“Whatever Gets You to God”

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

 

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

 

Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.