|859: Church of the Holy Spirit, Brooklyn, New York, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Brooklyn, New York.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Located at 8117 Bay Parkway, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit is a rather squat looking stone building, painted white, set in a very attractive garden. The interior is also painted white, with dark wood pews, window frames and ceiling ribbing, and is rather plain save for two large wooden crucifixes on either side of the sanctuary. Huge stained glass windows are located along each side wall and in the rear of the sanctuary and, due to their size, illuminate the church quite nicely.
The church: It was built in the 1880s and over the years has grown to minister primarily to Bensonhurst's Asian-American community. It sponsors a senior citizen social group and offers individual and family counseling and immigration assistance. Classes are given in English as a second language, Chinese, and music. After-school programs and vacation Bible school are provided. The church also furnishes meeting space for several neighborhood organizations.
The neighborhood: This is the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. Bath Beach, close to the Atlantic Ocean, was formerly a resort district studded with luxury hotels. Today it is a clean, well-kept, broad-avenued, tree-lined neighborhood of apartment buildings, private homes and commercial establishments. Residents are an eclectic mixture of Orthodox Jews, Asian-Americans and Russian immigrants, as well as Italian-Americans.
The cast: Rev. Peter Lam, priest-in-charge, celebrant; Aaren Li, Brian Li, Myra Cheng and Elsie Wong, acolytes and servers; Annie Ho, lector.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass, Fifth Sunday of Easter (Mothers' Day).
How full was the building?
About 40 people – the church was half full. The entire congregation was Asian-American save for myself and two elderly ladies. After the sermon and announcements, children from the Sunday school joined the congregation, doubling its size.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, several members of the congregation did their best to make me feel welcome. One lady took it upon herself to explain the order of service and use of the various booklets. I finally had to tell her I was Episcopalian and quite familiar with the order of service, thank you very much. Even then, she insisted on showing me page numbers in the prayer book and hymnal as the mass progressed.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical wooden church pews and kneelers – comfortable enough.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of quiet visiting, somewhat distracting. One group of people made a rather noisy entrance to much acclaim from others, which I found jarring. At one point, the acolytes and servers fiddled about the sanctuary testing the microphone, etc.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit," first in English and then in Chinese. The entrance procession included a crucifer, acolytes and the celebrant. The acolytes were vested in white surplices (a little on the skimpy side, I thought – I much prefer cottas) and red cassocks. Alas, only the crucifer was properly garbed in black slacks, socks and shoes; the remainder of the altar party wore jeans and sneakers under their cassocks.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A veritable library. An abridged version of the Book of Common Prayer, with Chinese translation; Hymns of Universal Praise (Chinese, with English translations, published in Hong Kong); a Chinese lectionary; an order of service in Chinese and English, with an insert containing the day's readings in English. The Good News Bible and a Chinese Bible were also available in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
A baby grand piano on one side of the sanctuary, in tune but not for much longer. A matching baby grand piano sat on the other side of the sanctuary but was not used. The organ is currently in disrepair and is no longer played; contributions to an organ fund to purchase a new organ are being actively solicited. The pianist played well, but I would characterize the congregational singing as timid. There was no choir.
Did anything distract you?
The church was well illuminated, not only by the large windows but also by chandeliers and wall sconces. Just before mass began, however, someone pulled the string on a row of fluorescent lights plus a single halogen spotlight that I hadn't noticed before. The harsh white light given off by these fixtures was not only completely unnecessary but also very distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a dignified, prayerful and reverential service, and the congregation was clearly "into it," very much attuned to Father Lam's sermon as well as the order of service. The mass itself was primarily in Chinese, with many sections said in English. The congregation recited the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Lord's Prayer in both languages, and in each case the Chinese speakers were finished long before the English speakers.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Father Lam spoke in Chinese, with an English translation provided via headphones. I wish I understood Chinese. His delivery was animated, forceful and engaging, as compared to the rather dry, scholarly voice heard over the headphones.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Lam spoke on the Gospel of the day (John 13:31-35). The Last Supper must have confused the apostles, with its talk of betrayal. In fact, all took place exactly as it should. The apostles were like children – slow to understand, but trusting in their parents to explain. When Christ gave the apostles his "new commandment" to love one another, he showed that he had the authority as Savior to command. God's commandments are not optional – they are binding, and Christ lived the commandments by laying down his life for those he loved. Only Christ can give us the courage and strength to live the commandments.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The peace ceremony was one of the liveliest I have ever witnessed. The entire altar party was down in the congregation, and everyone was out of their pews. I am certain that every person in church shook hands with everyone else.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At communion, Father Lam gave the customary announcement that all baptized Christians were welcome at God's holy table. But as I approached the rail, he asked me if I had been baptized before ministering the host to me.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It being Mothers' Day, a special luncheon had been prepared. Several members of the congregation ushered me down into the undercroft personally to partake of the luncheon.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The luncheon consisted of pot-luck items with a Chinese flair, such as fried rice and both steamed and fried dumplings, as well as baked macaroni and American-style desserts. Everything was very tasty, but there was no evidence in sight of a beverage of any sort, although someone had managed to acquire a cup of tea from God knows where.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 Despite the fact that the only non-Asians besides myself were two elderly ladies, who told me "we're it," the congregation was a lively, welcoming one, and I did not feel all too terribly out of place, despite the preponderance of conversation in Chinese.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was a spiritually uplifting service and an inspiring congregation. Also, to hear Father Lam speak the words of the consecration in Chinese drilled home in my mind the universality of the church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I was prepared to remember a large number of things, but being asked if I had been baptized before being allowed to receive the host has displaced all the others.