Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comfort Zones Begone

Following a night in our real beds, we had a day of churchgoing to snap us back into a religious sphere of things. First we drove about a half hour from the Lombardy Inn to the Northwest Baptist Church, which turned out to be something of a disappointing enterprise. We pulled into the church parking lot to discover that the most we could do was walk around suspiciously. It was a week day and the church functioned as a school for young kids. There was no easy entry point to get inside, and we looked sketchy trying to find one. We spent more than twenty minutes on the perimeter before we had to cut our losses. Trying to avoid ruffling any feathers, we made our quick round of the exterior and jumped back into the car. Everyone hoped for better luck at the next church, but nobody knew if we would find it.

Part of the discomfort I felt definitely had to do with the sudden change of scenery. We had gone from the glitzy (and frequently sleazy) sidewinder of South Beach to a more sparse and suburban low-income neighborhood. It wasn't far at all from all the excess we had experienced, and shocked us into a sense of seriousness.

When we pulled up into the New Birth Baptist Church (the second church on our hit list for the day), the security guard immediately came over to us and asked if we were lost. We knew before we got there that the church was entirely African American. We weren't lost, we were parked, and it became clear that not very many white people came to visit New Birth, if any visited at all.  I told the guard we were from UPenn and we intended to learn more about the church for a research project, and then he kindly directed us to the information area.

Once inside, we spoke to the secretary who tried to get us to meet with the pastor immediately. He couldn't meet with us, because he couldn't be located, so an assistant pastor gave us a tour and a run down. At first, everyone in the church seemed slightly surprised by our company, but they were eager to educate us after they understood our intention was to learn about their work and their spiritual lives.

We learned that New Birth does more for the Baptist community than provide a stairway to heaven. The church also functions as a career counseling and networking hub, providing employment assistance for any member that needs it. Furthermore, the size of the church (the sanctuary, specifically) was much more modest than any of the other megachurches we visited. This, coupled with the fact that the church cut back on technology expenses so they could keep more people on staff, made us confident that their mission is not only to help individuals reach salvation in the afterlife. They are also interested in bettering the mortal lives of the worshipers in their community, however temporary those lives may be. Unlike the messages administered by Christ Fellowship, the downplay of ephemeral hominid existence was secondary to the necessity of aiding others with a humanistic touch.

This got my gears turning. How can one describe the niche a church fills in its site-specific community with the niche filled by a nightclub in Miami Beach? It's not necessarily about how they might behave similarly or in ideological combat with one another.

Maybe it's more about what happens because they are each there, in their place for their purpose. We can say churches do more for the community, but do they? Only worshipers get to take advantage of the resources they provide, and you have to believe what they believe to have access to those resources. There are definitely a number of people in the New Birth neighborhood that could use career help, but they won't be getting it from the church unless they accept the church's faith. Nobody should be forced to make that sacrifice in order to get the help they need.

Churches might teach you that your soul must be saved before you can be helped by anybody -- regardless of how your bills keep adding up or how difficult it is to live off unemployment checks. Clubbing might teach you that many people seek out a taste of the meaningless and devote a lot of energy and resources to sustaining meaninglessness.

Yes, it's true that the nightclubs in Miami have their elect clientele, those fancy snappers who cut all the lines and get VIP access. But while the clubs emphasize certain vices, they stimulate the economy. Clubs provide jobs and money from the tourists during vacation seasons and the loyal customers who are cultivated every weekend. Many clubs have history and have become landmarks of the city itself. But no nightclub will tell you their club is the only club you can ever go to, and each church we have been to believes it's their way, or the road to hell.

1 comment:

  1. Most churches, Baptist or otherwise, don't 'require that your soul be saved before you can be helped by anybody.' That's a distortion of Christian theology...perhaps some churches do distort it that way. It's a free country. But most emulate Jesus who helped first and asked questions later. Sure, they want everyone to believe what they do--or at least theologically conservative Christians do (and that is not necessarily the same thing as being politically conservative). But they think this because they first genuinely believe that people are in harm's way if they don't embrace Christianity. At least most are honest about where they stand. My hunch is that this Baptist church, while it may reserve career counseling for members, also reaches out to its community in many other ways. I spent over 25 years in the evangelical church, and it's very easy to oversimplify what one may observe there on a given visit.