Views from the pews

If church is theater, then where are the reviews? This week, the Baptists lose it at the altar, and the Unitarians try finding it through tweedy discussion.

Published November 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

This particular Baptist church in San Francisco's developing Lower Haight district, beside the Bank of America and flanked by homeless men, is colored like dirty sidewalk. Inside the people are big, warm and serious. If you're white, you're the only white person there, and toddlers gape like they're seeing a ghost. The adults smooth their dresses and suits and wait for things to start.

At 11 a.m. the organist frowns. Then he's batting at the keys, opening and closing his mouth like a carp, throwing his left hand down toward the carpet after the big Ray Charles notes; nobody has played an organ better. Without ceremony an old man and two women walk to the front and sing about Jesus. They smile, then the smile leaves for something solemn. They get loud and the organist stomps his feet as if there are mice around. The man singing starts talking, and the talking still sounds like singing. Eventually it all stops and the pastor nods his way to the pulpit.

The things that don't come next include: a thundering sermon, inspiring parables, beckoning leadership and a rousing call-and-response session. The bespectacled pastor suffers no delusions. With dignity and a righteously thick neck, he says some boring things about following Jesus then returns the spotlight to the singing.

In nice opera houses, they translate the libretto on a little screen in front of your seat. It's nice, but people go for the music. Same with the preaching at this church: They keep it to a minimum so everyone can get the organ and three-part harmonies they came for. The libretto and the sermon are still at the heart of these institutions -- it's just that they keep the heart out of the way, over by the pancreas.

The eight men and women -- mostly women -- in the chairs behind the lectern constitute the choir. "Choir" suggests lightness, like sparrows or bottled water. This choir is a whale: heavy but floating, then going down deep, holding there forever before coming up for air.

Other languages occur here. People still sing and speak in English, but what they're saying isn't in the words. "Jesus," for example, is said all the time by the congregation, but they say the word so much they no longer mean it, and what they mean instead is their own devotion. And it works: An audience doesn't buy it if the performers don't buy it, and in this case the performers have been buying it so long, and so deep, that they've stripped language of everything but its musicality.

"Jesuussss!" says one of the six choir singers behind the pastor.

"Jesuussss ... Jeeesussssss!" says the woman with the toddler in the back row.

In the movies, Baptists fan themselves with hymnals in hot, Southern churches. In real life, the churches can be in chilly San Francisco, but the hymnals fan nonetheless. Which suggests it's not about cooling off, but perhaps circulating the air that smells great with music and musty togetherness.

If a Catholic Mass or a Jewish synagogue service attends to precise detail -- how Job, for example, illustrates faith -- this service is impressionism. Nobody is saying what anyone did, or how a person should feel about it; if Jesus Christ ever mentioned anything specific, this is of minor importance to the Baptists beside the Bank of America. Vibe is the name of the game, and when the miraculous choir comes in with the miraculous organ, no other game would make sense.

When discernible themes do emerge -- let's be more compassionate, for example -- they activate a visceral and intellectual disconnect. I wanna be like Jesus, the choir sings, and it's hard to believe they'd want to be anything but their heavenly sounding selves. The woman who falls out of the pew, then pulls herself up, tears not falling but flying -- can her trembling walk down the aisle really be about a man 2,000 years away, and not the far more convincing music occurring 10 feet away? But it's "Jesus" she's screaming, not G-sharp, and one accepts that she knows what she's into.

Testimonial time. Why waste a meaty, tearful confession in a stuffy, private booth, the Baptist ethos of performance asks, when you can deliver it into a Radio Shack microphone to your friends and neighbors? The congregation takes the pulpit one by one to plead forgiveness for drinking, drug use and other moral lapses. One woman thanks God for waking up each morning, and everyone else who woke up that morning says "Amen."

People have climaxed. The choir sings again, then the pastor offers some parting words ("Remember to be like Jesus -- even in sleep"), a denouement as the tears dry. There is nodding and reflecting. Finally the last of the organ music takes everyone up from the pews, into hugs in the foyer then out the door. Outside, on the way to cars and bus stops, more hugs happen, and the huggers whisper reminders about Jesus.

Money distinguishes the Unitarian church in Virginia from the Baptist one in California -- unlike the Baptists, the Unitarians have grounds, trees, parking, stained glass, exposed brick, casual clothes and flirting youth-group teens -- but under the money is a casualness that runs even deeper.

It feels like brunch. Which is to say pleasant, informal, reasonable and dull. When the minister delivers his prepared sermon, he's more like a talkative neighbor than a revered spiritual authority. When the choir sings, it's polite instead of urgent. And if anyone is set on praising the Lord, they're not falling on the floor about it.

But people do come -- over 50 -- so something must be going on. As with the Baptist church, it's a community event. Lots of smiling, and catching up and even hand-holding at certain parts. "Welcome," your neighbor might say, and he's being neither insincere nor moony. It's warm and open here, with just a hint of pride that this can be accomplished in the cold, conservative state of Virginia. You say "thank you" to your neighbor and turn to the robed minister, who invites everyone to say the daily affirmation.

Everyone does. It's spooky to read words out loud with a group -- no pretty organ to take the cultish edge off -- but the words are about being committed to truth and action, and this feels good. Indeed, these are liberal people, and if they have any agenda at all, it probably has to do with getting money for extra donuts after the service. God isn't forced down a single throat, and, if anything, you leave a little hungry.

What the minister talks about is helping others. He speaks gravely for a man in Rockports; it's a call for charity, for giving, for looking beyond our insular worlds. Our insular worlds themselves don't get much attention in this sermon -- the implication is that everyone is already close enough to how they should be, and ought to direct their arrived selves toward more pressing problems.

"The quest for truth is our daily sacrament," the congregation reads, "and service is its prayer."

The equation for spirituality, here, is questioning plus helping. Though Christians, Jews, Buddhists and even Catholics wander over to Unitarian services, the most comfortable seat in the house belongs to the agnostic. With a commitment to wondering about God -- the minister uses this word sparingly, says it with something like self-consciousness -- the happily undecided can settle in for an hour of religious inquiry.

Talking with members of the congregation, it's hard to imagine anything more conclusive coming off the pulpit. Beneath the veneer of tweed and denim is a mix of backgrounds more diverse than that of the Baptist church in San Francisco. The Unitarians span a greater income range -- though the lowest rung is still higher than the Baptist average -- and the overarching liberalism accommodates a surprising political scope. And while the Baptists boast of having been Baptists forever, few of the Unitarians were born that way, and come to the service imprinted otherwise.

It's religion by committee, and consequently nothing big gets accomplished. Souls aren't saved, sin isn't cursed and God is talked about, but not to. To the outsider, it's hard to say how Unitarian deliberation stacks up against Baptist dogma: Would you rather spend your Sunday morning getting knocked in the head with a hammer, or speculating about what the hammer might represent?

Faiths don't compare, but you can pick a small and arbitrary foothold: How, say, do different denominations appear at the moment of religion? At the Baptist church, people bawled but thanked God for the joy of living. Here they smile, but remind one another of all that needs fixing in the world: poverty, disease, famine, politics. The difference reveals nothing but what a few people look like for an hour a week. When the minister wraps up, and everyone spills into the commons for coffee, it's handshakes not hugs. But the handshakes are firm, and the eye contact warm, and it's not inconceivable that people have been transported here, too, even if they're not saying where.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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