Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Tajikistan – Central Asia’s Mountainous Gem

Country and Language Study Overview

Statue of Rudaki in Rudaki Park
Osh Plov the national dish. Eat..eat..eat.. Photo credit: Tommy T.


[1], Public Domain, Link

About the Capital Dushanbe

The capital city of Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet Republics is Dushanbe. It actually means Monday, and received its name because it grew from a village that hosted a weekly Monday bazaar, becoming the capital in 1929. There is still a lot of village left in this capital city though! I spent nine months living there in 2010-2011 while studying Persian and although things have modernized even more since then, I’m told there are certain experiences that remain the same.

Tajik National University
Another Rudaki in front of a government building
Dushanbe market

 

 

 

 

 

The Tajiki language is a dialect of Persian, having been the northern region of the once great and vast Persian empire, but now they use the Cyrillic script, and most Tajiks still speak Russian and many also Uzbek. If you speak any Russian you will have an easier time picking up Tajiki, reading signs and figuring out what is on food labels. I had been studying Iranian Persian-Farsi with its Arabic script and was forever stuck between scripts and dialects. 

My first host family was Tajik of Uzbek heritage, and they also spoke a mix of Russian/Uzbek/Tajiki. They were from the group of Persian-speakers (Tajiks) who fled Uzbek rule in Bukhara in the 20s onwards and settled in Dushanbe (called Stalinabad from 1929-60). Continue reading “Dushanbe, Tajikistan”

Barabbas Book Review – A modern tale of belief

Book Review of “Barabbas”

70 Years after its publication—Pär Lagerkvist’s novel is as modern as ever

Crucifixion by Lukas Cranach 1546 in the Zwinger Museum, Dresden

This is the book I wanted to write. I had a brilliant idea a few years ago to write about Barabbas and what happened to him after he was spared in exchange for Christ.

There is almost nothing mentioned about him in the synoptic Gospels other than that he was a criminal who the crowd called to be released instead of Jesus when the Passover tradition occasion allowed for one prisoner condemned to death to be freed by the Romans.

What kind of life would he have lived? What could be said about the man who should have died for his crimes, and about whom can be said quite literally that Christ died in his stead? Well, it turns out the book has already been written seventy years ago, and how! An amazing feat and rightly recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951 and was made into a film starring Anthony Quinn ten years later (and again as a movie in 2012 starring Billy Zane).

Of course, I couldn’t have come up with the long and complex plot that Lagerkvist did, and thus I was totally captivated and wolfed it down in one sitting. A proverbial page-turner.

Suffice it to say that in Lagerkvist’s rendering of events, Barabbas is not immediately convinced of Jesus Christ’s Messiah status. The story is one I know: It is a modern story of needing a lifetime to understand the importance of significant events earlier in life.

I was struck by how modern the writing was, the themes of belief, meaning, power and powerlessness, sacrifice, and self-determination. The book is written from the perspective of inside Barabbas’ head. The dialogue was configured without quotation marks which was also refreshing and flowed well. I perhaps assumed that 1951 was a more prudish era, so I got a kick out of the fact that the very first thing Barabbas does after watching Jesus’ crucifixion is to go back to his drunken bros and his girlfriend, only referred to as the ‘fat woman’ to party and get laid. A very modern tale indeed. Now this is a story I can relate to! It is only slowly, over the course of much more pain and suffering that Barabbas begins to find the meaning of Christ’s death, and the book ends with his own crucifixion at an old age for being a Christian, in Rome under Nero no less. It’s like a Forrest Gump of the Jesus era kind of tale.

I was reading the book on the airplane from Philadelphia to Boston, and the woman next to me eventually asked what I was reading, and so I explained. The copy I had was an old library book with brown pages, and I’d taken off the hardcover to make my luggage lighter (I found it on eBay for $5) and it had 50’s movie poster style sketched illustrations—the first which was a nude of the ‘fat woman’ and so I suspect my seat-mate had glanced over and wondered what the subject was. When I told her about how I found the story quite fascinating, especially how modern it was and that I was at the part where Barabbas goes back to his lady-friend and has a good time the night of the crucifixion, she said somewhat dolefully,

“It’s almost risqué to be religious these days.”

