"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

“I’ve Been Saved!”– When Evangelism Came To New England

New Brighton in the Fifties was a quiet place, not much different from Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners.  There were butchers, bakers, doctors, and teachers.  Everyone went to church, came in for dinner, and walked to school.  I went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church and my two closest friends went to the Temple El-Israel and the Third Methodist Church of New Brighton.

“What’s it like”, I asked Bruce Feinberg. “Inside, I mean.  Is it like Mass?”.  None of us had ever visited any places of worship other than our own and had no idea what they were like.  We assumed that they must all have priests, sing hymns, and pray; but beyond that, nothing. I knew of the ritual sacrifices described in the Old Testament.  When God was unhappy, he demanded that the Israelites sacrifice a lamb or a sheep, and if they didn’t he would kill them. If Christians had to worry about such a harsh task master, we would be praying like crazy. Luckily our God was all about forgiveness, charity, and redemption.

“It’s not like that”, said Bruce. “It’s boring. The rabbi reads from the Torah. We chant. He reads more from the Bible. He tells us to be good and to obey God’s law; and we go home.”

It was that way for the rest of us, although the Catholic mass seemed a lot more fun. The priests dressed up in silk robes and satin shoes.  There were statues of Mary and the saints all around the altar.  Everything was gold, marble, and ivory. At High Mass there was a lot of chanting, incense, and commotion. Altar boys rang the bells, lifted the cassock of the priest so he wouldn’t trip as he went down the steps to the communion rail, and held the patent under the chin of those receiving Our Lord so that bits of His Body would not fall on the floor and get vacuumed up the next day.  The organist at St. Ann’s was famous, and Catholics from as far away as Wethersfield came to hear him play. My mother said the choir always sang off key, but Mr. Prentice drowned them out with a lot of bass notes.

“Pastor Nichols talks to us about how to how we can make a better world”, Sam Ivory said. “The plight of the Negro and things like that.”

So there it was in a nutshell.  The Jews practiced some kind of ancient Biblical rites.  Catholic Mass was more like opera than religion; and Protestant services were like a high school civics class.

Religion in those days was more a perfunctory exercise of community recognition than worship.  Membership in a church meant that you subscribed to universal moral values. Ipso facto you were a good citizen. Peccadilloes and minor indiscretions could be overlooked if you showed up at church on Sunday.  Praying to the same God, singing the same hymns, and reading from the same missal were unifiers and signifiers. Those who worshipped were bona fide members of the community.

Belief was another story altogether, and for most families in New Brighton was most definitely secondary.  Once Mass was over, God and Jesus Christ were forgotten for another week.  We all acted in accordance with Judeo-Christian principles of course, but as far as praying, reading the Bible, or even reflecting on the life of Jesus and the saints was concerned, they were as removed from our life as what happened in Amarillo, Texas.

“I have been saved”, said Johnny Perkins, a member of the Grace Covenant Fellowship Church on Arch Street, the first evangelical church in New Brighton.

“What does that mean?”, we asked him.

“I have taken Jesus Christ as my personal savior”, he replied.

Of course we had no clue whatsoever what he was talking about and neither did he. He no more understood the fundamentalist preaching of Pastor Hendricks than I did about Transubstantiation or Ascension.  His parents had been saved, he said, and it was a package deal.

It wasn’t long before the religious landscape of New Brighton began to change.  The mainline churches began to lose congregants to the new evangelical halls; and the patient, respectful, but ultimately social devotion of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans was exchanged for the ecstatic, personal, and transforming experience of Grace Covenant and many others like it.

Needless to say, many of the old families of the West End were outraged to have such fanaticism in New Brighton.  Traditional Protestantism defined America, they said.  The Founding Fathers would be appalled at this circus, they hollered.  Reason, rationality, and faith were the three pillars of the Enlightenment, and there was no room in civil society for these zealots.  So the Porters, Marshalls, and Moores, sang with even more gusto at Sunday services, dropped even more money into the basket, and contributed large sums to the Building Fund.

Most New Brighton Protestants went over to the other side simply because the brand of religion practiced at their churches was like stale toast.  Whatever spirit there might have been in Luther’s courageous declaration of independence from Rome; and whatever conviction he might have had in creating a new order of unmediated access to God, had long been ignored or simply left too long in the cupboard.  The new evangelism was the answer to their prayers.  No more uninspired banging on about civil rights, social purpose, and the commonweal.   It was time to meet Jesus face-to-face.

