San Geronimo Chapel – Taos, New Mexico

photo 1-11

#25 – San Geronimo Chapel, 120 Veterans Highway, Taos, NM

Why this Church?

This weekend, I came to Angel Fire, New Mexico with a group of cyclist friends. Being without a car, my ability to get to a church was limited. So, I thought that I’d share my Friday visit to San Geronimo Chapel at Taos Pueblo. Outsiders are not welcomed to native religious ceremonies held once a month in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s possible that the Sunday services at the San Geronimo Chapel would have been open to me, but without a car to drive the 20 or so miles to the Taos Pueblo compound, that didn’t seem reasonable either. However, I learned so much on Friday about the Native American Indians of Northern New Mexico and their religious practices, that I thought I’d take this week’s post to relay what I learned. I think it will help others better understand the intersection of Catholicism and Native American religious practices. Also, it will provide more insight into how the Pueblo people integrated their own traditions with the religion forced upon them years ago.

Arrival

photo 2-10 Built in 1850, the San Geronimo Chapel is positioned near the entrance of Taos Pueblo, one of the longest continually inhabited communities in America (1000 years). Archeologists have found evidence that the Native American community was built between 1000 and 1450 A.D. and the people here live much like the early inhabitants, without electricity or modern conveniences.

photo 1-10   The pueblo itself is an absolute marvel, but for this blog, I’ll focus primarily on the the role religion has played and continues to play in the lives of the Pueblo people.

The Tour Begins

photo 2-11        Our tour guide, a young college-aged woman arrived at San Geronimo Chapel for the tour. With long dark hair and dark skin, she was dressed in typical American attire and spoke English to absolute perfection. She relayed some history about the Pueblo people and the Tiwa language — a language that is passed down verbally from one generation to the next but remains unwritten and unrecorded to this day.

The tour guide also shared that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado sent Captain Hernando de Alvarado and a detachment of some 20 soldiers to explore Northern New Mexico in 1540. It appears that these were the first Europeans to see the Pueblo Indians.

The colonial governor of present-day Mexico came to Taos in July, 1598 and in September of that year, he assigned Fray Francisco de Zamora to serve the Taos and Picuris Pueblo Indians. Around 1619, the first Spanish-Franciscan mission called San Geronimo de Taos was built by the priests and forced Indian labor.

The area’s abundant water, timber, game and established trading networks attracted early Spanish settlers to the area in droves. But, these new inhabitants, known for their authoritarian ways and forced religion, created conflict with the Taos Pueblo. The friars undertook intense efforts to convert the Pueblo to Catholicism.

This conflict created the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 — a coordinated attack on some Spanish settlements by several Pueblo communities. During that attack, more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors killed 21 Franciscan friars, more than 400 Spaniards and drove about 1,000 settlers out of the area. During this uprising the San Geronimo church was destroyed.

Taos Pueblo Cemetary 2014    Our tour guide explained the events leading up to this revolt; her carefully chosen words etched with the deep resentment felt by past and present Pueblo Indians. Unfortunately, the San Geronimo church was destroyed and all that remains today is the bell tower. That crumbling structure is surrounded by the unkept burial ground where her ancestors are buried and their graves marked by rough wooden crosses.

In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas successfully made a military reconquest and re-colonized the area. Two years later, De Vargas raided the Taos Pueblo when the Indians refused to give corn to the starving settlers in Santa Fe. Two years after that, the Taos Pueblo revolted again in 1696. De Vargas came to put the rebellion down for a third time. Ten years later, the San Geronimo Mission was rebuilt.

The tour guide said things settled down for about 140 years, but the area would see conflict again in the Mexican-American War, when U.S. General Stephen Kearney occupied the New Mexico province in 1846. The very next year, the Indians rebelled against the new wave of invaders and killed Governor Charles Bent in his Taos home. U.S. troops retaliated and killed about 150 Indians, demolished the San Geronimo Mission and then executed 16 Indians for their part in the revolt. The church was finally rebuilt for the last time in 1850.

Hiding Native Values in Plain Sight

Oddly enough, just one week before I visited this area, I listened to “The Spontaneous Healing of Belief” by author Gregg Braden. In the audio book, Braden shared his thoughts about the best way to hide something — in plain sight. To illustrate, he used an example from the Pueblo people who had to adopt Western religion just to survive. However, rather than completely abandoning their spiritual systems, the Pueblo practiced syncretism — incorporating new customs alongside traditional beliefs.

He explained how the Indians, who historically relied on agriculture,  honored nature by dressing mother Mary in white for Winter, blue for Spring, pink for summer and coral/orange for autumn.

