Sunday, March 14, 2010

Guatemala Day 1

Today I awoke at 4:00 a.m., fully ready to board a plane. Two hours and a protein bar later, that's what I did. I say I was ready to board a plane, but I was a little apprehensive about being in another country by noon. Though I do not lack experience in travel, this was my first visit to Central America. You would think that five continents and several countries in, I would have figured this travel thing out. But thus, like every experience, was different. Different country, different language, different people. I could take two trips around the world and still have a culture shock meltdown upon entering a neighboring county. I hope my awareness of my everlasting ignorance fuels my lust for information, rather than my fears.

I have grown accustomed to never fitting in when I travel, and there are still times when I wish I'd inherited a little more Japanese and Mexican from my mother. It is easier to blend in, though, if I know I stick out. I want to be sensitive to the country, but no ashamed of who I am.

So, a few hours later, I was next to one of my best friends in a Mennonite-owned pick-up truck, zipping through the streets of Guatemala City. I learned early on in international travel that one must always put one's trust completely in the driver and one's calmness into the role of passenger. Otherwise, every trip abroad would end in a panic attack, because of traffic, within two hours. Luckily, trusting Beth was easy--she's a good driver, and a Mennonite, which I have always felt may be the chosen denomination.

The first thing I noticed was color. From a person's clothes to the building by which they were standing, bright colors darted out at me. A pink stone building next to a blue concrete structure. In front, stood a beautiful Mayan woman. She had a large basket on her head, bright clothing and a baby on her back. I knew that this would be different than any place a visited prior.

As we loaded plastic chairs into the truck and transported them from one church to another, I barely noticed the heat. The sunshine made me happy, and the sweat building up inside my clothes felt carefree. Throughout my first day, I soaked it in--the sun, the heat, the colors, the traffic, the two languages mixing withing my head. I asked questions and wasn't embarrassed to ask for Beth's help while getting into Spanish mode. Her Spanish is quick and musical.

By the time we arrived at her apartment, after a quick lunch and taxi ride, I didn't even feel tired. Yes, I had already been awake for 12+ hours, and probably looked and smelled like a farm animal. I wish I knew what made me feel so comfortable in a potentially uncomfortable situation. I wish I knew so that I could call upon this method of contentment at other times in my life.

We walked a circle in Zone 6 until sundown and talked as she made dinner. Even the pasta sauce was multi-colored. My favorite part, though, was the "coily" cheese that resembled string cheese, spun into a sausage-like coil.

Now, I'm writing (by hand=difficult) as Beth plays the guitar and hums. I can hear just enough of the city and feel a fresh, cool breeze through the window. I may not take a sleeping pill tonight. Part of me just wants to stay awake.

--written the evening of Saturday, March 13, 2010 in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mega-Church #10 (Church #21): Finally, Hallelujah!

It’s over: ten mega-churches in ten weeks straight. This time, there was no skipping for H1N1 or bad weather. We stuck it out through entire services, even if they were more than two hours long. Needless to say, I’m feeling a bit over-churched right now.

The last church, Kansas City Baptist Temple, was a good place to end. Not because it was enjoyable or interesting, but because it represented the majorities in all the statistics listed below. If I were to draw conclusions as to what is a mega-church, how does it operate and whom does it attract, I probably could have drawn them all from this church and skipped the first nine.

The Baptist temple is not Baptist, but Non-Denominational. I didn’t ask, mostly because no one seemed welcoming or approachable. The church took pride in its diversity and specifically ministered toward the Spanish-speaking community. Though it was definitely not bilingual, there were headsets to wear so Spanish-speakers could understand. Even with this diversity, there was a definite focus on patriotism, tithing and Evangelism. The goal was not to feed the hungry, house the homeless or cloth the naked, but rather, translate the bible into indigenous languages so people could convert. From a linguistic perspective, this is almost laughable. What if there is no system of reading or writing in place? Will you create one? If there is a system, how can you be sure that all those need-to-be-Christians can read? There certainly doesn’t seem to be a plan to teach them.

And tithing. It’s always about the money. The pastor accused “church squatters” of benefiting from the church while not contributing a dime. “We need money to grow, to evangelize, to get bigger,” he said (basically). It wasn’t, “Please give us a donation because we want to improve your life and the lives of others, both spiritually and physically,” but, “Give us money because I tell you to!”

At the end of the service, I left relieved and annoyed. Part of me feels like for 10 weeks my time has been wasted, whereas another part is concerned that I didn’t spend enough time in each space to give it a fair trial. After all is blogged and read, though, what worries me the most is that this is only ten churches, ten GROWING churches, out of hundreds of thousands in the United States.

