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2162: St Lydia's, The Dinner Church, New York City
new_york_st_lydia Photo: caribbeanfreephoto
Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell.
The church: St Lydia's, The Dinner Church, New York City.
Denomination: Interdenominational. On their website they say they are part of the Emergent Church movement, coming out of the Anglican/Lutheran tradition.
The building: They meet in the basement of Trinity Lower East Side, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but they are a distinct entity and independent of the ELC. Trinity has been at this site since 1863, although the original Victorian church was demolished in 1975 and replaced in 1996 by the current brick structure that blends in well with the old tenement houses that are its neighbors.
The church: They call themselves a "dinner church." Quoting from their website, they "gather every Sunday evening to cook and share a sacred meal, just as the first followers of Jesus did." I don't think that they do any outreach yet, as they're so new and quite small in size. The community coordinator did mention an outing to worship at a neighboring church. And they had lots of activities planned during Lent, including a Palm Sunday procession through the neighborhood and an Easter vigil service at the labyrinth at Union Square.
The neighborhood: Trinity is located on Tompkins Square Park in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan's East Village, so called because the streets are named Avenue A, Avenue B, etc. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tompkins Square was the site of numerous demonstrations and protests, some put down rather violently by the police. The park was designed by master builder Robert Moses in 1936; some say that Moses' plan was deliberately intended to divide and manage crowds. In 1966, the Indian mystic Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada began to sing and preach beneath an elm tree in the park, spawning a movement that was to become known throughout the world as Hare Krishna. By the 1980s the area had become a haven for heroin addicts, the homeless, and some of the more dispossessed New Yorkers. In 1991 the park was closed for over a year for renovations, thus effectively getting rid of the homeless, and today Alphabet City is one of New York's more fashionable and "terminally hip" neighborhoods. The park's former homeless encampments have been replaced by two children's playgrounds, a dog run, and a trendy, upscale hamburger stand near the Hare Krishna elm.
The cast: Amy Scott, pastoral minister and founder, preached the sermon. Rachel Pollack, community coordinator, was a reader and played the shruti box. Elyce (whose last name I didn't catch), a vicar with the United Church of Christ, presided over the consecration and blessings.
The date & time: Sunday, April 11, 2011, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Dinner Service.

How full was the building?
About 20. There was room for four or five more. Most of the congregants were in their mid-20s to early 30s, but there were a few middle-agers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, I was greeted by the pastor as soon as I walked in. The conversation at the dinner table was very welcoming, friendly and light-hearted.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews, just padded metal folding chairs around folding tables, covered with blue-checked tablecloths and a centerpiece of candles.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very busy. I arrived just at 7.00, so I missed out on the cooking and table set-up. I was shown where to get a name tag and where to stow my coat and bag. Everyone else was either cooking or setting up for the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Kyrie eleison.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A well-worn Bible. I didn't notice what edition.

What musical instruments were played?
An Indian instrument, the shruti box, a small wooden box with a system of bellows, similar to a harmonium but smaller and without a keyboard. It provided the drone for the chants and songs.

Did anything distract you?
A few were eating during the gospel readings and also the sermon, and I kept wondering whether that was disrespectful or not. It is a dinner church, after all, so I guessed not, but I did find my mind wandering to dinner theater in the 1970s. I had always imagined that the tables were cleared by the time the curtain came up.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Neither adjective really works here, because the service seemed so idiosyncratic – at once formal and charismatic. It began with a chanted/sung Kyrie accompanied by the shruti box. There was a candle lighting ceremony where we lit each others' candles and then placed them in a holder in the center of the table. Elyce blessed large loaves of bread using words found in the Didache, an ancient text known to the Church Fathers but lost until 1873. We broke off pieces from the loaf and gave them to our seatmates, after which we ate dinner. After dinner the gospel was read and the sermon preached. Next came a call for narratives from one's own experience that related to the sermon. Several people told stories they deemed relevant. A poem, a hymn and some prayers followed. Then our cups (whatever we happened to be drinking) were blessed, again using words from the Didache. Finally the dishes were collected and cleaned up, and we sang a final hymn, wished each other peace, and received a blessing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Amy Scott had prepared notes but seemed not to need them. She was very conversational, and I found her tone quite effective in such an intimate space.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a meditation on the anointing of Jesus with nard at Bethany, Mark 14:3-9. She began with an experiential narrative about her sick pet rabbit named Peter. Although she knew he was dying, she had spent more money than she should on antibiotics, which ultimately didn't work to save him. She read this against the episode in Mark as an extravagant example of a type of "reckless love." And, she argued, it is with precisely this sort of recklessness that God loves us all.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing young people earnestly grappling with liturgy in a serious way and actively engaging the really big questions that it raises.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At one point the dinner conversation turned to what people did for a living. One woman announced what she did, and a palpable hush fell over the table, as if this were a murder mystery dinner and the body had just been found. And hers was a perfectly respectable occupation!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I struck up a conversation with Rachel Pollack, who kept trying to figure out how I found out about the church. I told her a friend had e-mailed me a link to their website and said I should check it out, but she kept wanting to know more about my friend, and if my friend attended services there regularly. I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. It seemed as if she was really saying,"We don't get many outsiders like you, so why are you here?" It sure felt that way. She also said, "You're Episcopalian" – a statement of fact more than a question. How did she know? Were my secret Episcopalian underpants showing? What gives?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The dinner itself was a vegetarian one – hot orzo salad with spinach and feta in a lemon vinaigrette. There was red wine, sparkling grape juice and water. The food was really good.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I found the whole air of old-fashioned pie-eyed can-do oddly compelling. It reminded me of the early Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films – bubbling with palpable enthusiasm and possibility, really charming, and even a little odd. That said, I do find consecrated dinner rolls a tad confusing. There was a moment in the service where I felt like a dad crashing the youngsters' party. That is probably a danger in such an experientially driven liturgy. Differences may be encouraged, but they may unintentionally exclude. All in all, I found the project really interesting. I would like to go back at some point to see what the youngsters are up to.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. How could it not?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Everyone working together to clean up. It was like a well-oiled and happy machine. Oh, and it may be un-Christian of me to say it, but the "dead bunny" sermon.
 
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