Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: Christ Lutheran
Location: Union Square, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 25 October 2008, 11:00am
Christ Lutheran met for many years in its own quite beautiful church building on East 19th Street. Sadly, the cost of maintaining the building became too much and it was sold. They now meet in the chapel of Seafarers and International House, a Lutheran mission for seafarers and sojourners, on East 15th Street just off Union Square. The chapel is very small and plain, but warm and bright and clean. The walls are white with wooden panels, and there are 14 rows (seven on each side) of polished wooden pews. A small pipe organ sits to the rear right, with a crucifix on the rear left, which is also the entrance. Between them, on the back wall, is a large stained glass panel. The altar area looks rather bare. The other parts of Seafarers and International House are also warm and homey, with lovely framed paintings and drawings of ships and sea scenes. A Korean Presbyterian church also holds services in the chapel.
It is a Reconciling in Christ congregation, welcoming people of all ages, ethnic and educational backgrounds, sexual orientations and economic conditions. The church supports the food pantry of a nearby Lutheran church and lists a number of ministries under the "Friends" section of its website.
Union Square is rich in history. Ever since the Civil War days, the Square has been the site of political demonstrations and most notably labor union rallies. By the late 1970s the area had pretty much fallen to seed, but thanks to a major revitalization effort Union Square today is probably the most accessible and popular neighborhood in New York. Several major subway lines intersect here, and nearby can be found New York University, the New School, bookshops, restaurants, and cafes galore. Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Gramercy Park are all within a short walking distance. Union Square is still very much a gathering place; it is almost always full and is often the site of anti-war protests and rallies. The Square hosts perhaps the biggest and best greemarket in all of New York City! A huge holiday market is held from late November until Christmas Eve. At the northeast corner of the Square sits Tammany Hall, the last of several buildings that housed the Democratic Party machine that controlled New York City politics all throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century. The New York Film Academy now occupies the building.
The celebrant and preacher was the pastor, the Revd Brooke L. Swertfager. The organist was Micah Young, and guest musician Roger Lent played the trumpet.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion – the Festival of the Reformation
How full was the building?
About two-thirds full. The small congregation ranged in ages from about 7 to over 70. Dress was everything from very casual to rather formal Sunday best.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at the beginning. The pastor was welcoming people at the door, but seemed to be involved in taking care of a problem at the moment I came in. The bulletins were in plain sight; I took one and sat down. People around me smiled and nodded. At length the pastor did notice me, and smiled and seemed to look to make sure I was settled in OK.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a wooden pew without cushioning, but well-molded for comfortable sitting. There weren't any kneelers at all.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were coming in a bit late, but it was fairly quiet with a bit of bustling about and some talking. The guest trumpeter played a solo which saved me from embarrassment! Just as the prelude began, I remembered that I had forgotten to turn off my new cell phone. I turned it off, but then realized that I wasn't wearing a watch and there would be no other way to time the sermon. So I had to turn the cell phone back on. It made a lot of noise restarting, but this was masked by the wonderful trumpet solo.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Lutheran Book of Worship and the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and trumpet.
Did anything distract you?
It was warm and stuffy in the room. The pastor went over to a thermostat and turned on the air, but then someone who just appeared out of nowhere and didn't seem to be part of the congregation came in and turned it off. Since the room was small and windowless, there was a closed-in feeling. I was glad it wasn't completely full.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional, simple. It was a chorale service for Reformation Sunday, which, following Luther's tradition, replaced parts of the liturgy with appropriate hymns. This was most interesting, especially when the Nicene Creed was sung to a hymn by Luther, "We all believe in one True God."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Down-to-earth, intellectual but accessible, personal, inspirational, witty. Brief and to the point.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on the gospel reading, John 8:31-36 (the truth shall make you free). Sometimes what we believe to be true turns out not to be the truth. We should be able to accept reforms of our sometimes mistaken "truths" in order to be free to share the love of God and to grow in Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The organ and trumpet combination was lovely, as was the hymn singing. Almost all the hymns were by Martin Luther, and some, such as "A mighty fortress", used Luther's original rhythm instead of the familiar and usual isometric rhythmic setting.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of air was quite difficult for me. Although I would have liked to listen to a longer sermon, I might not have been able to make it through because I was starting to wilt. Also, it would be nice if the church's website could include information on the history of the church. And it could state more clearly that the services are now being held in the Seafarers Chapel. That information, it seems, can only be found buried on an inner page of the website.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The pastor invited everyone to coffee hour. I shook her hand, and she was very welcoming. In addition to asking me about myself, she gave me a $5 gift card to Starbucks, which all newcomers receive. It was in a very pretty envelope which read, "Compliments of Christ Lutheran Church." However, even though she mentioned twice that coffee would be served on the second floor, I still managed to get lost, so I didn't need to pretend. A congregation member immediately noticed and led me to the elevator. At the coffee hour, people came up to me right away and introduced themselves. Everyone was very friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was coffee in plastic cups, plus various teas, cookies, bagels, cream cheese, butter, a type of cake-bread, and some interesting Japanese cookies.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would definitely visit this church again, but for a regular church I must admit I would like something a bit bigger, with windows and more atmosphere, kneelers, a choir, and longer services. I feel sad when I think of the church at 19th Street, which I was told is being gutted and made into a residential building. From pictures, it was quite a lovely church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and particularly happy to be at a Lutheran church on Reformation Sunday, and that it was a Reconciling in Christ church and used the chorale service.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The conversations at coffee hour, the hymns, and the story of the lost church.