As I walked into the San Geronimo Chapel, I specifically looked for this outward sign of the Native Indian religious beliefs and sure enough there was Mary robed in pink. Outsiders are asked to refrain from photographs within the church, so I didn’t take any, but a quick Google search can unearth a few, if you’d like to check it out. In the photos, you won’t find Jesus front and center, but instead Mother Mary who takes prominence at the altar. This, I understand is how the Pueblos honor Mother Earth, as Virgin Mary. You also don’t have to look too far to find Father Sun — an image that peeks out from behind the robe of one of the Saints on the wall.

Spirituality of the Pueblos

With an emphasis of interconnectedness and harmony with all, the Pueblos integrate their spirituality throughout their lives. In fact, their way of life is their religion. Sacred ceremonies are held frequently, and typically take place in underground areas called kivas found within the mountains. Religious ceremonies occur so often that our tour guide shared that the religious ceremonial responsibilities of the males (it is a patriarchal society) often cause conflict with some employers, who find it difficult to accommodate the Pueblos’ request of time off for religious reasons.

During one part of the tour when learning about how the Indians use the horno to bake bread, I asked if there was anything the Pueblo people were not allowed to eat. She said, “We eat pretty much everything except snakes.” When I asked why she said, “Snakes are not of this world.” I let that one go, but I remain curious to learn more about that statement and belief. I can’t find anything online that provides more insight around that idea, although one reference indicated that many Native American Indians believe snakes are a intermediary between the upper and lower worlds.

photo 4-7     At the end of our tour, I asked one final question: “What is your favorite religious ceremony and why?” As she answered, we all witnessed her deep felt emotion as she shared her feelings about their tribes’ pilgrimage to Blue Lake — a sacred area in the mountains. She said the pilgrimage takes about three days and the tribe will leave behind all electronic devices, dress in native attire and don animal skin boots. She said it is a special time that allows them to be with family and extended family and remains a bonding time that is hard to describe.

Post Pueblo Indian Wrap Up

What struck me most about this trip and visit to San Geronimo Chapel is how unfair it is to impose religious beliefs on others. Throughout the ages, we have seen how religious leaders and nations have marched into areas trying to convert the locals to their specific religious belief and traditions. I will never understand what compels some to impose their religious values upon others. Exposing people to who you are and why you believe the way you do is all that is needed to help people understand your way of worshipping God and then it is up to them to accept or reject another’s ideas. Why do we feel so threatened by the way others worship God/Allah/Jehovah/Oneness/Universal Intelligence or any other name we choose to use for the higher power in which we believe?

What’s Next?

From New Mexico, I will head back to San Antonio and then on to Atlanta, Georgia. There, I’ll have the opportunity to worship with my daughters in the church that my college-aged daughter attends. It will be a special time wherever it is, because I will be with them once again.

 

 

 

Advertisements

News and Prayer Update: Christian Sudanese Woman Sentenced to Death has been Freed

This story has weighed heavy on my heart since it first broke in the news. A Sudanese woman (pregnant at the time and has since given birth to her second child) was sentenced to die because she declined to renounce her Christian faith. Even though raised in a Christian home, she had a Muslim father who she had not seen since she was six years of age, and thus, considered to be a Muslim by the Sudan government. Word just came down that she has been freed.

Now, let’s all keep praying for the young girls taken by the Boko Harum in Nigeria — 219 are still missing. 

Oak Hills Church – Crownridge Campus – San Antonio

photo 2-9

Sunday #24 – Oak Hills Church, 19595 IH 10 West, San Antonio

Why this Church?

Last week, I decided to go to a Church of Christ church this weekend, so last night I searched the online Yellow Pages and Oak Hills Church came up near the top. I wouldn’t have known this church from any other, but a few months ago, I attended an event and met a woman named Denise. She told me all about Oak Hills Church and invited me to come. I said I would at some point, so when the church name popped to the top of that list, I decided it was time. I later learned that while this church has its roots in Church of Christ, it is now a non-denominational church.

Preconceived Ideas about Oak Hills Church

I know very little about this church other than the following:

  • Max Lucado is one of its lead pastors. (I know he is an author of many best seller books and a recognized name. Still wondering if I’ve ever read any of his books, or have just heard of him through the grapevine.)
  • I’ve also been told that either David Robinson or Tim Duncan go to this church. (Have great respect for both men, so it must be a good place.)

