Thursday, March 17, 2011
The Upper Room
5828 Forward Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
*note about denominational affiliation: The Upper Room is "a new church development of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but the folks who make up our community come from a wide range of backgrounds." -Pastor Mike Gehrling
It's interesting that for some leaders, no matter how completely at ease he or she is in front of a large group, how grounded in the act of expressive guidance he or she is, there sometimes also exists within the same person a quiet self that favors introversion; a self that is revealed in one-on-one interaction. From feedback I have received from my perceptive college art students, I think I might fall into this category. And from my short interaction with Chris Brown and Mike Gehrling, pastors of The Upper room, I think they might, too. Perhaps? For me (and I'd assume for others) the quiet, introverted self is the one you always knew existed. Because, for example, everyone tells you you are shy. The performer-self is the one that is later self-discovered. Maybe this second extroverted version of yourself, this surprisingly different "group-leader" energy emerges as a result of doing exactly what it is you are meant to do. But that's just my speculation.
This is a young gathering, in terms of the average worshiper's age, and also in that the congregation began in a living room not much more than two years ago (if I'm remembering correctly), perhaps not unlike "Shabbat" (my 33rd visit). From gatherings' start, one of my goals was to be sure to include storefront churches; it feels good to be answering this. Speaking of storefront... or rather bar-front churches, Mike and Chris know Jim and Jeff of the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community (my 11th visit) and the association makes perfect sense to me. Fun for me to see a network reveal itself.
This Upper Room thrives to focus not simply on it's existing members, but instead to answer a calling to "cross-cultural, sacramental, and missional community." The phrase "The Upper Room" refers to the biblically-mentioned location of The Lord's Supper, preceding Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion. And this Sunday's room of worship is Upper in the literal sense of the word, too. I climb stairs lined with lit candles. Take a seat on a folding wooden chair. Sing to acoustic guitar. Absorb a sermon on tolerance. A call to break down existing walls and to cross personal and cultural boundaries. To seek windows instead.
Drawings and paintings hang on the walls of The Upper Room. One of a tree, filled with written responses and observances of belief. It's explained to me that this was created over a period of one summer; congregants adding statements to the composition, whenever moved to certainty that the thought was meant to be shared. (reminiscent of my 23rd visit, Quaker Meeting) I meet Rachel, who recently lived in a house full of 13 artists and now plays a part in overseeing creative activities within the congregation. It is nice to be in an environment full of conversation. Even my shy self agrees. I have an interesting conversation with Mike about Andrei Rublev, the Russian icon painter, whom, two days later, I talk about again, with my painting students in Baltimore.
Smithfield United Church of Christ
(and German Archives, 9:45am)
620 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh PA 15222
downtown, central business district (golden triangle)
(I have so much to say. I am fully embracing the sentence fragment for efficiency. Not that I have not before...)
When I contacted Donn, the church archivist, for a visit to the tower's sixth floor, where the church records are kept, I had no idea how much history I'd stumble upon. Whereas on Thurs (44th visit) I spent time with the oldest Catholic Parish in the 'burgh (1808); today was devoted to the first organized congregation in Pittsburgh. Ever. The oldest one. 1782. German. I didn't know this until I got there.
Archiving was Donn's profession before retiring, and he continues with the task at Smithfield UCC. To my concern about finding him on arrival, he emails: "Just look for Santa Claus." No doubt, his lovely white beard makes that part simple. To spend a minute with Donn is to immediately sense his kindness, generosity, wisdom and his gentle, nurturing personality. He begins by emphasizing the nature of the church's mission: inclusive across all boundaries of race, social class, culture, gender, sexual identity and disability.
When Donn's duty of church archiving began here, members brought him records found in random drawers and cabinets throughout the church. He sorts, organizes, and allows others access via appointment. He'll also do his best to research for families who are unable to travel to Pittsburgh—families tracing lineage and wanting to know, for example, the maiden name of an early Pittsburgh German settler... often listed on the church's baptism, marriage and/or death records. And the records: they are BEAUTIFUL. Hand-scripted in German, fountain ink, the pastor's hand: gorgeous. Leather-bound books, in rows on shelves; the most precious stored in acid-free boxes. The oldest are written in Old German; sometimes prompting Donn to consult the minister of First Lutheran for help translating. Even then, some such puzzles are not always solved. Some handwriting illegible. Donn is generous enough to pull out for me the original deed for the land the church sits on (roughly the whole block), a transaction with the Penn family, no less. (See photo above.)