“Yes”, I replied, “I’m trying to walk the line between being a spiritual being having an earthly experience, and vice versa.”

We proceeded to have a conversation about the state of religion in America and the increasing difficulty of being tolerant of people who are religious vs. Atheist, or rather, how the extremism of both positions pushes our tolerance levels. In Lagerkvist’s imagining of what Barabbas’ life was like, he sets up a scene where Barabbas, after being enslaved in the copper mines of Sicily for 20 years chained to an Armenian Christian is questioned by the Roman Governor about whether he is a Christian too.

Barabbas says, “No, I am not. But I want to believe.”

The Governor then scratches off the sign of the cross from his slavery medallion. I have been questioned frequently by non-believers of all stripes about my beliefs. I have researched, read, and explored many theories, philosophies, and religions… and at this point, I don’t know much for sure. But I want to believe. I would rather live my life believing, or rather, “operate under a working hypothesis” that there is a cosmic intelligence (call it what you will) that consists of Love, than that there isn’t. I’ve noticed it seems to bring out the best in people if you believe in their best selves. So why not do that of the universe, too?

A view of Tyrrenian Sea from the mountain town of Taormina, Sicily

Reykjavik in January – Yes, Still Awesome!

Reykjavik in January?  Yes, Still Awesome!

Visiting churches in Reykjavik: Hallgrímskirkja and the Cathedral

Hallgrímskirkja in winter

You might not think of visiting this very nordic northern island in January, but it is actually pretty cool. Not just temperature-wise, but the landscape takes on an even more dramatic tone when covered in snow and ice. Iceland has become a very popular destination in the past 15 years, especially thanks to the creation of the stop-over on transatlantic flights, where you can stop in Iceland for up to 7 days with no extra charge when flying on Iceland Air, or WOW airlines.

Blue Lagoon in Iceland (don’t forget your swim gear)
Capital: Reykjavik ”Smoke Bay”

I took advantage of this one January on my way back to Germany from Denver, and braved the cold, which turned out not to be soo frigid as I expected. But much darker! I wasn’t sure what it would actually feel like to only have four hours of daylight, and it is something that you just have to experience to understand on a visceral level. It’s confusing, but then you turn towards your inner clock, and thank Loki for Iceland’s clever use of geothermal power which creates 25% of the country’s electricity. Street-lamps run on geothermal power, and even the sidewalks in Reykjavik remain snow and ice-free due to underground heaters.

Skyr, woolen knitwear, bearded men, glaciers, volcanoes, open sea—are all worthy symbols of Iceland, not to mention the most famous and much-touted geothermal heated Blue Lagoon. But one sight that marks the capital city Reykjavik is the Reykjavik Church, called the Hallgrímskirkja in Icelandic. It is the center point of downtown Reykjavík and the tallest, and largest church in Iceland and the most notable landmark. It is a Lutheran parish church, and its tower is 74 meters high.

Hallgrímskirkja front view
The Reykjavik Church

The church’s name Hallgrímur comes from the famous Icelandic poet and preacher Hallgrímur Pétursson who lived in the 1600s, and according to legend had to leave Seminary because of impregnating a married woman from a group of Icelanders whom he was re-educating after their release from captivity by Algerian pirates. But all turned out well as she had actually been widowed so they married and lived happily ever after; and Hallgrímur went on to write his 50 “Passion Hymns” to be meditated on during Lent. 

Hallgrímskirkja altar
Reykjavik Church

Guðjón Samúelsson was the architect for the project and he is said to have found inspiration in the heavenly waterfall Svartifoss inside Skaftafell.

The inside of Hallgrímskirkja is stunning, its organ the largest organ found in Iceland, weighing over 25 tons. The organ was inaugurated in 1992 and was constructed by German organ builder Johannes Klais from Bonn.

Inside, you can take the elevator up to the church tower for a fee, where you can see the church clocks up close and enjoy the view over all of Reykjavík. The windows are tinted in different colors so you can view the city with different filters but there is also a spot to see it in its original form.