Arrival

Denise and I agree to meet for the 9:45 service and fortunately for me, she tells me it starts at 9:30. I pull into the large expanse of a parking lot at about 9:28 a.m. and immediately see the Golden Ticket – a whole section for first time visitors.

photo 3-7

As I’m directed to a parking spot by a young man dressed in shorts, tennis shoes and an orange shirt like several others in the lot, I smiled and thought; Yep, this is going to be a good morning. 

He asked me if it was my first time, welcomed me and then directed me through the front doors, up the stairs and said I’d find the large auditorium at the back. Immediately, I was glad I’d gone back inside the house and switched from high heels to flats. Yes, there was an elevator, but for someone who just completed a five mile run, I thought that I’d feel like a wuss if I chose the easy way to the top.

Through the use of modern technology (smartphone), I eventually found Denise in a crowd of about 1500 people. She saved me a seat. Yay, Denise! As I sat down, I asked her about the Church of Christ thing, and she told me years ago it was a Church of Christ church, but later switched to non-denominational. She said that the earlier morning service is more reflective of those roots, with music that is done completely a cappella.

Service Begins

As with all the other non-denominational churches, this service begins with music directed by a band and yes (darn it) we stood. What is it with these non-denominational churches and this incessant standing at the beginning of the service? Isn’t anyone else running early in the morning and ready to sit down? Sigh The words to the songs were emblazoned across two large screens that were located way too high for my vantage point. I think those in the higher sections in the back were probably at the right angle, but nearer to the front, I had to crane my head to read the words. My favorite part of all this was thinking about the drummer located to the right of the stage in a little plexiglass box. Honestly, it reminded me of the Pope-mobile. I guess it’s for sound dampening, but sure looks funny. I’ve seen this in other churches, but never closed off on almost four sides.

photo 1-9

Finally, after three songs, we got to sit. At this point, I looked back to see that hardly a chair in this auditorium was left vacant. Then Denise leaned over to say that with the combined services, the attendance is around 4,000 to 5,000 each weekend.

The worship leader then gave us the good news – The San Antonio Spurs are World Champions. That announcement got everyone going.

Then we sang another song, while the worship leader read some words from his smartphone. Some musician on stage played a black instrument that had an unusual sound. Still wondering what that was. It looked a lot like a clarinet, but the diameter was much larger. From this vantage point, I also had a good view of the deaf interpreter. These guys and girls totally amaze me how they can follow along and not get lost.

Time for the Message

Then everything went dark and it felt much like a movie was about to begin. Wasn’t sure if I was about to see a video production or hear a sermon.

However, this was just the lead-in to the sermon.

Then Max Lucado walked on stage and stood in front of a generic black music stand like thing – no fancy podium, no altar, just pastor Lucado and his notes. His sermon was the last in a series called “The Glory Days” and centered on the story of Joshua.

He first asked why the book of Joshua was in the Bible. The answer: Because the story of Joshua reminds us that we need to come out of the wilderness and claim our inheritance and stop walking around in circles.

In fact, Lucado said, the word “inheritance” is mentioned 51 times in Joshua. He also reminded the audience that the Israelites may not have wandered around for 40 years, if they had just claimed their inheritance. “They were delivered from Egyptian bondage but still remained captive in fear, anxiety and dread.” He went on to say that discipleship is learning how to access God and all that you have already inherited.

My favorite analogy was when Lucato held up his smartphone and said that this phone had amazing power and capability, but for many of us, the smartphone is smarter than we are. He said, “I may know what an app is, but if I don’t know how to access it through my phone, that power is unavailable to me.”

After the sermon, pastor Lucado called those people to the front of the auditorium who may want to receive a special blessing and prayer. This reminded me a bit about the Hope Center Church and seemed to be similar to what the Pentecostals do at the end of their service. Then, everyone went back to their seats.

After that, we all prepared for Communion. The choir sang while the plate of bread and wine (er, uh, grape juice) was passed out. At this point, I had to smile. While the choir sang, a picture of stained glass windows was projected onto the backdrop behind the choir. Who says you can’t have a modern building with stained glass in it? And I bet it cost a lot less, too! The Communion reminded me of all the years spent in the Baptist Church with a plate of chicklet-sized crackers being passed down the aisles with a half shot of grape juice to follow. In many churches, this is a rather quiet, solemn portion of the service, but at Oak Hills Church the music made it a bit more lively. We all held the sacraments in our hands and then once they were all passed out, the worship leader instructed us to “eat of Christ’s body and drink of His blood.”

After that, a prayer was given and we all stood to clap and sing. That was one happy choir – lots of hands raised in praise, a leader jumping up and down on stage and a lot of swaying to and fro.

