For the best part of two decades, the Mystery Worshipper reports on Ship of Fools have been edited by one of our best and most prolific Mystery Worshippers, Amanda B. Reckondwyth. She writes here in farewell on her last day as editor.
I was brought up a strict Roman Catholic. ‘The Catholic Church is the One True Church,’ the nuns in Sunday school drilled into us. And yet so many of my school friends were Protestant. To hear them talk about what they did at their churches on Sunday made me think, ‘They’re not so different from us!’
As an adult, I was devout at first but began to drift away. Reading A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church by James Kavanaugh had something to do with that. ‘Such books should be burned!’ the priest told me when I admitted in confession that I had read it. Well, that was it. The following Sunday I drove to church and continued to drive right past, and didn’t look back for years.
But then friends who sang in a choral group I belonged to persuaded me to go with them one Sunday to their Methodist church. And guess what? I liked it! ‘We don’t care who you are, or what you’ve done, you’re welcome here!’ was their mantra. And I felt I belonged. But I also came to believe that the Episcopal Church was where I really belonged. ‘The Catholic Church without the guilt and without the schlock,’ it seemed to me. The Methodist Church was all well and good, but I missed liturgy. I missed vestments, incense, holy water – but most of all the Eucharist every Sunday.
And then one day a friend e-mailed me a link. ‘You might be interested in this,’ he said. Knowing the friend, and convinced that the e-mail was genuine, I clicked. And what opened? Ship of Fools! The Mystery Worshipper! St Paul’s, K Street, Washington, DC.
Wow! Here was a world I never knew existed. A community of folks who visit both familiar and unfamiliar churches with their eyes wide open as ‘first time visitors.’ Quick to praise the praiseworthy, but not afraid to poke gentle fun at the trappings of what my college philosophy professor called ‘Christendom’ as opposed to ‘Christianity.’ How did they greet you? How comfortable was the pew? What was the music like? How good was the preacher? Did anything remind you of heaven? And what about, um, ‘the other place?’ How would you feel about going back? Questions all asked and answered with sincerity, but with a bit of salt sprinkled into the answers too.
I was hooked! I applied to be a Mystery Worshipper, and upon approval set out to ‘do’ my first church: in a neighborhood rumored to be Mafioso territory. No, not rumored – it was Mafioso territory! A church from which, urban legend had it, a jewel-encrusted chalice was once stolen. When Godfather Carlo Gambino learned of the theft, he was reputed simply to have said, ‘No police,’ and within hours the chalice was returned. The alleged thief washed up on the New Jersey shore a few days later – well, parts of him did, anyway. Or so the story goes.
Church after church followed. Remembering the experiences of my Protestant school chums, I ventured into churches that would have sent the Sunday school nuns into delirium: a Coptic Orthodox church in my neighborhood; Lutheran churches; Baptist churches; a Russian Catholic church. Churches where my travels took me: Puerto Rico; Mexico; Iceland; Spain.
And not neglecting my homeland: the Cadet Chapel at West Point. A Restructured Church of the Holy Spirit, where I was given holy water to drink! A Superet Light Church, where we prayed to God the Father and Mother as we chanted ‘Superet! Superet! Superet!’ The Angelus Temple, whose founder, Sister Aimee, was buried (rumor has it) with a live telephone in her coffin so that she’ll be the first to learn of the Second Coming. (Who will place the call is not a settled matter.)
Landmark churches: New York’s Riverside Church, Marble Collegiate Church, and Abyssinian Baptist Church. The Washington National Cathedral.
The last ever Billy Graham crusade!
I’ve been hugged and I’ve almost been struck (when an angry usher demanded to know who had deposited the Mystery Worship calling card in the basket). I’ve been ignored and I’ve been virtually kept under guard the whole service. I’ve felt I’d never want to leave, and I’ve run screaming from the place. I’ve been glad to be a Christian and sorry to be an intruder. But through it all, as the Grateful Dead sang, ‘what a long, strange trip it’s been.’
But now it’s over. I have no regrets. When I get to heaven I’m sure God will say, ‘Thank you, Miss Amanda, for pointing out that gentlemen remove their hats in church and acolytes don’t wear sneakers under their alb. And you’re right – it does make the Baby Jesus and his Blessed Mother cry.’