Hallgrímskirkja clocktower
Hallgrímskirkja interior
Reykjavik Church

In front of the church, you’ll see a large statue of Leif Eiríksson, the Icelander who discovered Vinland (America) before the ‘old world’ was ready for it. The statue was a gift from the United States in celebration of the 1000 year anniversary of the Icelandic parliament. 

Address: Hallgrímstorg 1, 101 Reykjavík

Free entry to church, but fee to go up to tower

  • Winter (October – April): 09:00 – 17:00. Tower closes at 16:30.
  • Summer (May – September): 09:00 – 21:00. Tower closes at 20:30.
  • The tower is closed on Sundays from 10:30 – 12:15 as mass is at 11:00.
Leif Erikkson statue Hallgrímskirkja

 

snowy view of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja

Religion in Iceland: 

The constitution of 1874 guarantees religious freedom, but the constitution also specifies that the “Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State.”

The Lutheran Church of Iceland is organized in one diocese headed by the Bishop of Iceland, with the current Bishop and first female in the role: Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir

Þingvellir National Park

Christianity has been in Iceland as long as there have been humans living there, the only European nation to be able to say so. Settled by Chalcedonian (adhering to the theology established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD) Irish hermits seeking a place to worship, who were later driven out by pagan Norse settlers. When Iceland was constituted as a Republic in 930 AD, it was based upon Norse mythology. Catholic Christian missionaries followed over 100 years later. 

Thingvellir National Park Iceland

At the famous legislative assembly, the Alþingi at Þingvellir, in the year 1000, the country was on the brink of civil war due to these competing religions. The leaders chose a person that everybody respected for his wisdom, the heathen priest and chieftain, Þorgeir of Ljósavatn, to decide the fate of the land. After spending a day and night in silent meditation, Þorgeir called the assembly together and announced his decision. “If we put asunder the law, we will put asunder the peace,” he said. “Let it be the foundation of our law that everyone in this land shall be Christian and believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thingvellir National Park Panorama Iceland

Besides the landmark Reykjavik Church, I also passed by the Reykjavik Cathedral which is located in the city’s main public squares, Austurvöllur.

Dómirkirkja or Reykjavik Cathedral does not look like many cathedrals I’ve seen in big cities around Europe. It is much smaller and even reminds me of some country churches in the USA. It was built by Danish workmen in the 1788 in neoclassic style, but the site has been a church since the 1200s, when Iceland was still divided into two diocese. It is where the people in the Icelandic Parliament join for mass before starting a new session and it is where the Christmas mass is broadcasted from and is considered very sacred. 

Dómkirkjan in Reykjavik
Cathedral

Currency: Icelandic Kroner (about 120 Kroner to 1 USD)

Everything is expensive in Iceland. For example: $35 for a European size-portioned (and delicious) main course at a restaurant, not including any drinks or other dishes. Buying food in the grocery store and cooking at your AirBnb if possible is one way to keep within your budget, but be warned.

I stayed at the tastefully decorated Eric the Red Guesthouse, which was quite cozy and hosted by a lovely woman who made a delicious breakfast buffet, and I used Gray Line tours to book the Golden Circle tour of the three major tourist sites (I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights because it was overcast at night during my visit, but the other sites were still worth it!)

National Park Iceland
Dress appropriately in January

Hitchhiking to Prislop Monastery, Romania

Hitchhiking to Mountaintop Monastery in Transylvania

Why go all the way to a remote monastery in the Carpathian mountains of central Romania? 

To visit a grave, of course. A man whose life greatly influenced mine – a man who taught me to take my own spiritual growth seriously and to explore my soul’s depths – his teacher was Arsenie Boca (29.9.1910 – 28.11.1989). He told me a lot about Arsenie Boca, Romanian orthodox monk, priest and artist persecuted under the communists, who is revered with increasing intensity in Romania. While interning in a church congregation in Vienna in 2015, I spontaneously decided to go on a pilgrimage to visit Boca’s grave at Prislop Monastery, and learn about this country in person, a country and place my friend and teacher had told me so much about.