At the end, black curtains that had been blocking the sun were rolled back electronically to reveal floor to ceiling windows that I never knew were there. Then, pastor Lucado made a few announcements, including the one that he and his daughter finally got last minute tickets to last Sunday’s final playoff game. Of course, he said he was in the section at the top, where they needed oxygen masks to breath and he said he was quite sure that he saw Archangel Michael flying just below his section.

After a final prayer, we departed. My friend Denise wanted me to meet Max Lucado, so she took me to where he was and snapped a photo. Nice guy!

photo 2-8

Post Service Commentary

I’d consider this church to be one of the many mega churches in San Antonio – and there are many of those. This one has a different feel though and I liked it. Reminds me a lot of Mile Hi Church in Denver, so it really felt like home. I’ll still have to find a Church of Christ to go to at some point. Will keep looking for that one.

What’s Next?

I’ll be in Angel Fire, New Mexico next Sunday. I’d like to go to a Native American church, but it is about 20 miles into Taos where that is located. I’d have to borrow a vehicle and just don’t do that. My father taught me long ago, never borrow someone’s car and never let someone borrow yours. It’s a rule I’ve always tried to live by. So, I may be going to a church that I can walk to in Angel Fire. Who knows where I’ll be?

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness (Huebner Road) – San Antonio

photo 1-7

Sunday #23 – Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness, 15270 Huebner Road, San Antonio

As I contemplated going to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting this week, I wondered why most of us have such strong feelings toward Jehovah’s Witness. When I mentioned to some friends that this was my weekly intention, some said, “Don’t go.” As with Mormon missionaries, are we afraid of those who choose to witness door-to-door, and if so, why? I must say, this one was near the bottom of my list and I had to kick myself out the door to go. I’ve known no one who is a Jehovah’s Witness and my only dealings were at the door in Kingwood, TX when I’d answer with crying babies attached to my hips. I’d quickly take their Watchtower publication, close the door, then toss it in the trash.

It made me wonder, whether door-to-door witnessing has any affect at all. I learned today that it does. I met two women today who said they had joined with other Witnesses after having their questions about God (Jehovah) answered at the door.

Preconceived Ideas about Jehovah’s Witness

Having never known anyone that was a Witness, I have very few prejudices that reach beyond having my doorbell rung during the day when I’m busy working from my home office. I approach today’s visit with only a few guesses of what to expect.

  • People dress conservatively and probably elderly (confirmed and dispelled)
  • Bible-toting people (confirmed)
  • Watchtower pamphlets everywhere (confirmed, or at least readily available)
  • A huge congregational goal of getting my name and address (dispelled)

Arrival

photo 2-6

I’m glad I arrived a few minutes before the meeting, because without an order of service, er uh… meeting, I had no idea what to do. Apparently there aren’t many visitors to these meetings, because they don’t have songbooks lying around the chairs. I knew that the JWs don’t take an offering, but I did see various donation slots as I entered the hall. These reminded me of those I’d seen at the Mosque.

photo 4-5I asked the first man I saw what to expect. We had some serious miscommunication going on. I was calling it a service; he was calling it a meeting, so yep….a bit of confusion on my part as to if I was even at the right place at the right time. I learned that the meeting would start at 10:00 and a presentation would be given for 30 minutes. (I immediately thought: Yay…in and outta there in 30 minutes. That’ll be a record. But the guy followed that by saying the second part of the meeting would be about an hour and fifteen minutes. Okay, so in at 10:00 and out at 11:45. Sigh.

photo 3-5

Immediately a woman came over and introduced herself; then three others came over to say hi and to ask if I was visiting. All were extremely charming and delightful. When I commented about seeing the slots out front, one of the women said that they don’t do offerings and that they felt if they had to take an offering, then they weren’t teaching Jehovah’s word correctly. I told them what I was doing there and had just enough time to ask a few questions.

First on my list: Why are there no windows in meeting places of Jehovah’s Witness?

Even though I’d read that the reason stemmed from economy and cost of building, these women told me it was to prevent theft. Then they went on to say that some Hall’s are now being built with windows, so that isn’t always true.

Second on my list: Were you raised as a Witness or how did you come to this denomination? Two women told me that they were raised Catholic, but had lots of questions. The mother of one of the women had found answers when someone came to her door. So, while I expected that many people were raised in the faith, I learned that that’s not always the case and that door-to-door witnessing does work, at least it did for these women.

