 2:4-6

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

Matthew Chapter 2:1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Back to current day Bethlehem. It lies in the Palestinian controlled part of the occupied West Bank territory, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and a whopping 156 km from Nazareth. Private car is the most popular way to get there from Jerusalem, as you have to pass through a checkpoint which limits the vehicle options, and as I went with a friend who is of Armenian origin, this proved to be a bonus to us in several ways, the last being on our return to Jerusalem when we were offered a ride by an employee of the Armenian church. The Basilica of the Nativity is old. It was first built by Constantine the Great in 327, to mark the place of Jesus’ birth. It’s basically remained a big deal since then, with now over 2 million pilgrims annually. It is a big deal. A lot of history has happened in Bethlehem, and in this small part of the globe, and the UN has designated it a World Heritage Site, amongst others. The property of course has evolved over the years, with various chapels, buildings, grottos, corners, nooks and altars, all managed by the various patriarchates (Roman Catholic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox….etc.) as designated by the 250 year old “status quo” of the Holy Land sites, an understanding among religious communities with respect to nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (A note of update, the Basilica is currently undergoing renovations since 2016 which might affect visitors).

The hi-light of course is seeing the Grotto of the Nativity, the birth cave which lies underneath the basilica. We were not part of the huge tour group of eastern Europeans which arrived around the same time, but as my friend asked one of the church employees a question and they determined that she was Armenian, and he was a representative from the Armenian Apostolic —which administers part of the property—so he showed us the way to go down and later gave us a tour of other parts of the place, including a rooftop view. As we went down into the grotto we were part of a huge crowd being shepherded through by their tour guides. The guides were encouraging “their” tourists to push others aside and get their view of the golden star which is embedded in marble, said to mark the very spot where Jesus was born. The shouting, the jostling, the clicking of cameras and phones (mine being one of them), everyone was trying to get their moment to be close enough to touch the star, and take a photo. There was no room to breathe, it was claustrophobic, stinky, and crowded, and the way people were treating one another in their rabid crush to get their sacred moment left an indelible mark on me. I don’t remember all the details of the many important historic items, sites, monuments, pieces of art and plaques that I saw that day, but what I will never forget is how an elderly woman nearly fell onto the star itself, from being pushed by a crowd of Christians insisting upon getting their Jesus blessing.

If Jesus could see what took place there that day, he’d be turning over in his gra……oh wait. It reminded me the pool of Bethesda story from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5. There Jesus heals a man who was waiting his turn to be the first into the water- which were alleged to heal the first person to get in, once the angels had stirred them. The man waited 38 years and had no luck because everyone else who was crippled and sick rushed in before he could! That story always bothered me for several reasons: one being that all these sick people didn’t form any kind of community being there for so long waiting to be healed. Ya know, maybe get to know one another, figure out who had priority to be healed…I mean, anyone who’s stood in a line for the bus, the bathroom, or the DMV, or even a taco-stand knows how you form a sort of waiting-community, and if someone steps out of line everyone is aware of it. I digress though. Things were only slightly different 2,000 years ago turns out. People still want their spiritual healing to come through touch. Through contact with something physical, tangible, preferably with photographic evidence, everyone else be damned. They—we—demand blessings.

This Christmas, I heard a lovely sermon at midnight about the child that must be born again each year within our souls. What conditions can we cultivate to welcome this Star, the Light, the Love? What manger needs to be cleaned up and made ready for the birth of the Being who is no longer to be found in one place on the globe, but potentially in all our hearts?

 

Mosque opposite church in Manger Square
View from the roof of the church onto Manger Square
Inside the Basilica, the crowd gathers to enter the grotto
Underneath the floor
Because of our Armenian connection, we were given a special roof-top tour
The Grotto of the Nativity
Hills of Judea
Grotto of the Nativity, aka mosh pit, some of the men were the tour guides
In the grotto, everything is covered with something by someone in a very haphazard yet completely adjudicated manner
getting my two seconds near the star
the star is behind that ladies bag

Pittsburgh Cathedral of Hope

East Liberty Presbyterian Church

Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Hope looms large over East Liberty and the greater east Pittsburgh area. It dominates the main corner of the increasingly gentrified neighborhood and houses the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. For a while I was under the false impression that this building was featured in the movie Dogma, because everyone always referred to the church in East Liberty that was, and this one is so impressive that I just assumed it was “the one.” But that is a different one. I show up on Palm Sunday and am duly impressed by the neo-gothic architecture, the huge organ, and the full pews. It somehow reminds me of the National Cathedral in D.C., but the more churches I see, the more they all seem to be some kind of gothic, either original or new/revival gothic.

