Back in the Pew



50 E 7th Street, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

“I like being pastor of a church that is being disciplined for its positions,” Reverend Dr. Jacqueline Lewis recently announced from the pulpit of Middle Collegiate Church.

The minister was referring to the fact her congregation was under fire from members of its parent denomination, the Reformed Church of America, because it came out publicly in support of gay marriage in New York state.

I never thought I’d resume regular church attendance in midlife, but a devastating break up can do strange things. After Slim, my partner of 26 years, dumped me “to explore what she missed,” I was looking for meaning beyond therapy sessions and psychic predictions. Why was God making me suffer like this? Even my ex said I’d been a devoted partner.

I’d been raised strict Roman Catholic back when nuns still wore habits and ruled the parochial schools that I attended from kindergarten through college. When I was around 19, my parents were crushed that I stopped attending Mass because my native religion seemed too conservative. My Irish born mother cried as she pronounced, “You lost your faith.” My father, a daily communicant, prayed for my return.

After I came out as a lesbian in the 70s, I could not imagine going back to a denomination whose celibate leader proclaimed my sexual orientation a disorder. Instead of formal Sunday worship, I found spiritual solace through practicing yoga and meditation.

Naturally, I visited the Catholic Church for weddings and funerals in my extended family. In recent years, before my gay divorce, I had even made tepid attempts to reconnect with my old religion after staying away for decades. It seemed like something was missing in my life, especially when I felt nostalgic for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Twice I attended Mass in Greenwich Village on holidays and checked out two different parishes. Maybe I made a poor choice but the first time I went back, the priest carried on from the pulpit about how Catholicism was the one true religion. That turned me off (especially since my partner was Jewish) and it did not seem like a Christmas message. The other one felt more welcoming–it even had the same name as my old one, St. Joseph’s, but I never returned. I was no longer hooked and what was once familiar seemed alien.

But after the toxic break up with Slim, who cut me off and rebuffed any contact, I needed spiritual cleansing from the negative energy of loss. While trying to get my bearings, I started attending services at Middle Collegiate Church, a gorgeous old edifice on Second Avenue in the East Village. Over the years, I’d visited this “hip” church for special neighborhood events, but now I showed up regularly.

The congregation prided itself on being multiracial/multicultural and gay inclusive. One Sunday, they introduced new members and a Black M/F transgender initiate sashayed up the aisle to applause and a pastoral embrace. This felt like the church for me to get renewed. Suddenly, I felt in touch with my religious roots while also in sync with the adult believer I’d become since leaving behind rote recitation of the catechism.

At Middle, where the motto was: “Welcoming, Artistic, Inclusive, Bold,” the arts were woven into the services and related to the liturgy. For Advent and World AIDS Day, singers and actors delivered a theater piece about an HIV positive pregnant woman on the Lower East Side. Every week was different. Modern dancers gyrated up the aisles and jazz combos grooved. A traditional choir rendered hymns and a gospel chorus rocked.

For Palm Sunday, the church presented “Jesus Christ Superstar” with a cast of singers brought in especially for this event. I was not surprised that some had Broadway credits. I walked home through the Village humming “Hosanna Hey” carrying my palms recalling how I did this as a kid. But now it was, “I’m here. I’m queer. I’m Christian.”

Reverend Jacqui, the senior minister, was a charismatic preacher whose sermons segued from discussing Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine to declaring "Jesus is in the house." All without missing a beat. This pastor’s brilliant interpretations of the gospel were uplifting. A tall attractive Black woman, Reverend Jacqui had everyone roaring the Sunday she unpinned her braids, play-smoothed her hair and imitated Condi Rice or the day she compared Luke’s time jumping gospels to the writing techniques in a soap opera.

Going to this Protestant conclave made me feel elevated–the music, the prayer, the sermons that rocked. When I went to their website, I discovered their creeds were similar to what I learned as child. I’m back and ready to check out membership.

When I told my therapist–an agnostic Jew–that I was attending church I wondered how she’d react. “That’s great. Whatever gets you through the night,” she said, quoting John Lennon. My shrink thought the rituals offered a soothing structure that helped replace the relationship. I’d unconsciously elevated my ex into the role of my higher power, who made me feel safe and protected. So when my lover betrayed me, my life felt chaotic.

After the break up, I kept thinking of the REM song, “Losing My Religion.” Now I had to make the jump into having faith in myself and possibly finding a new practice.

So the horribly painful breakup had one good effect–it reopened my mind towards religion, which I’d cast aside years ago. For that surprising blessing, I say, “Amen.”

Kate Walter’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Daily News and many other places. She has several works in the upcoming Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood anthology: Lost and Found: Stories from New York.

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