Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: St Peter's
Location: Clifton, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 December 2010, 7:30pm
This is one of several plain vanilla, contemporary church buildings in the area – which leads me to wonder if someone paid an architect once and used the plans for every church built between 1960 and 1990. Structured of beige brick, and built in a rather triangular shape, St Peter's is saved from plainness by stained glass depicting religious figures and a nicely decorated chancel and altar. For tonight's service, there was a section set aside at the chancel steps where participants could light a small candle from the paschal candle and place it in a box nearby, in memory of those who have died from AIDS.
St Peter's has taken many initiatives for the poor and alienated, clearly in a very concrete fashion. In this computer era, it might be accurate to use the term "hands-on ministry" – there are very practical offerings to assist those in need of food and basic necessities, and varied organizations for addicts and others in crisis. Though not a large church, St Peter's takes such welcoming (and welcomed, as response has shown) initiatives as posting greetings for Muslim holidays.
Clifton is a large industrial city that maintains a vague air of being suburban with its landscaping and zoning regulations. St Peter's is in an older section of Clifton, originally settled in the Dutch colonial era and still containing a substantial population of Dutch Reformed, whose families are pre-historic (history having naturally begun in 1776). The strictness of the Dutch Reformed, whose own church is nearby, is quite a contrast to St Peter's.
This special service was a combined effort of the church and several organizations, including Positive Connection, a support group for persons with AIDS or who are HIV positive; and Oasis, a diocesan program for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender concerns. The Revd Peter DeFranco, rector, presided. The guest speaker was Gary Paul Wright, founder of African American Office of Gay Concerns. Churchwarden Michael Petti led the remembrance of the dead.
What was the name of the service?World AIDS Day Service of Remembrance and Healing
How full was the building?
About 30 people were in attendance – perhaps a third of the church's capacity.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted and provided with a service leaflet and a card on which I could write the names of friends and relatives who had died of AIDS; these cards would be read aloud later.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – quite standard.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived only a few minutes before the service began. The pianist (Ernie Pianezza) was playing a prelude. Most people were already seated. Save for some nods and smiles at acquaintances, it was quiet.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening." This by the rector, who then introduced himself and the guest participants and mentioned the organizations taking part in the effort. The actual service began with: "We gather in the name of the Blessed Trinity, one God, now and forever. Come, Spirit, come, and show us faith sure enough to move mountains."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a printed leaflet containing all prayers and hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Between the AIDS memorial quilt and banners in the chancel (not that I did not appreciate the significance), there were a few too many images up front for me to process (at least at the same time as I'm sadly recalling those whom I've known who have died of AIDS). I also was distracted at my prayer because, though I loved the petitions and readings, the sort of folksy hymns are of a genre I dislike immensely.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was quiet and simple, but very moving. We prayed a litany, for example, responding with "I will not forget you, says our God," with the leader adding petitions for everyone affected by HIV – examples being clinic workers, widows with children, wives who contracted HIV from a husband's infidelity. Prayers emphasized that we, as Church, are the body of Christ – and are all affected by HIV and the sufferings of the Church's members.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I cannot really assess this. Gary Paul Wright seemed an engaging speaker with an outgoing manner. A part of me sensed that his was a dynamic personality, and his experience made me imagine one who is quite a powerful and persuasive speaker. But I also sensed that he was acting with some caution, not knowing the congregation, by being very brief and only occasionally adding a note of wit.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was not a sermon per se. The guest speaker largely gave a capsule history of HIV awareness, initiatives, and progress, including political positions during various presidential administrations.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The obvious caring of all who were present, and the prayers and petitions, which expressed an exceptional awareness of the practical sides of suffering. They did this in all dimensions related to AIDS, not only the physical pain. The prayers were reminders that God remains active in creation and offers us a part in his love. "May we, like you (God), write the names of the world's forgotten people on the palms of our hands" is one example.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Though the service itself was warm and peaceful, I naturally felt pain in remembering the suffering I have seen in those who have AIDS.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was acquainted with a few of those in attendance, so I was able to settle in at the after-service coffee hour easily enough.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, tea, cakes, and (to my delight) fresh melon and berries were all on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I'd rather not give a rating at all. It is unfair for me to judge the church's appeal overall based on a single service, uncharacteristic and for a singular occasion.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed. The prayers and petitions, not only by recognizing how the Church is body of Christ, but also by specific mention of everyone – from grandmothers taking on broods when AIDS patients die, to clinic workers, children losing parents, and so forth – seemed truly to be liturgy (in the sense of work of the people), even if my own liturgical tastes are more highbrow and formal.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
An excerpt from one of the prayers summarizes the overall sense of the service: "We thank you, Father, that you are always compassionate. We thank you that you do not forget those whom the world so quickly forgets. May we be among those who refuse to forget."