Catholics, not surprisingly, stayed put.  Catholicism was so theatrical that no personal revelation on Arch Street could possibly compete.  Catholics willingly accepted the intercession of priests because they had been anointed by God. Admittedly they were far down the line from St. Peter and the Pope, but once they were ordained, the Holy Ghost resided within them.  They spoke to us with divine authority; and their wonderful orations, symbolic transformations of the body and blood of Christ, their miraculous ability to forgive sins were part of the Church’s mystery.

Most of us boys, however, were scared shitless of Father Brophy in the confessional, and there was no mystery about the encounter at all.  He didn’t just listen to our sins and give us absolution, he grilled us about them.  He wanted to know what kind of impure thoughts we had; specifically which teacher’s blouse had aroused us.  He threatened us with excommunication and hellfire if we continued in our perverse and sinful ways.

As much as we enjoyed the pomp and ceremony of the Mass, especially the swishy theatricality of Father Murphy who sashayed his way from place to place on the altar, and shot his arms up to heaven at the Consecration, having to endure it every Sunday of every year was too much for anyone. Once the priest intoned the conclusion of the Mass, the last five rows of the church emptied. Finally released from the ordeal of sitting through an hour of routine and sermonizing, we sprang out of our pews into the fresh air.

Bruce Feinberg and his Jewish friends remained observant in their adult lives, at least keeping the High Holy Days.  Sam Ivory stayed with the United Church of Christ.  Apparently Pastor Nichols’ social conscience was not as insignificant as he had thought; and Sam helped build his church into a spiritual redoubt for Washington’s most prominent liberals.

As for me, ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’ the old saying goes; and although I ‘left’ the Church long ago, no one ever escapes the harsh indoctrination, punitive obligations, and Father Brophy’s vivid images of hellfire, brimstone, and the Devil.

Perhaps thanks to that severe training I admire recent Popes for their absolute righteousness when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Of course most Catholics pay no attention to Church teachings on contraception and abortion, but the interdiction must be repeated. Although taking its inspiration from Aristotle, the Church has always represented a Platonic ideal. Without a moral standard, who knows where we all would end up.

Pope Benedict, a hardliner and anti-ecumenical to the core, warned the world of neo-evangelism.  Cults were taking this ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ too far. Without the institutional framework of the Catholic Church, the doctrinal wisdom of Augustine and Aquinas, and the long tradition of faith and reason, Christianity would lose out to ecstatic cultism.  The ‘born again’ phenomenon was nothing more than spiritual hucksterism, said Vatican theologians – a manipulative attempt by venal ministers to bilk the faithful. An unmediated faith, one deprived of a theological wisdom and doctrinal exegesis, and one watered only by an eccentric ministry is false, hopeless, and wrong.

Of course the Church was protecting its territory, fighting the incursion of evangelicals in its dominions, and still angrily defying Martin Luther; and yes, these Vatican shills were out of line; but there is definitely some resonance to the Vatican argument.

One day I accepted Johnny Perkins’ invitation to attend a service at his church. I had never seen so much dancing, clapping, and singing.  Everyone at my church sat on their hands for an hour, then bolted after Ite, Missa Est. The parishioners at Grace Covenant got so worked up that the preacher had a hard time getting them back in their seats for the sermon.  It was well worth the wait.  I thought that Father Brophy was good on sin and damnation, but Pastor Nichols was a genius.  He started slowly and quietly, reading a few verses from the Epistles; but soon he fired up his engine and started to roll.  By the end of his harangue, he was soaked in sweat, his tie was askew, he had thrown his jacket into the crowd like a rock musician, and he was standing amidst a whooping and hollering that I could never have imagined before. It was impressive.

So, I have never forgotten Johnny Perkins, the Grace Covenant Fellowship Church, and Pastor Hendricks. Nor have I forgotten Pope Benedict and his Vatican apologists.  Somewhere between theological formalism and wild-eyed, cathartic, ecstasy there may be some spiritual refuge.

Of course the fastest growing ‘religion’ in America is atheism.  More and more people are saying ‘a pox on both your houses’ and giving up on religion entirely.  They are missing out, however, on the operatic melodrama of the Catholic Church, and the high-flying carnival of evangelism, and will be disappointed.  Atheism will become like the United Church of Christ of Chevy Chase. God forbid.

Personally, if there were a box on the Census form under Religion labeled ‘Indifferent’,I would check it.

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