Third on my list: So what do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe? I usually try to stay out of the realm of beliefs, but I really had no idea and wanted to know. First, they believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. Two, they do not believe in the Trinity. Third, they don’t believe in the fire and brimstone of hell, but do believe in a Satan. Fourth, they most definitely believe in the tribulation and talk about it A LOT! Oh and they most commonly use the word “Jehovah” for God.

The women eventually took their own seats in the auditorium chair-like cushioned seating. I looked around and marveled at the clothing. Never before, unless it would be the Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church or the Stone Oak Ward of the Church of Latter Day Saints had I seen people dressed this nicely. Men were all in suits and ties. Women typically had longer skirts on, with a few younger ones in knee-length dresses. Smaller children were with their mothers in two windowed rooms to the back of the hall. I assume this was to hold down the noise so people could hear. I remember a room like this at a movie theatre in Beaumont, Texas when I was on the toddler side.

The Meeting Begins

The meeting started with a hymn. One nice lady quickly went to the back to get me a songbook, while another handed me hers from three rows in front of me.

They sure are nice here. 

As the meeting started I looked around again and noticed people of all ages from 20s to 70s. All were well dressed and everyone there looked like they were professionals in business. I saw primarily white people, but also a few Hispanics and African Americans, but no Asians. I had some misplaced idea or other that women didn’t wear makeup or jewelry, but that wasn’t the case. Maybe I confused Pentecostals with Jehovah’s Witnesses. See what you don’t know until you go find out?

The mornings’ talk was on “Who can be saved?” Fortunately, I brought my Bible, because during these talks they do a lot of following along as they read countless passages from the Old and New Testaments.

To start, the speaker talked about many religions having an over simplification of salvation and touched on the various salvation beliefs of different Christians. Then he started talking about the original sin of Adam and how his turning from God made us all sinners and at that point introduced death, and that we would all die now because of him. Then he gave the most unusual twist to the Adam and Eve story. He said that Adam, in reality became the greatest mass murderer of all time, because his actions caused us all to eventually die. That was a pretty bold statement and didn’t sit right with me, but I can’t tell you why without going into my whole religious beliefs. But I was there to understand, not judge those beliefs as right or wrong. So I went back to flipping onionskin pages.

I did like the fact that the presenter offered a few Greek translations of various words in the Bible. That always tells me something. But why did it hit me so wrong that this man kept using the reference to C.E. instead of A.D.? I think I’ve discussed this textual change in an earlier blog. Publishers now commonly use B.C.E for “Before Christ” and C.E. for “After Death” – choosing the “Before Common Error” and the “Common Error” wording versus what I grew up with. I can understand that for the masses in print and wanting to be all politically correct, but in a meeting house of God? Seems so odd. But then that part is quickly over and everyone claps.

Jehovah’s Witness Meeting – Part Two

The second half of a Jehovah’s Witness Meeting involves the study of the Watchtower. We stand again to sing from the songbook. I think the piano music was piped in from somewhere or was on audio CD, because I didn’t see a piano anywhere.

Today’s lesson, which everyone apparently studied during the week, was on Moses and the Pharoah. This part started with someone reading, then a question was asked about the short paragraph. People in the congregation raised their hands and suit men came over to hand off the microphone to the speaker in the audience. Responses didn’t have a huge amount of personal insight but were mainly just reiterations from the text that had been read. Seemed like a way to reinforce the message of the passage being read. The leader called everyone a Sister or Brother and then their last name. For an older man, I was quite impressed with this speaker’s memory, that only slightly waivered a few times. I sure could not have done that.

If anyone from Apple is reading this blog, you might want to take note. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a big market for your iPads. Nearly every one, or at least every family had an iPad that they used to follow along as the readings occurred. I found that astonishing.

Here are a few other Marcia insights, odd as they may be:

  1. There definitely were more women than men. Is it that more women are at home when Witnesses come calling, so they are the ones that wind up in this denomination?
  2. So many people had on watches. I almost never see anyone wear a watch anymore because most people get time information from their mobile phones. Is it because they are checking to see when the service will end, or is it the Watchtower publication name. Coincidence or not?
  3. There’s a huge emphasis on the Tribulation. Now that I think about it, that’s what I remember seeing on all those Watchtower publications that turned me off about learning more. I learned today that the Tribulation is what compels JWs to witness door-to-door.

After the end of the Q&A session, the speaker gave one announcement and we all stood to sing one last song and be led in prayer.