I made it to Prislop! The selfie view of the forest around Prislop Monastery

How to Get to Prislop

Coming from Vienna, first I had to take a train to Budapest, then hitched a ride via Blablacar.com, a ride-sharing app to Cluj-Napoca, a 6 hour drive (crossing the border here by car means leaving the Schengen Visa area, so depending upon your passport it might take longer). Then I got another Blabla ride from Cluj to Deva (approx. 2 hours south) and there my friendly Romanian driver helped me find the right mini-bus heading south from the domestic bus station at Piata Garii in central Deva. The minibus dropped me off 45 minutes later in Hateg, via a stop in Hunedoara.

After enjoying a lunch of polenta with egg and cheese, a national dish called ‘mămăligă cu bulz cu ou’, I hired a taxi to drive me the 15 km up to Prislop monastery. [Update: as of 2016 the road to the monastery is under construction and makes the trip more difficult, check Tripadvisor reviews for the latest]. The driver waited for me, and I left my backpack in the car so I was free to explore the final resting place of the Romanian orthodox priest and monk Arsenie Boca.

Polenta with eggs and cheese

Transportation in Romania

Getting to Romania is quickest by plane, but most fun by car – the roads are not very well-developed, and there are few highways so travel is slow but this gives you a view of the countryside, much of which still untouched.  You can see the haystacks piled up in their traditional mushroom form, and really get a feel for the place. Because I had a limited time, once I had seen the monastery, I took the taxi back to Hateg, and hitched by lorry to the train station in Simeria; from there I got a train from there to Sibiu, another city I was eager to see. 

Turning up the road to Prislop
The traditional haystacks

Hitchhiking is still common in rural Romania, and so I decided to give it a try when needed to get back to Vienna ASAP, and I saw a middle-aged woman hitching a ride on a main road. I stood next to her and followed suit when she got into a large truck, or lorry, for the Brits out there. I don’t recommend hitch-hiking for those uninitiated to budget travel or cultures in general. I rarely do it, and rely upon my intuition, faith and years of experience with cultures, and with people.

For example, once I hitched a ride with my host sister in Berlin because we were late to school when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. Not a good idea. The men who picked us up joked about not letting us out, and tried to get some action from us, before finally opening the doors again. At the time, being late for school trumped risk of bodily injury apparently: Ah, teenagers. 

Cerna River plain near Hunedoara

But hitching remains commonplace in rural areas and less-developed countries where there’s the culture of hospitality and scarce resources, or no public infrastructure, where everyone still knows everyone else and helping out your neighbor remains self-evident. I also discovered in Romania that it seemed like every second person I met had an immediate family member who had immigrated to the U.S., so they were more than happy to help me and tell me about their son or daughter, now a lawyer or doctor in San Francisco, or New York. My fellow hitcher lady was no different.

View of scenery from my ride

Four years later in Berlin I encountered some Romanian guest laborers living near a friend’s container commune (seriously, so Berlin!) and despite the language barrier, I managed to communicate that I had visited Prislop. That warranted receiving a portion of fried chicken and many thumbs up from them. Boca is well-known throughout the Romanian world for having spiritual powers, and many people still flock to his grave, and to see his paintings. I was lucky that it was not very busy the day I visited, and the crowd-control lines were empty.

History of Prislop

Prislop is believed to have been founded by monk and serial-monastery-founder St. Nicodim in the second half of the 14th Century, and experienced many ups and downs in the centuries since, finally being restored under the leadership of Boca in 1948. Prislop is still an active monastery, or rather nunnery actually with nuns and clergy busily going about their day. There is supposed to be a healing spring nearby, but I did not explore that far. 

Monastery view upon entering

The main hi-light is the small stone church, which houses one of Boca’s frescoes, and his grave up the hill, with the trees and mountains rising up around. It is said that flowers there never wilt or die; they did look rather fresh to me. The faithful come up to the grave to touch it, and the presence of this man’s influence is still to be felt. My friend related an anecdote about Boca, that he was speaking to a congregation and had the ability to perceive people’s lives and deeds, in one incident calling out a woman for aborting a child, and in another chastising other believers, and making a great impression upon them. He became known as “guider of souls” and thousands sought him out for his gifts of prophecy and healing.

