City of God
Only slivers of skin showed through the black ink tattooed on his forearms, his long beard was dark as was his demeanor. The girl next to him gazed out from blunt black bangs, her arms the feminine partner to his Gothic design. My eyes wandered over the sea of plaid shirts and unwashed hair, if it was just a night at the Bushwick Country Club I would have fit right in, checking out the scene through my dark rimmed glasses. If we were all sipping cheap beer complacently chatting about some show, everything would have seemed normal. I would have not known the secret that separates them from me: these people believe in Jesus.
I was not at ease comfortably resting on a bar stool, but sitting nervously alone in a pew of the Resurrection Presbyterian Church in the heart of East Williamsburg. I could hear the J train in the distance as I stared straight ahead at their crucified savior in white porcelain behind the pulpit. Could they tell that I wasn’t one of them? When I unconfidently coughed up “Peace be with you” to my neighbor as directed, did she know there was a traitor in her midst just for the sake of writing a story? As the young bearded pastor preached about the 7th Commandment “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery”— explaining that the bible in fact celebrates sex, but making love outside of marriage is a sin, and when you sin you are cheating on God—did they know that I was then a cheater? And was I in a room full of virgins…
All my life I have wanted to be a part of something, something greater than being a writer, or a girlfriend, or a daughter. It has been a continuous search to find where and with whom I fit in. Although it has certainly subsided the older and more comfortable I get with myself, at this moment as everyone except me stood up to receive their Communion, my lack of faith made me feel totally alone. If only I could feel the presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—not only would my sins be forgiven but I could be a part of this.
But no, I just don’t buy it. So when the service ended I had to get out of there, but still part of me wished I wasn’t such an outsider. Just as it would have been at the Bushwick Country Club, everyone began to mingle and interact with one another. Young people that looked like me making connections, they just didn’t need cheap beer to do it. In line for the bathroom when I was leaving I overheard a girl telling her friend that she’ll introduce her to “everyone”—she would probably meet her husband there. And they would consummate their relationship the way it should be done in the eyes of their God. So how do you find this kind of togetherness if you can’t dedicate your life to a higher power?
Two nights before, I tagged along with my father for his usual Friday night service at the Baith Israel Anshei Emes temple in Carroll Gardens. There were no crucifixes or stained glass, but I was surrounded by people with a common belief —and again I was a spectator. I felt more comfortable there because I was with a member of my family and their community, but even though my father is Jewish and I have attended many services with him to make him happy, I still can’t feel the faith in me. I never had a Bat Mitzvah and I don’t read Hebrew, and I just don’t know if I believe in their God either.
Scanning this scene I was also surprised by the number of young people in attendance—dedicating their Friday evening to worship—though these people were obviously from Carroll Gardens, not East Williamsburg. And this was not like any service I had ever been to, almost the whole hour was spent singing uplifting Hebrew melodies one after the other, with a short break to read from the torah, pray silently, and for the rabbi to give his succinct sermon.
The cantor who led everyone in song after song couldn’t have been over 30. He seemed to silently encourage everyone to leave their inhibitions outside in the other world. People of all ages belted out passionately as he beat his hands to the rhythm on the podium he stood behind. It was actually fun, and I couldn’t help but laugh as I took a sideways glance at my adorably rhythmic and vocally challenged (like me) father finding his own beat. I was being swallowed by a religious drum circle and for a minute I thought I could get into this. I could be a part of this community—take the subway and meet my dad every Friday after work and sing my little heart out, to these words that mean nothing to me and this God that I don’t know….Oh yeah.
Then my mind started wandering, and in came the thoughts about work, and boys, and what I was going to do later that night. Those are the things that are a part of me, not this. I was just fooling myself into thinking this was moving me. It’s kind of how I feel when at the end of a yoga class after Savasana, I am so refreshed and alive that I think I will come back again and again and find my inner yogi spirituality and see these people week after week. Maybe even study in an ashram in India one day. But then time slips by and I haven’t even gone to a class in months. Is it that I can’t find the right God or community, or just that I just don’t have the discipline to do so?
