The bright morning sunshine currently illuminating the faded floor rugs of the Chamounix Mansion is a direct contradiction to this title, but yesterday morning was quite a different story. All day, the sky kept up a disconsolate drizzle, painting everything the same damp gray. Still, moods were high. Bassil asks, “Did I snore at all?” Kindly, Ed and Brandon prevaricate. “Absolutely,” says Tayseer. Now we know the truth.
Grace Trinity church is another interesting construct of unusual street patterns (think the intersection of Morrill and Cates on campus). Three streets mark off the triangular perimeter of an island, with Grace Trinity United Church being its sole geographic feature. As we dodge plump rain drops and find refuge on the porch, I realize today is unique. This is the only time I will be encountering a religion with which I am already familiar. But I do not feel like I am going to church. I feel like I am going to some kind of zoo, to store gormlessly at the native behavior of exotic captives. Shouldn’t I feel like an insider? Or will I have to leave the group to join a place of participation not all of them may want to follow?
We then do the worst thing for anyone who is on a first date, attending the first day of class, or in any way preparing for the arrival of awkward encounters: we arrive painfully early. But as we hover in the hallway, before being discovered by an elder, ushered down the aisle, before quietly possessing two or three rows, I realize something. Going to a new church is always excruciating. Even if it is your religion.
We sit, they fill our hands with hymnals, and the practice band continues, not paying us too much mind. And as songs like, “Beautiful One,” and other worship songs fill the air, all my silly nerves melt and loosen, leaving a warm pool of something that feels like familiarity.
The pastor arrives and introduces himself as Reverend Dr. Chandra Soans. (We later find he has a PhD in religious dialogue and a seminary degree.) He tells us about the United Church of Christ denomination, where, instead of laying out the Gospel, Dr. Soans emphasizes the liberal, “progressive” social justice issues they champion. He says, “Every knowledge that God has bestowed is for human benefit,” which is why they believe religion and science go hand-in-hand. Because God created all equally, they care for every community, from GLBT to the local poor. “Everywhere there is oppression, we are there,” he says. He explains today’s service includes communion, which he ties to his prepared message. Taking communion is a public declaration of following Jesus’ message, which he encapsulates as: “Win the world by love, peace, and non-violence.” Later, he would tie the success of Gandhi, and any other liberated nation which protested without weapons, to Jesus’ model. Most of his negative examples came from Islam; later, Lindsay, a History major, pointed out that this is not the most equivocal treatment of our past. Rather than Christianity being the one faith to recently overcome its desires to incur divine violence, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have fallen in and out of violence for centuries. Historically peaceful communities existed before this century, and no faith has gotten past the desire to take up arms.
He also talks about his work in the community. Dr. Soans has started numerous ministries, creating forty jobs, including a service which aims to revolutionize the community by making people home-owners, instead of merely renters.
They provide counseling and $8,000 grants. Our lunch, a delicious spread of rice, curry, and banana bread (the latter dousing the dull fire consuming my mouth and lips) is in honor Cynthia, a one-year wife and expectant mother, who is attending her baby shower without her husband. Back in India, he still awaits a visa, and the church is her sole support system in the interim. Further, when Dr. Soans came from India and was selecting a church on which to base his ministry, choosing Grace accounted to insanity. The previous domination, largely white, abandoned the church as the community demographic changed. He said others discouraged him from trying to jumpstart anything from such a dying church. Particularly the drug-dealers who were already making use of the front lawn.
This made me wonder about the roles of religion in a community. Is it just the theological basis for social justice? A human support system, tool for community revolution? Dr. Soans describes it a bit like a buffet; varied religions give us the best way to find what feeds out souls. For him, Christianity is a religion of relationship, symbolized by God’s tripartite existence as the Trinity. It’s about unconditional reception in a community because of our fundamental understanding about what Jesus did for us. He closed by saying it is good to know the basis of all religions. “You will appreciate what you believe, and you will appreciate each other,” particularly those of a different faith.
Our next destination was the Franklin institute, which was a monumental photo opportunity next to his giant, marble self. I wish all of the Benjamin Franklins scholars could have been there to share in the hallowed moment. We walked through a giant heart, complete with “Who Wants to be a Millionare?”-esque sound effects and swirling lights to simulate streaming blood cells. I learned that vanadium and copper color other creature’s blood green and blue the way iron colors our blood red. A live-video of open heart surgery played in the chest of a horizontal mannequin of a patient. I have to wonder at the nerve of that cameraman. And whether the patient gave consent for part of the medical procedure to include both scalpel and eye-piece probing of his innards.
The electricity exhibit gave us countless opportunities to delve in masochism, particularly watching the impressive fireworks of static charge jumping from one person’s finger to another. Lindsay and I missed a liquid nitrogren show to visit the train factory, where an investigation of a train accident is underway. You measure the thickness of boiler steel, test pressure valves, and listen to the testimonies of everyone from the designer and eyewitnesses to the financier and secretary. (Spoiler alert: the financier doomed the train with the inexpensive gauges he purchased.) The other group also visited the planetarium, which also turned out to be an excellent place to conduct sleep studies. Those interested in more of the intricacies of studying the inside of your eyelids should contact Tina.
After stocking up on food stuffs at the supermarket, we crowded the kitchen to label every single food item and equip Ed in his production of world-class quesadillas. We realized another ASB trip had invaded our valuable refrigerator property, inciting a vehement turf war. We were sure to rightfully claim our Froot Loops with sprinkles.
Dinner was followed by a discussion of immigration with a Jewish woman studying to be a Rabbi who works with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. We did not directly discuss the policies that exist or how they arose, but she used Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures to highlight the importance of taking care of “strangers,” particularly undocumented immigrants suffering at the hands of what she considers a broken system. The time frame of most processes is on the order of eight to twelve years, which shocked me. Thinking about women like Cynthia makes it clear that this is not conducive to family growth. Which may be the point?
Becca’s frustration stems from the “vilification” of immigrants, particularly when they are the mercy of a system which “considers an entire class of people without the right to live.” She had us consider our own backgrounds and realize most of our ancestors were lucky to immigrate. In that sense, what besides our place of habitation defines us as Americans? And do we have the right to deny that to anyone? Is, as Becca seems to find it, American!citizenship a right anyone should have access to? Can we ethically deny someone access to our country? Is the case of the refugee different from people who are seeking ways to improve their lives? Disentangling the issues of justice, faith, and nationalism are difficult.
The night ended with mint chocolate chip ice cream, brownies and lady gaga. We may win the award for the most calorific ASB trip, though perhaps the enthusiasm of foosball reversed some of the damage. We were at last exhausted as we fell into bed, which I realized, seems a bit like an Oliver Twist experience. We decided that if we are orphans, Bassil is the headmistress.