Empty lines for pilgrimage crowd-control up to the gravesite

Boca became a threat to the communist regime and was banned from clerical work and Prislop in 1959. He then worked at the Romanian Patriarchate’s Workshops in Bucharest and after his retirement in 1967, painted for 15 years at the St. Nicholas” Orthodox Church in Drăgănescu in Southern Romania, now known as the “Sistine Chapel of Romania.”

It is difficult to find much material on his life and work outside of Romanian, but in time that will change. According to Wikipedia, in October 2015, the same month of my visit to Prislop, the autonomous Romanian Orthodox church began considering “the cause of his recognition and proclamation as a saint.” If you speak Romanian, you might find this film interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw

Entryway to the stone church of Prislop Monastery

As his influence grows, so do the commercial opportunities connected to his name; the road to the monastery has people selling icons and photos of the priest, his piercing eyes and stern visage appearing to question the enterprise. I also saw his photo for sale in other areas of Romania .

Photos of Father Arsenie Boca for sale on the road to the monastery
Arsenie’s visage in passing

During my trip I was listening to this Romanian a capella group’s religious album, it gives a you a feel for the language: Artis Voice Quartet, “Hristos a Inviat/Christ Was Sent” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gslHZyJJ-Bg

I only learned of this artist last year on my second trip to Romania, but in recent years, famous Romanian rapper Cedry2k (aka Marius Stelian Crăciun) has become influenced by Arsenie Boca in his conversion (back) to Romanian Orthodoxy. You can hear one of his songs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwwVsBPWfCc.

Here is an interview with Cedry2k from 2013, where he talks about his return to God. If you speak Romanian, you will enjoy it, otherwise I put it in Google Translate which did an ok job, and this quote from him covers everything:

“Everything happened gradually, slowly. Over time, I began to appreciate this example of Christ, of unconditional love. I came to realize that in life it is relatively easy to do anything. One thing is very difficult – to love unconditionally, to give your heart to a man who is your enemy, to respond in the end with love to everything around you. Not necessarily because it is so. you have to, but because that’s the reality in you. And slowly, slowly, all my prejudices towards the Church were taken away. I happened to encounter certain maxims of the saints who shocked me by their depth. They seemed to me of divine origin….Love is the only true proof of God’s presence in the world.”

 

A Day of Churches in Thessaloniki, northern Greece

A Day of Churches in Thessaloniki 

This post also appeared in Greek in the ThessPress here: https://www.thesspress.gr/religion/item/173752.html

I first came to Thessaloniki while attending a semester abroad in Athens during college. I was studying politics, languages and religion and we came to Thessaloniki as part of the course on the Theology of the Orthodox Church I was taking. I remember walking along the waterfront promenade, up to Aristotle Square, and seeing many churches.  Our professor, a British classicist telling us the history of the Rotunda, which had been badly damaged in an earthquake the year I was born and was still being repaired, scaffolding covering the walls. 

My welcome to Thessaloniki, the imposing Patriarch, martyr and Metropolitan/Bishop Aimilianos Lazaridis of Grevena in Aristotle Square

I didn’t know it would take me 18 years to return – now as a hobby travel blogger focusing on religion. The city welcomed me with warmth and although the omnipresent Nescafe frappes haven’t changed, there is now much more delicious gelato! With a smart phone in hand the city is easy to navigate but I nevertheless circle the major churches and monasteries on a paper map and made my way from my hotel near Antigone Square, and head off into the city.

First stop is the 11th Century Church of Panagia Chalkeon located below the street level surrounded by a well-manicured park. Several people eagerly await the arrival of the priest, and again I can see just how alive and relevant the church remains in the daily lives of Greeks.

The Church of Panagia Chalkeon (Greek: Παναγία τῶν Χαλκέων) 11th Century

Next stop is the Church of St. Demetrios, patron Saint of the city. It was first built on the site of ancient Roman baths in the 5th Century over the site of his martyrdom in 306 AD. The namesake’s relics are worshipped here, with many devout Orthodox streaming past the small shrine housing the remains, taking cotton swabs from a bowl outside, dipping them in holy water and touching the shrine, then dabbing their children on the forehead with the swabs.

flowers outside St. Demetrios Church

I sit in the pews, taking in the powerful smell of incense and watching the elderly greek women chatting with one another; despite the large groups of tourists streaming through there is a humble and reverent tone in the air. It feels alive, despite the old and even ancient settings, people are still drawn here. 

ChuHagios Demetrios (Greek: Άγιος Δημήτριος), is the main sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki

Noticing summer heat I headed upwards through the winding streets, stopping for an espresso and kalouri breadstick snack, which gave me the kick I needed to keep winding my way under the midday sun to the small old church of the Friar Saint David (Ieros Naos Osiou David) with its mosaics from the around 480 AD, one of which is unique in representing Christ without a beard (I didn’t get a picture).

above the altar
entry to the Church of Hosios David (Greek: Όσιος Δαβίδ), a late 5th-century church

The view from the courtyard of the church, with its bell and Greek flag flying over the bay were well worth the hot walk.

view over Thessaloniki from Hosios David Church

I continued uphill another 5 minutes to find the Vlatadon Monastery (which has been in continuous use since its founding in the 14th Century) with its lavishly decorated chapel, and equally pretty peacocks in an enclosure overlooking the city and sea below. 

the peacocks of the Vlatadon Monastery

I walked back down to the port via the still standing Roman and early Christian Eastern Wall, happy to have seen a good portion of the city, and looking forward to more, but after a much-needed cold drink. 

Vlatadon Monastery Church from the side facing the sea
some friendly Romanian tourists helped me take a photo on the top of the Eastern wall

“Yes, I said ‘church’” or, “Boston Memories and Free Churches”

 TravelCon19 in Boston

While attending TraveCon19 in Boston last month (hurray for the travel blogging community!), I met a fellow travel-blogger the first day who, when I shared that I blog about religion, and that my blog name was Church-Traveler, said, “That makes me want to run away.” They continued, “I hear church, and I can’t hear anything after that.” I know that this is a common experience. There are many people who are genuinely allergic to churches. Burdened by the baggage of the past, the weight of the crimes and sins of commissions and omission connected to institutionalized religion—perhaps even inflicted directly upon them—many people cannot relate, or think of a church as anything less than a sum of its past and they would certainly not go out of their way to visit churches, as a hobby like me! And that’s ok. They don’t have to go to churches, or read my blog and look at the photos I post.

I knew a woman once who told me how when she went into my church the incense made her feel ‘unfree’ and nauseous. I understand, and don’t think that everyone should want to go to churches the way I do. But I find myself drawn to them, and so I go. I can’t seem to avoid them for long, and then I want to write about what I see and experience too. I notice religious themes everywhere in our modern world, and it fascinates me. So here goes…

Working on my pose

“Free Gifts”

Wandering downtown in Boston after TravelCon, I walk down Tremont Street, passing Temple Street, and approaching the Park Church I’m reminded of the first time I visited Boston when I was about 14 years old. It was an 8th grade class trip I think, and a group of my friends and I encountered some Hare Krishnas on the street. They were wearing the orange garments, and had literature to hand out. I was a particularly young and late-blooming teenager, totally insecure, angst-ridden, with no ability to stand up for myself or say when I was uncomfortable. The Hare Krishnas pressed a book into my hand after some initial conversation and made it seem like it was a “free gift,” and so I began to turn to leave, but the man made it clear that I was supposed to pay actually, and it was $20 “donation.” Or maybe it was only $8, but some vast sum for me at the time. I dutifully forked over the cash.

That icky feeling I had of being manipulated and somehow unable to say “No thank you,” and just walk away, that feeling has been connected to religion for me for a long time. I have spent a good part of my life getting to a place where I can ask first “How much does this cost?” without any embarrassment. The feeling of ‘Ick’ is connected to someone wanting something from me. What is it that they want? Money? Sex? My Soul? Or maybe my agreement and consent to their world and religious views. It varies, but it has taken me many adventures, both good and bad, to be able to assess much more quickly than my 14 year-old self which one of these things is on the person’s agenda.

Fire and Brimstone at the Crosswalk

“Are you saved?”

Other similar experiences which contributed to my fraught relationship with religion: While babysitting for a family down the street in my small town in Massachusetts when I was around 14-15 years old, the parents came home with their friends with whom they were on a double date, the mother introduced me to their male friend with: “This is our babysitter Bettina, her dad is a minister.” And so the interrogation began. He thought he was having a conversation with an informed member of a church—me being a PK (Pastor’s kid, Preacher’s Kid, Priest’s Kid, a special club you may have heard of)—after all, but I knew nothing of his questions. Which Bible translation does your church use? What does your church believe happens after we die? Heaven or Hell? He kept going, explaining how he had been saved and born again after a life of sin and drugs, and it kept edging towards the fact that I was clearly not saved at all. I just wanted to get out of there and go home. But I couldn’t stop him from talking, I was unable to extricate myself from that conversation, which had quickly become very one-sided. The Ick feeling was so strong I still can recall it like it was yesterday. 

Park Church Boston

Another anecdote: In college I was sitting in the coffee-shop of the all-women’s college nearby, with my freshly shaved head (one of those things you do in college), looking rather butch. A nice girl struck up a conversation and while chatting and getting to know her, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out whether she was a lesbian trying to pick me up or why she was talking to me as the setting and my own appearance would have lent to that interpretation. I knew the feeling very well from men trying to pick me up, that flow of energy coming from below the belt, wanting something, aiming for something. At some point, the question came: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” I was truly surprised! I was getting the exact same vibes from this woman, and it was either an attempt to get in my pants, or in my soul.

Tremont Temple on Tremont St. Boston

The standard by which I assess how much I ‘like’ or ‘approve’ or want to associate myself with any religion, sect, group, church, congregation, I encounter is always: Do I feel free? Am I being pressured or manipulated? I have a highly attuned sense of it. I know that is a tricky thing, a paradox even, because the mandate to convert is in the New Testament, but there is definitely a lot of room for interpretation on how to go about doing it. How to inform about religion, or of one’s convictions without imposing on the autonomy of another person?

Wandering around Boston now in 2019, I saw many signs that religion is alive and well, and playing a role in people’s lives. I visited many churches, and passed by as many others. The signs near Faneuill Hall alerting visitors to the fake monks scamming people, complete with photos, showed me that people are still willing to engage with people they think are religious, even to their detriment. 

Monk Scam Alert

Entering the Commercial District I passed the Park Church on Tremont St., walked past the Granary Burial Ground where an early idol of mine – Paul Revere – is buried, and came upon the Tremont Temple, crossing over to get a closer look at the Greek Revival style architecture. It turns out it houses the Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamerica de Boston (Hispanic American Baptist Church of Boston) and there was a service being held! I was welcomed in by some friendly elderly ladies at the door, and they pointed me downstairs to the service being held on a Saturday evening in Spanish, with all-female singers getting the congregation in the praise-worthy mood before the preacher began his sermon. The preacher welcomed me and pointed me to a chair, but I said I couldn’t stay long and just happened to be passing by. There were perhaps 20 people total participating in the international bilingual worship service, and the music was so great I made a voice-memo of it so that you can enjoy it too.

Here is some audio of the Spanish language service at the Temple

https://www.church-traveler.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Boston-Church-Music.m4a?_=1

According to the plaque on the outside, the Tremont Temple was a theater first before being bought by the Free Baptist Society in 1843 who had a racially integrated congregation. It continued to function as a theater where such greats as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens made appearances, because as described by the Boston Literary District:

“The Tremont Temple was founded on the principle that worship should be free. It was begun by the Free Church Baptists, who opposed what was then a common practice of charging “rent” for space in a church pew… By using parts of the church as commercial space, and opening the theater for public events, the Tremont Temple was able to remain free, and therefore had the first integrated congregation in the country. The first two tenets of the church made these aims explicit:

 

…to make continued efforts to supply every human being with the privileges of Gospel…

 

…All who practice slavery or justify it, shall be excluded from the church and its communion…”

After listening to the great music for a while, but wanting to see more of Boston before the sun set, I left the Temple before the sermon began with spirits uplifted and feeling free as a bird.

 

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.

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 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. 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 Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to hereafter as 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 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.