Post Service Commentary

I found the people I met to be warm and open and so genuine. While my personal views are at odds with much that was shared, I felt completely comfortable while learning more about the JWs in their environment versus my home. Parts of this meeting reminded me a bit of the Mormon’s in their dress and formality, a bit of the Christian Scientists in their approach to well-studied scripture and message and a bit of the Muslims in their approach to tithing. It’s odd how similar different religions are, yet most all believe they are the only way to Heaven and to God/Allah/Jehovah. This has become a very interesting journey.

What’s Next?

I was reading about Ernest Holmes this week and his early years in the Congregational church. So, I immediately did a search on Congregational churches in San Antonio. Instead of finding Congregational Churches, I found Congregational Churches of Church of Christ. I can’t figure that one out. Are they like the UUs, who combined the Unitarians and Universalists? Somebody clue me in on this one. Can’t find the answer!

St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church

Sunday #22 – St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, 2504 N. St. Mary’s Street, San Antonio

photo 4-5

Why this Church?

At the start of this journey I knew I’d attend an Orthodox Church somewhere along the way. With a Google version of the Yellow Pages near the north side of town – a Romanian Orthodox Church. Not seeing service times, I picked up the phone and called. A few rings later, I had Father Julian on the phone, who told me that they were in the process of moving their church and not holding services. However, he wanted to talk with me further, so I got a chance to ask all of my stupid questions. I learned that an Orthodox Church can be Greek, Russian, Romanian, or a host of others (with the exception of Jewish, which means something altogether different.)

I asked if St. Sophia’s downtown might give me a good sample of an Orthodox church. He said yes and then helped me to know what to wear. He said my dress or skirt should cover the knees and my arms should be covered. He also said to cover my head (apparently this is a very traditional church.) Really? Now I was expected to wear the Greek version of the Muslim hijab? I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Preconceived Ideas about Greek Orthodox

My kids high school English IB teacher in Lakewood, CO was Greek, but we never talked about church, so at this point, I had no idea what I could expect. Therefore, my preconceived ideas were few.

  • Probably very traditional and filled with ritual
  • I know that I’m not allowed to partake of the sacraments, according to every website that I surveyed, but I still secretly hoped for some pre-service baklava or maybe a post service Gyro sandwich — they can keep the ouzo

Someone this week suggested that I skip the Greek Orthodox Church service, which can be long and filled with lots of standing and just go to the Greek Festival that is held at St. Sophia’s in October. Okay…I was tempted. I was!

Arrival

Arriving with a minute to spare, I parked my car on the street and headed to the front steps. At the bottom of the stairs, I met Vanna and her daughter. Although I didn’t know them, I asked if I could shadow them in the service. Both were quite kind and tried to help me along. As we entered the sanctuary (or whatever the Orthodox call it), the service had just begun. We veered to the right picked up an order of service bulletin, then Vanna leaned in to say I could pick up a candle, light it and say a prayer as I placed it in the sand. I should have taken a picture right then, but I was juggling several different things, like my phone, car keys, bulletin, pen and paper.

photo 4-6 I grabbed this shot, of only one candle left at the end of the service — not quite as beautiful, but gives a sense of the many that were there at the start of the service. I liked this part. To light a candle and say a prayer is a great way to begin worshiping.

As the Service Began

Vanna, her daughter and I grabbed a seat on a hard wooden pew and I glanced around to see if anyone had the head gear. NOPE! I’m glad I left my scarf in my purse; it was bad enough wearing long sleeves in San Antonio. Further examination yielded men in suits and women dressed beautifully and little children dressed to the nines. Kind of reminded me of the children found in the Latter Day Saints service earlier on this journey. In fact, children populated the pews buttressed by parents, grandparents and others. This service lasted almost two and a half hours, so you gotta give it to those kids; they were real troopers!

Then, I drank in the sanctuary itself. While the congregation and priest chanted in English and in Greek – none of which I much understood, looking up, I saw round picture of Jesus Christ on the ceiling and chandeliers. Jesus faced the altar and I sat behind that painting, so it looks a little funny.

photo 2-6

Candles were also spread around the front of the altar, hanging high in the air. Something totally new for me was the front of this church that had a Iconostasis wall.

photo 1-7

(I really didn’t know that word; it was written in a laminated brochure in the “pew back pocket” in front of me. Oddly enough, that extra material about the church reminded me of flying in an airplane for the first time. You have no idea what’s about to happen, but a little knowledge can make you a bit more comfortable. This Iconstasis wall had 12 photos across the top – I figured those were the apostles, then 12 photos on the second row. Most all these photos had halos around the heads.

Now you are all going to get a bit confused, because I couldn’t follow this service, even when someone was standing next to me trying to help me out. So I’ll just relay what I saw and what I felt, in no certain order.