Drone bird's eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/
Drone bird’s eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/

As over 200 parishioners wave green palm fronds and sing Hallelujah, my heart soars and the devotion brings tears to my eyes. The sermon begins with a Pittsburgh sports trivia question: Who had the home-run at the bottom of the 9th inning at the World Series in 1960? Only in the US, where sports and religion are one and the same, could this be the way to begin a high feast day. I have no idea what the preacher is talking about, but I try to get with the program to appreciate his message. Ignoring some distracting hand gestures, I understand the analogy he is drawing for us. Sitting behind me is a Gregory, I find out later a native Pittsburgher, who cheers out loud during the sermon. It seems he was there during that historic game in 1960 when the PGH Pirates won the World Series against the Yankees! (Full disclosure: I had to Google this all later). The sermon goes like this: First picture: the huge crowd which rushed the field at that historic game is our common heritage and part of our identity for many Americans—especially Pittsburghers. Second picture: The experience of being caught up in the crowd cheering for our team, that is Palm Sunday when Christ rode into Jerusalem and was triumphantly welcomed by the crowd shouting Hosanna. Third picture: only a few days later, however, the same people turn on Him and call for his crucifixion. Conclusion: the true essence of Christianity is not being part of a jubilant crowd celebrating the victory of the Super Bowl, or World Series, or what have you. No, being a true follower of Christ requires conscious intentionality in the difficult times, when the crowds disperse and the fun is over. I never thought I would relate to a sermon that began with a baseball trivia question yet somehow, I made it.

palms
Jesus carries the Cross Stained Glass windows by Charles Jay Connick

Friendly Gregory is an elderly African American, and is wearing a yellow shirt with handprinted letters that says “Free Hugs”. After the service, we chat a bit and he tells me about his beloved Cathedral and community. There is a labyrinth to walk during Holy Week which I find quite progressive for a somewhat Mid-western town like Pittsburgh. I mention that I walked the labyrinth in Chartres, France and Gregory exclaims: “Me too! We went on a church trip there!” Whatyaknow. That’s the kind of church this is, progressive, worldly, and welcoming. In the program, they have every kind of social activism and ministry possible. Prisoners, women, Taize prayer, youth ministry, literacy, homeless outreach, refugee outreach, LGBT rights, the bathroom is a freedom bathroom…

Nondiscriminatory bathroom

and the pews are full of people of all ages, all ethnicities, and classes, including a goodly share of man-buns. The liturgist and other celebrating officers are all women. I learned a new word: beadle, also a woman today.

Touring the grounds, I pass by the Meditation Room and peer through the window, seeing a middle-aged white woman sitting cross-legged on some cushions. She appears to be deeply focused—on her smartphone. Ah, even entering a special space for meditation is no guarantee that peace and quiet from the distracting Maya of the interwebs are possible.

Thank you, Cathedral of Hope for making me feel welcome, and proving that even the most staunch anti-sports American, would have her eyes opened to the joy of sports analogies.

the high altar
the faithful

http://cathedralofhope.org

St. Joseph’s in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

St. Joseph’s Church

While studying Persian in Central Asia years ago, I found myself missing me some Christ-talk. Jesus is revered in Islam as a prophet, but not the Son of God, so Tajikistan being a Muslim country, I had to look hard for some Easter action. Thus I found the Roman Catholic church in Dushanbe, St. Joseph’s. I did not happen upon it, I Googled “church in Dushanbe.” The first time I visited, I took a taxi and the driver found the place by asking people on the street. It was the first he’d heard of it too!  Although it did not look much like a church initially, when I looked up and saw crosses, I was in the clear. I looked around a bit, then went into the chapel and sat down towards the back, my usual spot where I attempt to be inconspicuous. First, several Mother Theresa nuns in their white uniforms with blue trim (Missionaries of Charity turns out, interesting infos on their work in Tajikistan here) came and introduced themselves (mostly they were from India) and immediately asked if I would do the reading. I had no idea what this reading was, what that entailed, or even what I would be reading! I demurred. Not being Catholic, or particularly familiar with the mass at that point, I felt like I was trespassing. I had that feeling I’ve had at other religious events where my only desire was to melt into the background and observe – the last thing I would want was to participate in an unknown ritual. The priest introduced himself, an Argentinian, he said all three priests assigned to Tajikistan are from Argentina—seems an odd place to send them—but what do I know about the inner workings of the Vatican and its priestly assignments. Father Lopez was charming and welcoming, and I was immediately reassured. I felt the strange urge to confess my lack of Catholicism, which I blurted out as soon as possible. He invited me to come up for a blessing instead of communion. The second time I went back to mass (for those still living in Dushanbe and interested, it’s in English on Saturdays at 6 pm, at least it was in 2011 when I lived there!) I was asked by the same nuns to carry up the wine and bread. Again I demurred, how was I to know when that appointed time is? Would I mess it up? Maybe I’m not supposed to because I’m not Catholic… I felt the same horror, being asked to participate in a ritual on my first visit to as an outsider to this group. Or was I denying the calling of service to the Lord? I decided it was probably ok, but I wasn’t ready yet to play an active role. I recognized half the hymns we sang, and as the words rang out to the accompanying organ, I felt shivers. Perhaps others were there also mostly for the music. The small community consists of a wide variety of expats, who come depending on their schedules and varies constantly. The service is in Russian on Sundays, so perhaps the crowd is bigger then. The second time I attended mass, it was held by a more junior priest whose eerie similarity in speech, tone, and posture to Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite distracted me from his message about the raising of Lazarus. It took me at least 15 minutes to stop my mind from making this hilarious connection, which was about as long as his sermon. I felt some serious sympathy for the 5-year-old who kept shifting in his chair, looking around the chapel and generally struggling to focus, though in my case the pollution of the sacred by pop culture was to blame.

