Sunday, April 24, 2011

Holy Days



"I was raised Catholic, but my father's people were Methodist, so we went to both churches."

-Aaron Neville

Like millions of others on Easter Sunday, I went to church. Raised loosely a Buddhist, and educated almost exclusively at Catholic schools as a child, I haven't gone to church in 16 years. But for some reason, this Sunday, it seemed the proper thing to do.

I'm not religious, but find myself constantly intrigued by organized faith in the lives of others. Maybe precisely because I'm not religious is why I'm intrigued. And this is not for lack of effort. My relationship with Catholicism began at an early age, but never matured. Having been sent to Catholic school for educationally-related reasons, I was introduced to the traditions of Catholicism, and took a liking to the community-oriented rituals. But by the time I reached 18, there was no doubt in my mind that it required a faith in a series of beliefs I would never grasp or adopt as my own.

Simultaneously, my parents sent me to what I refer to as "Buddhist Boot Camp", lead by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Again, I enjoyed the community-centered ritualistic aspect of it. I even connected with some of the basic philosophies involving personal responsibility and cause-and-effect. But like most religions, I was also introduced to stories of great mysticism by a human being with an almost cult-like following, all of which left me on the sidelines.

Eventually, I moved to New York City and studied law, an environment in which I was surrounded by a stunning number of Jewish-Americans. I learned extensively of the precepts and rituals of yet another faith. At one point a serious boyfriend of mine asked if I would convert. Again, I enjoyed the community-based aspects of it and its rituals, and even the food. But when push came to shove, I knew then and accepted that a love of yiddish words and gefilte fish was not enough to make myself a Jew.

Perhaps it started during those years in college at Berkeley in which I grew to become critical of organized religions and the negative effects it can have on the decision-making of a massive swath of humanity. Not to mention the atrocities committed by a number of institutions in the name of organized religion. Be it Joan of Arc who was canonized by the same church that executed her, peace-preaching Buddhist monks who acted as war advisors in ancient times, or the Muslim clerics who supported similar acts of war and death, I found distasteful the hippocracy innate to any institution of such size.

Since then, life experience has provided more depth to my perceptions of spirituality and organized religion. Perhaps it was seeing a few substance abusing indigent criminals successfully break their cycles of failure at life with the assistance of organized religion. Or perhaps it was meeting a number of genuinely good and sincere people who connected deeply with their religious beliefs. Or interfacing with clerics and monks who emanated goodness and kindness in such an unmistakable way as to lead one to at least respect their choices. As much as religion has led lemmings to the cliff, so too has it guided many from the depths of hell on earth. Undeniably some of the world's greatest leaders of peace, from the Maryknoll nuns in Central America, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, Jr., were persons of the cloth.

So it was my ongoing study in the power of religion that dictated I start my Easter Sunday in Central City, New Orleans, setting for myself an agenda of local churches. Traditionally a stable working-class neighborhood dating back to the late 1800's, it was always known for its ethnically diverse demographic of immigrants, be it Irish, Eastern Europeans, or African-Americans. Since then, decades of disinvestment and white flight have left much of it in visible disrepair. It boasts a history as the home of dozens of jazz legends, including trumpeter Buddy Bolden, dubbed by some as "the father of jazz." Still a strong base for the black community, it is currently undergoing a number of efforts of redevelopment by local non-profits funded by federal post-Katrina dollars.

As my first church I picked St. John the Baptist, on O.C. Haley Boulevard, across the street from the homeless Rescue Mission. Built in 1872, it served a working class Irish community and was constructed in tandem with a boys' school taught by Irish-Dominican nuns who took on the unusual task of teaching boys following the exodus of their male counterparts who fled an outbreak of yellow fever. The school operated for almost 100 years before it was torn down to make way for the Pontchartrain Expressway which grazes the church still standing today.

The brick-building is beautiful, reminiscent of a European church with its antiquated architecture and gold-plated steeple. It is still operational, though by the time I arrive at 1:30pm, it has already closed its doors after its 11:00 Sunday service which ended minutes earlier. Flanking it are loitering homeless men, waiting for the Rescue Mission to open its doors. Peering up at its shiny steeple and clock tower, I ponder as to whether great buildings can in fact inspire people to live greater lives.

The next stop on my tour, however, was a structure more modest, with its own history of power to inspire. I bike my way the the First New Zion Baptist Church on Third Street. It is a small, neat, squarish brick building, tucked just off of tree-lined La Salle Street, one of the main arteries running through Central City, and catty-corner to the neighborhood's largest park, which abuts where the Magnolia/CJ Peete public housing project once stood for decades. First New Zion Baptist was the epicenter where protests against bus segregation were organized, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who once spoke in its halls.


Across the church stands two blighted homes likely slated for demolition. It is at the end of a street lined with lower and middle-class homes with mostly black residents. On this hot afternoon, a young black mother watches her sons run in and out of a ripped screen door as she paints her nails. Young black men pull into driveways of houses with cracked stucco and chipping paint.

From there I ride to New Home Full Gospel Ministries, another Baptist church on Carondelet Street. On the impressive edifice are writings in Hebrew and stone embossed images of stars of David. A synagogue in earlier days, it is a relic attesting to Central City's history as the former neighborhood of New Orleans' Jewish community, living side-by-side with African-Americans. O.C. Haley Boulevard, just around the corner, was in its heyday littered with Jewish-owned department stores and shops, one of the few commercial districts in the city that welcomed African-American patrons. With cultural desegregation eventually becoming the norm, combined with white flight into suburban neighborhoods, O.C. Haley Boulevard has also fallen victim to the usual byproducts of disinvestment.

But the synagogue lives on, albeit in service to a community of black Baptist parishioners, who on this day are exiting church to enjoy a barbecue being held in the parking lot. Some well-wish me a happy Easter, and it is good to see buildings being used in this part of town, if not in a somewhat unconventional manner.


I end the church services portion of my Easter running into a second line parade with a full brassband at the very edge of the neighborhood.


Later in the afternoon, I am sipping a fizzy mint cocktail at a friend's house. The sun warms us at about 85 degrees though it is just minutes from setting. Leaning back with a straw in my mouth, I think about the buildings I have seen today. And, while I have yet to identify a role for organized religion in my own life, it is the complexity of a fabric it has provided in lives of the others that I contemplate again today, after my self-guided field trip.

This atheist has had a good Easter/Passover holidays, and wishes one to you too.