First, like the Catholic church, the Orthodox uses altar boys, candles, and crosses. The priest in this church was dressed in a robe of green and gold with a cross that hung around his neck. He looked similar to one of the Roman Catholic Arch Bishops, without the crimson color.

CHANTING – This goes on throughout the service, usually the priest led this chanting with his back against the congregants and facing the altar that sat inside the middle dome area with one stained glass window in the very back. When the priest read at times, he went so fast that I began to think: if the Greek talk this fast then there’s NO WAY I’m ever going to attempt to learn Greek.

SLEIGH BELLS – These are used a great deal in the Greek Orthodox Church. Not sure what the Orthodox call them, but that’s what they sound like. As the priest swings the sleigh bells from one side to the other, little puffs of smoke come out. Had no idea of the origin of that incense, but I didn’t like it from the start. I was so afraid I’d start sneezing like one of the seven dwarfs.

SIGN OF THE CROSS – The Greek Orthodox do this often. It appeared that they do so at every mention of Spirit or the Trinity. The Orthodox cross from right to left, which I believe is opposite of Catholics, though I’m not for certain. The Orthodox do it often and sometimes in a succession of three’s. I do everything in three’s, too. I have no idea why, but it works for me, so this felt comfortable and didn’t seem odd.

ALTAR BOYS – Again, not sure if that’s what they are called, but they do a great deal in the service. They carry silver sunflower like things. Still don’t know what those were, but think they may have had something to do with halos. Jump in if you know! The altar boys also prostrate themselves, when the rest of us kneel for prayers. Yep, they assume something like the Simple Child’s Pose in Yoga.

DOORS – Not sure what that was about, but at the front of the church, two arched doors fit into the wooden wall and the priest and altar boys go in and out of these OFTEN. At one point, before the sacraments were given, the priest and altar boys proceeded down the opposite side aisle. As the procession proceeded, the congregation follows it with their eyes. As the procession continues, the people remain always facing the procession, then each bows and makes the sign of the cross as the priest continues back up to the altar.

OH MY ACHING FEET – After running/walking almost 5 miles this morning, the last thing I wanted to do was stand, but stand they did….A LOT…and of course, so did I. In a way, I was prepared, because some reading hinted at this, so I wore my flats.

THE SACRAMENTS – I knew I wasn’t to proceed with the others, so I stepped aside and used the time to take a few photos to share with you. As the congregation took their turns from the back of the church to the front, I stood mesmerized by the priest, who used a silver goblet and a teaspoon to offer the wine or grape juice concoction. The whole scene looked like a parent dispensing cough syrup to his children.

I had the unique and lengthy experience of visiting the Greek Orthodox Church on the celebration of Pentecost, which meant after an hour’s service, there’s yet another kneeling service. After many different kneeling prayers, interspersed with standing, the priest repeated a bunch of wording that sounded very similar to the end of a pharma commercial where the side effects are rattled off at “sports shutter speed.”

Then we got the final blessing, but at that point, it wasn’t over yet. Then came – a 40 Day Blessing of twin baby girls. The priest proceeded to the back of the church and gave the 40 Day Blessing for the two babies.

photo 2-7  But WAIT…..wait for it….

Get a load of the brothers of these two girls…..TWO identical twin boys!

photo 3-6

Yes, this woman gave birth to what appears to be two identical sets of twins. Can you imagine? Two sets of twins. Pheww….now if you’ve run out of people to pray for, that’s a woman that needs your prayers. 

Post Service Commentary

One of the special things about this church is watching the interaction between all the various families. It seems that everyone in the church knows everyone else’s children. Hugs and kisses abounded and you could feel the love in this church community. While this was one of the more different services that I’ve been to, I learned a great deal. Although I hated the standing and the incense, Vanna told me after the service that Greek Orthodox services are designed to appeal to all the senses: touch, sight, hearing and smell. Okay…they can keep the smell — too much for me.

Would love to check out a Romanian and Russian Orthodox Church to see if they differ much from this service. Who knows, if I don’t run out of weeks, I’ll give one of them a try at some point..

What’s Next?

I’m definitely seeking a church without incense next week, so it’s unlikely to be Hindu. I’ll also be looking for a church where I can sit. I’m thinking it may be Jehovah’s Witness, though I don’t have a clue what they do during a service. I could be in for more standing. OH MY WORD!