In summation:

Three of the Mega-Churches were visited during Lent. Lent-related language or seasonal liturgy was not used at any of the locations.

We received communion only once, at Mega-Church #1: Church of the Resurrection (United Methodist).

Jesus was rarely mentioned. Eight of the ten churches focused predominately on the Old Testament.

I estimate we heard 60+ songs, though we were only familiar with five or less.

One-half of the churches had some sort of altar call during the service.

All ten churches used a screen to display lyrics, video and scripture.

The phrase, “Turn in your bibles with me…” was used at 9 of the 10 churches.

Two churches had traditional pews while the remainder used theater flip chairs, folding chairs or padded chairs.

Eight churches had a coffee and/or gift shop (where money exchanged hands).

I put my name, email and phone number on 9 visitor cards or attendance registers. I received no emails, four phone calls and nine letters. Similarly, I visited all offered visitor/information centers. I received three coffee mugs, four CDs and two home-visits.

Seven churches had a choir; nine churches had a praise team with a live band.

All ten senior pastors we saw preach were male, Caucasian and above the age of 40.

Nine of the churches offered multiple service times, many of them 2-3 options on Sunday and at least one on Saturday.

All ten churches had at least two complicated-looking video cameras and flawless sound systems.

Eight of the ten churches called their sanctuary an “auditorium.” These auditoriums did not have windows and the lights were kept very low, almost like a movie theater.

I would not revisit these churches, but #1 and #4 could be utilized as a “last resort.”

(If you wish to know any more “statistics,” ask the question and I’ll do the figuring).

I’m sure this isn’t the end of my interaction with the mega-church of America, but for now, I must take my journey even further out of my comfort zone. More explanation to come, but a working title:

10 Churches, 10 Weeks, Volume III: Churchopedia. Denominations I have to look-up when somebody asks me about them. Eastern-Orthodox, Mormon, Quaker, Mennonite…cultural, deep, historical, religious awesomeness.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mega-Church #9 (Church #20): Colonists Unite

Oh, it was good to hear the organ again. The hard pews felt soothing, the choir robes removed all restriction and the communion table gave me a sense of hope. The quiet, peaceful service, elderly congregation and even long announcements were a relief. After weeks of electric guitars blaring, retro screen savers behind lyrics and the obvious presence of a stage, falling back into what I know brought tradition into a modern definition. Tradition: the presence of what is physically, emotionally and mentally comfortable.

Colonial Presbyterian reminded me, mostly in square footage, of First Church UCC in Oberlin. A large sanctuary with a balcony and a modest altar, the church was laid out in a semi-circle and filled with natural light. Unlike the movie theater-like, windowless experience of the mega-churches prior, this seemed just like a basic protestant church, multiplied in size and attendance by about five.

First Church UCC was built to enhance a growing, progressive community in Ohio. The college and townspeople were intensely religious, and also extremely anti-slavery. The main space never was and never is called a “sanctuary,” but a “meeting house.” It is first and foremost a gathering space to welcome others, create beautiful music and make changes in society. It was, as it says so simply in the name, the “First Church” in a small, wonderful town.

Recently, I have been somewhat obsessed with dictionary definitions and encyclopedia explanations. This will become more reasonable as I explain my next 10 churches after the Mega-Churches, but for now, it’s just an annoying habit. See a word, look it up, even if I already know what it means.

I’m assuming (and hoping) that the “Colonial” name in this church, as well as others in the area, has more to do with the style of architecture then the actual symbolism behind the word. I can’t, however, separate the two. When I think of “Colonial,” I automatically think of “colonialism.” Though “colonial” refers more to the description of a colony, a group of organisms existing together, “colonialism” conveys a sense of power, control, expansion and possession. Colonialism occurs when communities are no longer happy just being communities. Because, isn’t bigger always better?

Perhaps in the 1800s, a protestant church of that size in a small area made sense. Everyone goes to one place. But when more churches were built and First Church in Oberlin decreased in size, it did not seek out more space, people or communities, it just became a smaller congregation in a big building. I have found, though, in my three fairly traditional protestant mega-church experiences (Mega-Churches #1, #5 and #9), the church doesn’t need to build, expand, or grow, but rather wants or desires to be gigantic, just as the contemporary mega-churches do. To me, it is egotistical, greedy and a perfect example of colonialism…the lust for power, the obsession with control.