So I set out to ask people who are parts of these religious communities. I wish I could’ve have talked to people from as many religions as possible, and not just monotheistic faiths. But in my world of Atheists and Agnostics, it’s not easy to find religious people let alone ones that have the time and willingness to talk about this somewhat touchy subject. I contacted the pastors of the Resurrection Church, but maybe they sensed my outsider status because when I tried to ask them how they found God, my emails were never returned. I reached out to my friend who is a practicing Buddhist and very involved in the San Francisco Buddhist community, but she had been partying it up in Miami (yes a partying Buddhist) for the last week and hadn’t had time to enlighten me.
So of course I went to my dad, he’s always got time for me. Robert Cahn grew up a part of a Jewish household, so as he says, he was automatically a part of the Jewish community. He was a member of the youth group in the town he grew up in and was in a Jewish fraternity in college. But when he married my Catholic mother, they decided to not baptize or Bar Mitzvah any of their four children, but still take them to Church and temple on holidays as outsiders looking in on both religions. I always thought it was a good decision to dip our toes and let us choose our own fate. But this is something my father deeply regrets to this day. And now when none of his children are religious and I see these different communities that I am not a part of, I understand why.
After my parents divorced, my dad got involved in Judaism once again because he believes there should be three pillars in a person’s life: family, work, and religion.
“It’s important to believe in something more powerful than you and nice to have things in common with people,” he explains. “It gives me a sense of community and is a good way to meet people, make friends, and socialize.”
Yes I see that, but what about the believing part? He did make me feel better when I told him about how my attention waned during the service.
“A lot of times I am thinking about other things, like what I am doing later. I like to look around and see the people, sing, and have an enjoyable evening. There are a range of reasons people come to services, not everyone in that room is thinking about God the whole time.”
A friend of mine recently found a place for herself within the Church of Agape, which is Christian in that it references the Bible in its teachings, but not traditionally because they do not believe in the “acceptance of Jesus as the only savior, and Christianity as the only path to God and eternal salvation.”
“I first went to Agape to find myself through God. There was something inside me that was craving spirituality - a higher power. I was just getting out of the haze of my father's death and for the first time in a while I really wanted to feel good again. Agape gives me love. It’s all encompassing and bigger than myself. It’s freeing and emotional. The first time I went, I cried and became hooked immediately. When I go I feel really good about myself and the world” she says.
I want those things. But do you either have to be raised in a certain religion or go through something terribly tragic to find them? I don’t know if that is true, because religion is everywhere. Even when I am not perpetrating onto others times of worship or forcing people to spill how they found their faith, I am surrounded by it. Especially in this microcosm we call New York, from the guy screaming that Jesus will save me on the subway, to the bearded men on Bedford asking if I’m Jewish, to my nieces’ Tibetan nanny taking the day off to see the Dalai Lama speak.
Every Sunday on my usually quiet block –despite the occasional car alarm or homeless guy clanging through the bottles in our recycling bins – African chants resonate out of the Celestial Church of Christ and masses of congregation members of all ages spill out into the streets forcing me to weave in and out of bodies adorned in white flowing gowns. Just down the block elder African American couples dressed to the nines dressed nines in black Sunday suits and veiled hats make small talk after their Sunday service. Even when I am walking through East Williamsburg intrigued and bewildered by the strange Hasids dressed in identical garb, I see what they have and I feel their community.
My new found envy towards these religious communities is surprising. I was always one to believe in spirituality, but that organized religion is unnecessary. It’s responsible for so many wars and killing millions of people. We don’t need religion because we know now how humans came to be and it wasn’t because God formed them out of clay. And I just fundamentally disagree with so many things certain religions promote. But now—maybe it’s me growing up—I see what religion can do for people. It brings them together, gives them a sense of purpose, and place in the world. We all want that. I have been searching for it for a long time. But you know, after almost four years in this crazy city filled with so many different kinds of people, I do feel a part of something. I feel a part of New York.