Unitarian Universalist Church — San Antonio

photo 1-7

Sunday #21 – First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, 7150 W. Interstate 10

Had to do some research on this denomination, as I knew nothing about it before deciding to go. In my research, I learned that in 1961, the American Unitarian Association consolidated with the Universalist Church of America to form a …..tongue twister. Yep…all week, I flubbed up the name of this denomination over and over as I tried to tell people what church I was going to attend. I continually wondered whether the members referred to themselves as UUs, because saying that whole mouthful would be too difficult.

From the website I gathered that this was perhaps the most inclusive place of worship in San Antonio, as it openly embraces alternative lifestyles. To me, that’s a good thing, because everyone needs a place to worship without feeling his or her lifestyle is being judged.

Preconceived Ideas about Unitarian Universalists

I’ve never known anyone who worshipped in the Unitarian Universalist church. But, I’ll take a stab at what I think.

  • With a name like Unitarian Universalist, my guess is that this church has some similarities to Unity, Church of Religious Science and every other New Thought church
  • From the website, I believe I’ll see a lot of lesbian, gays and transgender types, since the website talks a lot about its openness to all lifestyles

Arrival

photo 2-6Even though I was early (surprise, surprise), I turned into the parking lot and into the back of a line of cars awaiting parking spots. Immediately, I chastised myself for not wearing flats instead of heels because this would obviously be a long walk. Then, I saw it….the Holy Grail – an empty visitor’s parking spot. SCORE!

I got out of my car and on my way to the sanctuary, I passed by a VW bug to beat all VW bugs. You don’t see many like this and I suddenly wondered if this was a strong indicator of the liberal leaning that I’d read about on Wikipedia.

photo 4-5

Weaving through people, I walked to the sanctuary, and was met by some friendly people at a table filled with literature for newcomers. I stopped, gave my name and address and then they started handing me a bundle of literature from all parts of the table. Balancing the papers, I made my way into the sanctuary and a cushioned pew at the back. I took a seat among people of all ages dressed in shorts, jeans, dresses, but saw no men in suits. At this point, the sanctuary was about half full, but it quickly filled to almost three quarters of its capacity.

Service Begins

photo 3-5With a loud gong, the service began. Music emanated from a large black grand piano on stage. A very talented musician tickled the ivories and set the tone for the service. Then, the interim pastor Reverend Dr. Maureen Killoran stood to give the invocation from an iPad. Then we sang from HYMNS! Of course, they weren’t hymns that I knew, but I was surprised nonetheless. I guess the Unitarian Universalists aren’t using the large projection screens with the highlighted words to the music as in many of the other churches I’ve recently been in. During the first hymn, children came down the center aisle with baskets of flowers for the service that would center on flowers.

I noticed a lot of children in the sanctuary. Many children walked around during the service freely, but no one seemed to think anything of it. They apparently felt comfortable being there.

Then, a call came for people to line up for the “Candles of Joy and Sorrow.” Apparently, if you had a joy or a sorrow for which you wanted to light a candle, you could queue up to light one near the front of the stage. This would have been a beautiful part of the service if the church organizers could have lowered the lighting. However, this sanctuary has many windows with lots of natural light, so that wasn’t possible.

Then came a beautiful song by the choir called “There’s a River Flowin’ in my Soul,” followed by the offertory, which in the bulletin used the words “Invitation to Generosity” – loved that wording, as well as the choir music.

Then the interim reverend gave a two-part message on the Flower Communion Story. Half way through, we all sang a hymn, and then she gave the second part of the message. That was different, like a message intermission. I wondered if every service was like that.

A music interlude followed, with the consecration of the flowers, another hymn and then parting words from the interim pastor, which I just loved: Today’s service has now ended; now your service begins. I’ve never heard those words said before, but I thought they were perfect for the conclusion of a church service.

People didn’t interact with me as I left the building, but they were definitely what I would call “peppy.” They all were full of energy and seemed to have pep in their step.

Post Service Commentary

I’m not sure what to think of this service. I expected something a bit more like Unity, Church of Religious Science or Divine Science. I didn’t hear any mention of Jesus Christ and only found the word “God” in a few of the hymns. Most songs were about the clouds, community and beauty, etc. Though I’ve never been to a Native American service, I would think it would have the same general feel. I’d call this church a true “feel good” church. While I didn’t get much from it, I’m glad there are denominations like this that are welcoming to gay, lesbian and transgender people, who often find it difficult to worship openly with their partner in an environment filled with judgment.

What’s Next?

What do you guys think of Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox? Not sure if I can find one in San Antonio, but I’ll look. I hear that’s quite different and would give me something to share. Anyone have any recommendations for churches that they’d like for me to peek inside? Let me know.