It was when the projection screen dropped from the ceiling that I felt the mega really reveal itself. The pastor was preaching at the “other campus,” that day, so he greeted us via camera and we watched the live simulcast along with our fellow colonists on the other side of the state line. Not only did I find this an example of colonialism in action, but also rather disengaging and extraordinarily boring. In fact, I must admit, I slept through a good part of the sermon. I can connect with a pastor on a screen about as much as I can connect with Simon Cowell on American Idol. Sure, he’s on the screen, and supposedly important, but doesn’t even attempt to make an emotional connection; and if he did, it would be hindered by the disconnect between person and electronic.

One thing I have recognized during this journey is that bigger is rarely better. Maybe more appealing, easier, more relaxed, and even more comfortable, but not better. A giant chocolate bar may be more attractive than a smaller one, but, nutritionally speaking, it’s not really better for you. It may be easier on the pocketbook to pack 35 kids in a classroom, but that’s not what’s best for them. That giant SUV sure is comfortable, but in more ways than one, inferior to other cars on the road. And if we keep growing and colonizing, if we continue to reach for the larger, I think we will find that we are not especially happy, and far from content.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mega-Church #8 (Church #19): Heal, Cure, Fix & Renew

Really, I could just describe my experience at Metro Christian Fellowship utilizing two lists:

High School Gymnasium (Non-Denominational Church in a Lutheran High School’s Gym)
Cheesy, Repetitive Christian Rock
Big screen with cheesy, repetitive Christian Rock lyrics
Laying on of Hands
More Cheesy, Repetitive Christian Rock
Mediocre Singing
Drummer in a completely enclosed room with windows
Harmonica player (best part)


I could ramble on for 800 words about all the things not included in the service. My soapbox is prepared for another couple pages on how much I dislike Christian Rock. Nevertheless, there was actually something unique about this service in that it included testimony of people who had been “healed” by God and/or Jesus.

When in doubt about meaning, religious or otherwise, I turn to my good friend Merriam Webster.

Main Entry: heal
Date: before 12th century
transitive verb 1 a : to make sound or whole b : to restore to health
2 a : to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome : mend b : to patch up (a breach or division)
3 : to restore to original purity or integrity
intransitive verb : to return to a sound state

This is a beautiful set of definitions. How many different ways can you think of to be made whole? How does our health need to be restored? Can we overcome an undesirable condition? Is it possible for troubles to be mended, but not forgotten? What are the breaches in our lives that need patching; what gaps need a bridge? Exactly what is the state of purity or integrity to which we must be returned? Where are we when we are at our most sound state?

Then I asked Merriam about another word:

Main Entry: cure
Date: 14th century
transitive verb 1 a : to restore to health, soundness, or normality b : to bring about recovery from
2 a : to deal with in a way that eliminates or rectifies b : to free from something objectionable or harmful
3 : to prepare or alter especially by chemical or physical processing for keeping or use
intransitive verb
1 a : to undergo a curing process
2 : to effect a cure

These definitions are extraordinarily different. The third definition for “cure” implies a “chemical or physical” process. I believe there are things from which we can be healed, but not cured, at least not by the same entity. Jesus, as a carpenter, fixes things differently than a doctor does.

Churches can create dangerous expectations when they claim to cure rather than heal. It is possible for the two to coincide, but not particularly common. One can be healed from a terminal illness in that they emotionally come to terms with their ailment. One can be cured from an illness when the illness itself disappears.

I understand the yearning to be thankful and voice testimony when a miracle of curing happens, and it does happen. I just worry when we start to depend on that miracle. I’m not concerned that God is getting more credit than doctors, medicine or hard work, but I am afraid of the aftermath of the curing theology.

I knew someone who recently died of lung cancer. There was a time when she was almost perfectly well, cured, you might say. She was a devout Christian and prayed for herself and others constantly. When she was almost cured, she was grateful, happy and excited. When she wasn’t, she was settled, ready and calm. I believe her cancer was healed by prayer in that she was prepared for any outcome, and made the best of the time she had. But her cancer was not cured, and that is not God’s fault, not science’s fault and most definitely not her fault. Some would accuse her of wrongdoing, or of not praying or believing hard enough. Some might say God chose her specifically to not be cured so that she could heal others as she was healed. I don’t agree with the some people that say those things. If I did, then I would be resolved to the fact that bad things happen to good people, and though I accept that as truth, I don’t accept it as theology.

We have such great potential to grow in the areas of medicine and educate on the subject of wellness. By depending solely on prayer, we are not utilizing our own opportunities nor recognizing the progress of nature and society. I have emotions—guilt, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc.—that are constantly in the process of healing, but I don’t know that they can ever be cured. I guess I’ll leave that up to the psychiatrists.