Don also gives me a tour. The building is magnificent. It's the congregation's sixth home, built 1925-26. (The first was a log cabin.) The 12 stained glass windows in the sanctuary were designed in Columbus, OH and Munich, Germany; figures in a style that evokes Maxfield Parrish or the Pre-Raphaelites. Downstairs includes a social hall, a gymnasium (in the winter used as an over-night cold weather shelter for homeless), and even a room once used for film projection.
9:45-10:45am: an hour full of history. I'll just spew out the rest of what I found to be most interesting: German inscriptions top arches' peaks of the 3rd floor sanctuary—German was spoken at services through the 1920's—the first 140 years of its establishment. The current building was erected on the former church's cemetery. The bodies were moved, of course... then moved yet once more, poor bones. Fire in 2007 spared the sanctuary but left much smoke damage. Insurance covered the cost of scaffolding to allow for ceiling-cleaning. Ladders would not have even come close to necessary height. Additionally, the walls and ceiling are not simple smooth plaster; all in molded relief pattern. Not a quick, easy scrub, to say the least. The 19-foot rose window (that's almost four times my height) at the front of the sanctuary was transported from the church's previous building. Visually, this church is well worth a visit.
Time passes so quickly during service. Mention of Japan and Libya. A plea to find a way to create peace in the life of others just once this week, a nod to Lent. A choir is accompanied by one of the few working organs I've experienced in the city. (In other churches organ maintenance becomes too much of an expense and pipes lay silent.) The sermon: It's your life. Seeking answers to problems introspectively, spiritually.
Afterwards, I speak with Reverend Patterson, who warmly welcomes me. Meet Hannah and Tara. (I do hope you email me! Would love to keep in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org) And Doris, who has been coming to this church since she was born. Her grandparents immigrated from Germany and began her family's generations of membership. Conway came up to me as I lagged after service to draw. His wife Betty ushered me to the post-service lunch, free to first-time visitors. Thank you, especially to Donn. Not to be forgotten.
7:00pm saturday Purim
5505 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
squirrel hill north
Lee Abrams, whom I met at Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha on March 5th (42nd visit) had suggested that I check out this synagogue as part of my project. (Thanks, Lee.) The stone building itself is stunning. Temple Sinai is housed in the Elizabethan-style former mansion of John Worthington. The sanctuary has been added on. I walk through the building imagining what it would have been like to simply live there every day, calling it home. Fancy.
I attended Purim Spiel at Temple Sinai, a kids' (and some adults) Glee-style, Glee-themed performance of the story of Purim.
The briefest synopsis goes like this: Esther, Queen of Persia, saves the Jewish people, her people, from Haman's intent to kill all the Jews in his surroundings. Throughout more than half of the story, Esther conceals her Jewish identity even from her own husband, King Ahasuerus. Rumor is that in order to keep kosher (without calling it kosher) she claimed to be vegetarian. The rumor of that rumor is that it's her diet of legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds that kept her looking so young and beautiful. Her smarts apparently just came naturally, of course. (Is she the reason that Judaism is passed down from mother to child, and the father's faith does not play a role? To honor her?) Back to the story... anyway... it's her revealing her true self as a Jew that allows for the triumphant ending.
Two days ago, admittedly, I knew nothing about Purim. My hour and a half at Temple Sinai fixed that. And I heard that Purim food is the best of all Jewish holiday food. Just had dinner but am craving a taste as I type. Especially Hamantaschen.
And I also learned that Glee takes place in Lima, Ohio, where my Aunt lives and two of my cousins grew up. Also my home state. I had no idea.
st. patrick's day
The Feast of Saint Patrick
Old St Patrick Church
1711 Liberty Ave, Pgh PA 15222
Established in 1808, St Patrick is the oldest Catholic parish in Pittsburgh. As far as ethnicity in the 'burgh, immigration-wise: Polish, Ukrainian, and German typically first come to mind. However, the Irish, led by Rev. William F.X. O'Brien, established this, the very first Catholic parish in Pittsburgh, when there were only about 20 Catholic families (total!) in the area. The building was dedicated before the pews were constructed—families were encouraged to hire a carpenter to build their "own" pew and choose its installation spot according to plans drawn on the sanctuary floor.
