A Month of Sundays
When discussing matters of faith, more than a few people I know make the claim that though they're not religious, they are spiritual. It's a nice distinction, one that I usually take to mean that while the person in question has managed to free themselves of the parochial concerns and organized machinery of the world's major religions, he still retains a healthy appetite for the same superstitions that the less organized version of religion offers.
Though I profess no faith myself, do not attend a church of any sort and remain quite dubious to any supernatural activity, let me boldly affirm the previous claim's opposite: I am far happier being religious rather than spiritual. Give me Christ over crystals, Torah over Tarot, the Ganges over the goddess.
I was reared a devout Protestant, and though we described ourselves as "non-denominational," I now see that to be synonymous with evangelical. Religious feeling came easily to me, and as my family drifted from the church of my boyhood, I joined a group of religiously minded friends and became a Methodist. By high school I was all Enlightenment rebellion, forswearing religion altogether and, barring a six-week dalliance with the Washington DC Quakers-that our only Presidential Friend, Herbert Hoover, attended this meeting house only added to its appeal – I've withdrawn my hat from the race.
Yet religion has always captivated me, and the ritual of its practice been a source of fascination. I love the ritual of going to church Sunday mornings, putting aside time each week to exercise the moral faculties, contemplate personal improvement and, if only briefly, eschew the baser bits of our world.
Thusly, I set out for this mission a deep skeptic, yet also terribly excited to visit four churches in search of something I couldn't quite name. Not God, not epiphany; something effable. And though I tried to make myself open to revelation or awakening, I suppose I set to see what would move me. Turns out a lot of things did. Strange things, unexpected things, and in every single case, delicious things.
My first port of call was a church I'd aimed to visit since moving to San Francisco: the Norwegian Seaman's Church. It sits on the northern slope of Russian Hill with an enviable view of the Bay, Alcatraz, and all beyond it. It's one of scores of churches the Norwegians have established in seafaring towns the world over, and as I arrived in time for the weekly service – in Norwegian this week, though at times it's in Swedish – I found myself easily the youngest in attendance.
The service is held in a small, simple chapel with a few ornaments of a thoroughly nautical air: a model tall ship suspended from the ceiling and an altarpiece showing Jesus walking on the turgid ocean. The music, too, invoked the sea, as the organ mimicked a foghorn and the accordion echoed the woozy, lapping waves. From there it was a sober affair with the service falling into the familiar Protestant pattern of liturgy, hymns, the Lord's Prayer (its cadence and meter are exactly the same in Norwegian), a sermon and a final hymn.
Though I gleaned little from the sermon, I found myself thinking about the pious sailors who founded churches like this all over the world, and how the service – particularly the music, with its moody shanties and hazy tangos - honored them. It moved me, the thought of intrepid mariners founding outposts of their faith. Though perhaps not as much as the reception that followed.
As we wandered upstairs to the main hall and sitting room, a splendid spread of Nordic pastries, waffles, preserves and cakes awaited us. The previously subdued crowd of aging Scandinavians were suddenly chattering away in their native tongues, jostling for another slice of the creamy, sweet brown cheese that graces every Norwegian table. It suddenly became clear to me that this church was more a cultural center than strictly a house of worship. As I talked with people who had made the trek from, say Sunnyvale, for the chance to speak Swedish for an hour each week, I came to see the wider community here: A lively group of ex-pats, far from their northern European homes, welcoming me in with music, faith, and food.
Should you seek that yourself, the library and sitting rooms are open every day during business hours; the two-dollar snack of coffee and waffles is a must.
The service was about an hour long, and though I managed to mostly follow along with the startlingly beautiful melodies thanks to the transliterated Hebrew in the siddur (Shabbat prayerbook), I was mostly out of my depth. But the dozens of voices singing in unison, with the volume surging at the refrains held visceral power.
After a small reception we went on to a dinner given by members of the congregation at their home, a neighborly feature of the service meant to extend the sense of community beyond the walls of the Women's Building. We ate, drank and chatted, and as we left I fell in love with the scale of Shabbat. It's the first religious custom I've practiced that seemed to want to be so small, so ordinary, a sacred time apart woven, without fanfare, into our prosaic weeks. You walk. You don't walk far. You sing, you eat and then you walk home. No commerce, no work, just your very local community. You set aside this time each week, when the world grows very small and very slow, and it nourishes you.
My Sunday morning ritual took another hit as my next religious ceremony was on a Saturday night. A friend and I drove out to the very foggy, very cold fringes of John McLaren Park to visit BAPS Swaminarayan Hindu Mandir of San Francisco. I'd never visited a mandir (a Hindu temple) before and expected my little adventure in foreign language worship to have hit truly rocky shoals.
Though I sat in incomprehension for 80 minutes listening to the stories of what I later learned were the 24 incarnations of Vishnu in the northern Indian language of Gujarati, the charm of the Swami delivering the lecture was undeniable. The Norwegian preacher had led an otherwise somber service, and the Jews at Mission Minyan had no sermon at all, but this somewhat portly, saffron-robed priest had the audience in stitches, gesturing animatedly and cracking jokes that had the hundred people present rapt. An engaging speaker who deftly mixed songs into his lecture, he showed no signs of slowing, nor his flock any signs of waning attention hours into his sermon. And though I couldn't understand what he was saying, his humor, candor and empathy shone through. Not enough to make us stick around for the remaining hour though.
But before we could duck back out in the misty night-incurring a number of dirty looks as we headed for the door, we were intercepted by two women, led to the back of the temple and promptly served a second dinner. Though I have a great fondness for Nordic breakfast treats, this food was the best by far, and the women who served it chatted us up about all things Hindu. Their warmth was palpable, and even though they must have suspected that they'd never see us again, I couldn't help, for just a moment, reckoning if there wasn't some way I couldn't get back for the next day for Aarti (a fire ritual) and dinner.
For my fourth service in as many weeks, I got back to my Sunday morning routine. This time I biked to Chinatown for the twice-a-month Sunday meetings of Buddha's Universal Church. I'll confess up front that this church did not initially pique my interest on religious grounds, but on architectural ones. Easily the best modern design in Chinatown, this mid-century church, replete with rich teak accents and geometric metal screens is the perfect blend of the 1950s's booming American modernism and the stripped-down Asian aesthetic that so greatly influenced it. That I could also get a proper tour of the building after church was no small bonus.
The actual service was quite short – 30 minutes – and bucking the trend of my religious wanderings, bilingual. The pastor delivered a short homily on duty, karma and kindness, the choir sang a song about loyalty and then it all happened again. In Chinese. Yet I could not get enough of the numinous space. The soaring ceiling of the chapel, the golden Buddha altarpiece and the teak screens on either side made for a near-religious design experience.
Once the service had ended, Terry, my guide, escorted me to every nook of the four-story building. Constructed over 11 years starting 1951, Buddha's Universal Church is the largest hand-built Buddhist church in America. Black and white photos of the original parishioners and volunteers who built the place adorn a bulletin board on the basement level, a tribute to the labor that made the church such a beauty. On the roof deck, modernism's geometric simplicity deftly rubs up against Asian tradition, and the view south across Portsmouth Square ought to be the envy of every church in town.
Though I can't say that I felt the indwelling presence of the Buddha at his Universal Church, I did feel Walter Gropuis, possibly I.M. Pei, and most definitely one of my new favorite San Francisco buildings. The tea after the service was nothing to scoff at either.