If you have a religious bone in your body …
… and ever make it to New York, you must go to Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. Any doubt that faith is alive and well in America will be gone by the time you leave.
The service I attended there was, without a doubt, the most spiritual experience of my life and one of the things I am most glad to have done this summer.
I’ve been making an effort to go to church on Sundays, but haven’t been completely successful. Visitors, trips and other plans have gotten in the way, but I’ve been to Trinity, St. John, St. Patrick’s and now Brooklyn Tabernacle, and I’d say those are the four most famous in New York.
My Brooklyn Tabernacle morning didn’t start off so well. Subway construction got me there 10 minutes late, which at many Christian churches would’ve meant an awkward entrance, but when I arrived, there were other people still filing in. Behind a surprisingly unassuming and hard to find facade was a theatre larger than that of most Broadway shows with ushers directing late arrivals to the few seats remaining. I entered as the entire congregation was singing, and I was overwhelmed by the volume of sound and how packed the place was.
I was directed to a seat in the middle of a row and surrounded by middle-aged black women, but no one seemed to mind my tardiness. In fact, people continued to arrive for another half hour, and halfway through the service some began to leave. But no one cared. It was a ‘come and go as long as you’re here’ sort of atmosphere.
The music was astounding. The nearly 300-person choir on stage and the hundreds in the congregation were all singing, standing, many with arms in the air. A band, complete with drums and brass, accompanied the music. There were no hymnals or bulletins to follow; the music was on TV screens, but nobody seemed to need that. It was all so emotional and powerful that my eyes instantly welled up with tears. I don’t even know why. And they cleared mere moments before the tears came again.
When the pastor got to the ‘greet your neighbor’ part of the welcome, I was expecting the typical stiff handshakes and then waiting for it to be over. Instead, he told us to greet each other with love, and the women around me instantly hugged me, saying “God loves you,” “Jesus loves you” and even “I love you.”
Shortly thereafter, the pastor welcomed all those new to the church and asked us to raise our hands. I didn’t really want to, for fear of drawing attention to my out-of-place self, but I was surprised by how many visitors were in the audience. He encouraged us all to stand up, so I did, and the two women next to me immediately hugged me again. The women behind me reached for my hands, welcomed me and thanked me for coming.
The choir, clergy and congregation were an amazing mixture of people of all ages and colors, all there in a common purpose: to celebrate God. Which is what they did. There was no talk of judgment or scorn. Theirs is a God of love and forgiveness. And their services are ones of joy and freedom. The choir sang a hymn, a ballad with a soloist and an upbeat spiritual. During each, as they saw fit, people danced, sang along, stood up, clapped, lifted their hands in the air. I’d never seen such an amazing freedom to worship and praise however you feel. Though I felt shy at first, this freedom was liberating even to me, and I soon joined in the singing and clapping, even though they all seemed familiar with music I’d never heard.
At the end of the service, the women once again hugged me, thanked me for coming, encouraged me to come again. Standing there, listening to the pastors (one white, one black, one hispanic) and singing with that congregation, I realized I felt totally comfortable and at peace. I didn’t know a soul in that giant room, but I’ve never felt less alone. I’m not a very religious person, but I can say — for the first time in my life — I know I was in the presence of God in that church.
During the service, the minister told us about a friend of the church in Pakistan. The pastor there had called because the Christian minority in his town was in danger. A mob was building to “Kill the Christians. Burn their houses,” and his family and friends were hiding on his roof. That was the previous Sunday, and the congregation had prayed for the Pakistanis’ safety. The man had called again that morning to say that during the time Brooklyn Tabernacle had their service, a huge wind and rain had come and dispersed the crowd, and then the Imam had stepped in to make peace.
I believe it. Brooklyn Tabernacle is what I call a miracle.