Due to fires and growing membership, this building in which I attend service is the fourth location of St Patrick's Parish—a building dedicated on St. Patrick's Day in 1936. There are green shamrocks painted into the stained glass. Another bit of building description, from http://www.saintsinthestrip.org/5_1_0.html:
"Included in the church is a piece of the Blarney Stone from Blarney Castle in Ireland. The stone was placed in the tower that sheltered the baptistery."
The main stairs leading to the second-floor sanctuary, I have read, are identical to the Holy Stairs that Jesus climbed to reach Pontius Pilot. The cool bare marble stairs are preceded by a large sign reading "HOLY STAIRS ascend on knees ~ only. [otherwise] please use stairs on either side of front door." I choose the second option. Many worshipers do not. Very impressive. --My excuse: Honestly, I did want to experience this, but I have the kind of knees that hurt after kneeling for a few seconds on padded carpet. From my years of gymnastics, probably. And I really wanted to go on a run later that day.
Week-day services, in my experience, tend to be very intimate in size. This one, taking place at noon doubled my assumption in this way. Not so. I was on time, but found the last seat. Following this: standing room only in the sweet, rather small chapel-like space. Heads of black, silver and red-tinged hair with very little in-between. A sea of green sweaters, green jackets, green dresses. Green ties. Green handbags, green headbands, many green Mardy Gras beads, emerald jewelry, berets of green. Even a green 2-piece suite. Green leather kneeler pads.
2 priests. One Irish. One Italian, who says he grew up thinking he was Irish like all his friends... then wishing so, when he found out otherwise. His family didn't talk openly about their ethnicity. Upon arriving in this country, his parents(?) grandparents(?) became immediately American. My family: similar. I don't really know my definite lineage, just rumors and speculation; so jealous of those who do. But I have found some evidence for educated guessing.
Sermons: The churches world-wide are sparsely attended. It's not that people are no longer religious, it's that there is so much pain, he says. He continues: Never doubt the power of prayer. (To me, prayer = any simple expression of hope. Can a drawing can be an expression of hope?) Talk of the Priests' travel to the Green Isle. Talk of the importance of journaling, writing, and how he can't stop. An Irish trait, perhaps?
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
2319 Murray Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
... "I know who you are," he said. ("You do?") "Yes. You are the lady who gave Dorothy her ruby slippers."
I am usually in Baltimore at this time each week, teaching. But spring break has gifted me a Tuesday during which I have had the luxury of working on my dress all day long (a little behind am I still), and attending Mincha/Ma'ariv (weekday prayer) service.
The service: I enter the women's seating section of the sanctuary, back corner, sectioned off. Two rows, four chairs each row. One female worshiper in attendance in addition to me. She acknowledges me with such quiet kindness, handing me a prayer book, indicating which page to begin. Translucent white curtains hang 6 feet to the ground to our front, and also top the bookshelves to our left. My companion worshiper opens the curtains during the sermon. Queen Esther of Persia, heroine of Purim (a holiday, March 19-20) and misunderstandings of certain lineage. Curtains close during prayers. Stand, sit, stand, bend knees and bow, 3 steps back, 3 forward. I follow the English version on the left-side pages.
There's a familiar feeling coming from this weekday having been made holy by observance, like that from my childhood when Christmas falls on a day other than Sunday.
I actually feel that my dress should be bigger and more unusual by now. But maybe that's only my opinion. Every once in a while I sense a reminder that to others, it's speaking clearly. Often I'll run a errand on my way home and am greeted upon my return with a smile from my husband: "You went to the grocery in that?"
Relating to this, tonight's comment comes from a young boy, as we leave the synagogue—it's my favorite comment so far. "I know who you are," he says. ("You do?") "Yes. You are from the Wizard of Oz. You are the lady who gave Dorothy her ruby slippers."
Note to self: Research to include Wiccans in gatherings.
