Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: All Souls
Location: Lower Harlem, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 March 2011, 11:00am
A small brick parish church built in 1908. While not by any stretch of the imagination an architectural gem a sort of blocky exterior, in fact it is very well-kept and seems loved. The sanctuary boasts new red carpets and very pretty windows. It is much smaller than its neighboring Harlem churches.
The church was originally founded as a mission of St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie in 1859. As times changed, the congregation moved uptown, first with a site on Madison Avenue, then on to Harlem in 1906. All Souls was the location of one of the more dramatic episodes in the history of the Diocese of New York. By the 1930s, the demographics of Harlem had changed when a large number of blacks, many of Caribbean origin, migrated uptown. The rector of All Souls was ordered by the white vestry to exclude black congregants or at least provide them separate services. He refused, so the vestry fired him and locked the church. The bishop ordered the church reopened but the vestry refused, forcing the bishop to summon the police and a locksmith. The following Sunday the bishop himself preached a sermon on the duty of a rector to serve his neighbors. Today there is another shift in demographics, and All Souls finds itself with an aging congregation and a very different neighborhood than even ten years ago.
All Souls located in Lower Harlem, which has gentrified over the past several years. Luxury buildings, complete with wine bars, cafes, and Starbucks sit next to large public housing complexes. Mainline Protestant churches in Harlem, including All Souls, are struggling to confront social change.
The Revd Ajung Sojwal, priest-in-charge.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion with Procession and Decalogue
How full was the building?
About 22, although a few more might have come in after the service started. The building can hold hundreds.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes! As soon as I walked in the door an usher welcomed me, handed me a service bulletin, and directed me to sit anywhere. The priest-in-charge noticed a visitor and came to welcome me personally. Several others followed after that. I can't remember ever receiving such a warm welcome as a first-time visitor to any church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a fairly standard pew with a cushion and a kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Busy and friendly are the first things that pop into my head. I was busy talking with people who came over to introduce themselves and to welcome me.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Prayer Book 1979, The Hymnal 1982, and a service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
An electric organ. Pipes were evident, but I imagine that they're vestigial at this point. The organist, I might add, was just super.
Did anything distract you?
How light and bright the sanctuary is, which you wouldn't expect just looking at the exterior.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a real mix of styles, both high and low. There were some smells and bells, with a procession and incense as well as a hand-holding sing-along Lord's Prayer and a full congregation-wide meet-and-greet peace.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The priest-in-charge spoke, from what I could tell, without notes, which I always find remarkable. It didn't have a fuzzy extemporaneous feel, so I was wondering if she had it memorized. The sermon could have used a bit of an edit, as it was definitely on the long side, but I seemed to be the only one to notice.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a close reading of the psalm of the day, Psalm 121 ("I lift up my eyes to the mountains where does my help come from?"). David is on the road, looking for guidance, protection and comfort. We, too, are on a journey. The Lord "can be the shade at our right hands" if we allow.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The welcome I received. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to have a guest and to want to get to know me. The organist also played "There is a Balm in Gilead" as an interlude during communion, which was just fantastic. After hearing her, I felt a little disappointed it wasn't one of the hymns for the day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The length of the service, as it ran almost two hours. I obviously like sitting in church after all I'm spending time reviewing them, but even my limits are pushed at the two-hour mark.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was given no chance to look lost. As soon as the service ended, the lady in the pew in front of me introduced herself and said that of course I would come down to the undercroft for a coffee. Saying no really wasn't an option. I stayed for a coffee, which was delicious, but their coffee hour is really a lunch, and I felt a little strange staying for a lunch I hadn't paid for, even though several urged me not to leave.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Very friendly and relaxed. There were tables set up for lunch and several ladies went about getting that ready. Coffee was definitely a prelude to something bigger.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I lived closer, I would definitely consider making this my regular place of worship. I noticed that they don't have a website, and I am going to contact the priest-in-charge to see if I could volunteer to put one together for them if they wanted. Their welcome inspired me to offer some help, and with a website they could perhaps boost donations or at least raise their profile.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and I feel that members of my own congregation need to attend All Souls for lessons in how to welcome strangers.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Hearing "A Balm in Gilead" and being invited to coffee by the spry 87-year-old, whose birthday it was. I'm most glad I took her up on it.