There’s something fitting about the church being named after St. Joseph. It simply wouldn’t fly in the misogynistic and patriarchal culture of Tajikistan that I experienced, to name a church there after a woman, despite the many options of females played important roles in the Bible. Christians in Central Asia have it hard enough as it is, and I would imagine they don’t want to cause any extra trouble. Of course, Joseph was also muy importante, after all the father (legal, biological, or otherwise—it’s complicated) of Jesus, and husband to Mary, the last patriarch you might say. He surely played a big role in the most important story of human history, but his role is not as clear cut as I had expected. I thought it was settled that he was the father of Jesus, and thus also the father of several of the disciples, who were also Jesus’s brothers. But again, it’s complicated. The Catholics and Orthodox don’t agree on any of the details (what did ‘betrothed’ actually mean, who fathered whom when, ya know, the Virgin Birth issue) and when examined closely, the two synoptic Gospels which do relate anything about Joseph, Matthew and Luke, relay two different genealogies from David on down! The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus was descended from David’s son Solomon. Luke relates that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan. There are many other important Joseph’s in the history of religion. The second most important I’d say, is the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oops, I mean, Joseph from the book of Genesis who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to get the best revenge ever by becoming viceroy, the most important man second only to Pharaoh himself. The third most important Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus Christ. More perhaps in a later post on the many Joseph’s and their interconnectivity.

For a short article from 2003 with a brief history of the church in Tajikistan see here. For the fascinating history of the Soviet deportations which made this church in Dushanbe possible, see here. For the Spanish-speakers, here’s an update about the first Tajik priest, ordained June 2016.

(this is an adaptation of a post to my now-offline travel blog in Tajikistan 2010-2011)

St. Joseph’s Dushanbe
Moonrise over Orthodox graveyard in northern Tajikistan

First United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh

I have walked by this place so often, it was time to finally go in and see the grandness from the inside. Also, what is Methodist actually? I couldn’t say I’ve actually consciously ever been to a Methodist service. Oh wait, I take it back, Christmas 2005 in Copperas Cove, TX when I didn’t have enough leave accrued to go home I went to the Methodist church nearby, and I recall finding the music very moving. The location of this church is prime real estate, at a major intersection of several key up and coming neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. I walked past on my way from the grocery story on a Saturday and decided to visit the next day. There were several homeless-looking men hanging around at the front drinking beer, and as I walked around to see the other side, so did one of them and he proceeded to urinate against the building. The next day I could see from inside that he at least hadn’t urinated against the wall where the altar was…This is a truly beautiful building, the architectural symmetry made me feel comfortable, and it is well maintained. The choir wore gowns, I always get a kick out of that—not having grown up with lots of pageantry or uniforms, my only connotation is the Gospel Choir in uniform scenes from TV—but this choir sang beautifully, and it got me in the Spirit. At some point, at least 20 minutes after services had begun, what appeared to be one of the friends of Saturday’s hobos came in and proceeded to ‘greet’ the congregation. Better late than never, they say! What I’m still trying to get my mind around is the order of the events in these services. There is an observable order, but it doesn’t always appear to culminate in communion that everyone participates in. Yes, I know, some of you are probably going ‘duh’, it is Protestant! But this is new to me. I have since informed myself about Methodism further here and here. I asked how often communion is celebrated and learned about how the Methodists celebrate a service of Word and Table. Though I did not get to see it on this Sunday, they don’t use wine but grape juice and everyone regardless of denomination is welcome to receive the Communion. Apparently once a month is the norm for communion, though this goes back to the early days when there were not enough ordained clergy and so congregations had to wait for their ‘rotation.’  The senior pastor lead an attempt at a group prayer situation, which seemed somewhat awkward, because no one publicly volunteered the incriminating information which was needed to be prayed upon; the congregation seemed more comfortable submitting prayer requests by paper, or allowing the pastor to speak generally about and pray for the types of challenges a community, heck, every community, faces such as illness, incarceration, unemployment, and death. The sermon later was not particularly inspiring, and involved lengthy personal anecdotes and lamentations about the state of the world (yes, I already know, it sucks I live here too) but finally got to the message that we are called to help those in need, to be His disciples. This is in line with the Methodist “practical divinity” and putting love into action. From the community bulletin and bulletin board, it was evident that this church is very active socially and is doing charity, interfaith and community work, the opportunities to be His disciple are quite numerous. I find it interesting that Methodism was founded by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England in the late 1700s. How many denominations, movements, and independent churches were founded by people seeking renewal or a renewed emphasis on an element they find lacking in their church? The freedom ultimately possible in Protestantism for individuals to follow their conscience and results of their own study of theology—regardless of where it might lead—them is for me the main draw of Protestantism itself.

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden