How Religious Diversity Enriches Our Lives   Leave a comment

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How Religious Diversity Enriches Our Lives

The debate over the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ misses an important potential virtue of the project: what non-Muslim New Yorkers and visitors will gain from its presence.

The atheist son of nonpracticing Jews, I’m about as far from a Christian as you can get this side of paganism. And yet I love churches.

When I was a child, it was a Roman Catholic church—St. Augustine’s, the massive jumble of stone and wrought iron that takes up half the city block adjacent to that of my parents’ house in Brooklyn—that anchored my sense of place. On the return leg of car trips, St. Augustine’s spire appearing on the horizon told me we were almost home. The fence provided an outfield wall for Wiffle-ball games, and the bells chiming on the hour reminded me to get out of bed (not that it did much good).

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was showing off my neighborhood to a friend from out of town when she asked whether I had ever been inside the church. I was ashamed to admit that I had not. “Ben!” she exclaimed, with genuine horror at my lack of curiosity toward such a beautiful building that I passed every day. Ever since then I have made a point of ducking in every few years. I have stumbled upon masses in Creole for Haitian-American parishioners, and services in Spanish. I have yet to actually witness one in English, although they do occur.
I revel in my native Brooklyn’s identity as “the borough of churches,” from the imposing Gothic Episcopal and Catholic edifices to plain little Baptist storefronts and modest Pentecostal signs in Spanish.

One summer night many years ago, while walking home from work, I heard the most joyous music emanating, like an aural glow, from the basement of a church a few blocks from the house where I grew up. I wandered down in time to catch the very end of the African-American gospel choir filling the basement with their uplifting song. The moment they finished, I planned to leave, but the pastor was such a pleasure to watch—with his passionate and playful delivery a decided counterpoint to my previous experiences with clergy of all faiths—that I stayed.

Perhaps my favorite is Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, its unadorned, modest New England Congregationalist architecture a striking, peaceful counterpoint to the Victorian grandeur of its surrounding neighborhood. Plymouth was the home of the great abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

And then there is St. Ann’s, the Episcopal congregation that incubated my progressive high school, and still lends its large and riveting, if somewhat worn-out, space to the school for major events. There, in the pews, under the stained-glass windows, were the sources of some of my fondest and most poignant memories of high school: a teacher leading us all in an acoustic rendition of The Wall by Pink Floyd at the annual Christmas assembly, a recent memorial service for a social-studies teacher who mentored me.



Posted September 7, 2010 by dmacc502 in Uncategorized

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