I am also aware that in a certain light, the dress looks very Middle Eastern, and even more so with my headscarf on, as is the case tonight. This was not specifically my vision from the beginning (the sewing pattern I used for the basic shell of the dress is described as Gothic)... but the Middle East does include 'the Holy Land,' no? So I let it have its way as things evolve. More than once Rabbis have asked me, "Where are you from?" Because of the question's phrasing and the silence after my answer, I'm starting to think that the expected answer would be the name of a country, not a Pittsburgh neighborhood.
One of my students, a few weeks ago, commented that being an artist means having a free pass to do whatever it is you need to do in order to express your ideas, while (most of the time, but not always) escaping the label of "crazy." It's one of my favorite aspects of choosing an artistic life. Maybe living a pious life can achieve the same, at times? Yeah, maybe.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
I was away from Pittsburgh on Ash Wednesday. I do wish I had been able to attend Catholic services that day, never previously having the opportunity to observe the day myself. And while navigating the streets of NYC, several times I am reminded: smudged black crosses bared on foreheads. A specific moment that day, I am honestly stunned by the vision: tall and willowy, a woman entering the room, dressed in weightless billowing layers of black, a coal-black cross dragged on white skin, her forehead's pith.
Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha
5898 Wilkins Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
(Thank you Joel Goldstein and Rabbi Charles Diamond - "Rabbi Chuck" - for welcoming me, and Lee and Harry Abrams (sp?) for your warm hospitality and conversation at kiddush. And to Rose for having a birthday, hence such delicious kugel on the table.)
I have been missing Judaism. If I can be so bold to make a brash generalization: In my experience so far, compared to other religious leaders, Rabbis are funny. As in a sense of humor. Lately I have been missing the freedom to laugh during service. I found it. I loved it.
A huge amount of congregant-participation during this service. Rabbi Chuck appoints "volunteers" by name for Torah readings, spontaneously. Most remarkable to note is the lack of self-consciousness with which teens and adults take the stage. At age twelve to seventeen I was a wreck to stand, unprepared with no notice, in front of a crowd. I credit the environment he orchestrates. Through the participation, Rabbi Chuck takes breaks. During several of those breaks he chooses to sit next to me and to ask about gatherings. Refers to me as 'one of the flock'. Introduces me to the congregation. It is inspiring to see someone so obviously happy in his work.
Sermon: regarding familial jealousy. And the former tradition of inheriting the life of priesthood (father to son, patriarchally) with no other way to attain the position of high priest. But then there's Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz, the son of a Rabbi, whose life-path strayed an escape. (Houdini: Art and Magic at the Jewish Museum in NYC... comes down in 15 days.)
At the end of the service, I am scooped up by Lee and Harry Abrams' conviviality and find myself at their table for kiddush. Early in our conversation Harry says: "Regarding all the different faiths, in the end, all that matters is whether you are good to others." Harry fought in WWII. Precious story about Harry's mother who lost contact with her brothers and sisters after leaving Russia before World War II—an Uncle in Russia finally located Harry's mother via a letter hand-carried from Russia to California by an American businessman returning to the US from work-related travels there. Yes: a hand carried letter, and word of mouth. Only to have contact thwarted due to spy suspicion. Still: value knowing in the existence of family, if that's all that could be achieved. For the family, a half-answer to memory and longing.
Just days before, while teaching my Obsessions painting class at the art school in Baltimore, we had talked about the importance of visual memory. And Anselm Kiefer's NY show (Dec '10), entitled "Next Year in Jerusalem." He is a non-Jewish German, born the year WWII ended and no stranger to controversy. Mentored by artist Joseph Beuys in Dusseldorf, who fought in WWII. We talked about Beuys' and Kiefer's embrace of the notion of the alchemic property of art: it's ability to change something (anything) from the physical to the spiritual. Houdini the magician. A painting is not just canvas and paint, a letter is not just paper and ink.
Harry also tells me of a Rabbi who was present in the congregation of today's service, who many years ago, set out to pursue teaching positions in Catholic schools. His goal (pursued and achieved): to teach religion classes there, to specifically stop the perpetuation of the teaching that Jesus was killed by Jewish men acting in the name of their religion. I remember seeing this fore-mentioned Rabbi in the congregation when Rabbi Chuck pointed him out by name during the service. He is by no means a remarkably young man in appearance, but not as old as I would wish this story to warrant.
Several members insist that I return for another visit some day. I'd very much like to.