“The only thing that keeps us together is faith. That’s fascinating to me; it knocks me off my feet.” –Dave Cote
I went to church today; a rare occurrence for me as of late. Michael had mentioned wanting to check out a few Congregational Churches in Worcester and we chose the United Congregational Church on Institute Road, across from the old Worcester Voke and Tech High School and parallel to the Worcester Memorial Auditorium.
The structure is massive and reminiscent of antebellum architecture. I spent a good hour on the Worcester County Registry of Deeds to track down when the church was built and only could get documents back to 1947. I’m on a mission to find out for sure, and will update this post with the actual date of construction. Here’s my guess: Built between 1870-1910. I was under the impression that it was Queen Ann Revival, similar to the Allen House in Pittsfield, because of its asymmetrical, decorative design, use of stone and other materials, and round corner turrets.
However, I’ve never heard Queen Ann style used in Church of Municipality architecture, so I had to think back to my architectural styles of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. My guess is that it was Richardsonian Romanesque, a style characterized by massive rough cut stone walls (the building is red, and I’m not sure if it is red granite or if it is painted), dramatic round arches, conical squat towers, deeply set windows and stone chimneys. Truly, if that didn’t just make you want to pee your pants with excitement, maybe this will: Richardsonian Romanesque style is a revival of the 11th century French and Spanish Romanesque (think Catedral de Pisa Italia) that preceded Gothic style. You know, Gothic, that other medieval style where the arches got pointed, buttresses started flying and the stained glass windows were a “rose” round shape. Think Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Last tidbit about Richardsonian style: named after Henry Hobson Richardson, his masterpiece was Trinity Church in Boston.
You can take the girl out of real estate, but you can’t take the real estate out of the girl. Unless I’m completely off about the construction and style.
Where was I? So we decided to go to their service at 10:30 AM this morning. After parking, we went to the side door. Then the front door. Then one of those doors that was neither in the front or the side, but at a weird angle. All were locked. A woman with blond hair was crossing Salisbury Street when she asked us if we were trying to get in. We followed her to the back of the church as she asked us a plethora of questions. We got inside to a small worship area, not the main sanctuary and were introduced to four smiling parishioners, excited to have new visitors.
I’ll be honest, when I meet friendly people or an overly happy person, I find it off putting. I’m cynical; and I wonder what their deal is, what’s their motivation for being so “nice”. I find it truly uncomfortable. I know that’s messed up. My reaction was to run out to my car.
We took a seat in the back and the service began. As I looked through the program, the church was celebrating All Saints Day on this Sunday, specifically honoring the deceased of the local congregation. There was a reading from The Book of Revelation. I find myself making two column notes in my head, comparing Catholic Mass to a Congregational Service. What parts are similar? What are different? Word choices. Gestures. I do not do so with much judgment, but more observation. Although I find people sing with more passion at the Congregational Worships than at Mass.
Then the congregation began to recite the Prayer of Confession, “O God, it is in us all: the world’s anger, the private grievances, the pride that goes before a fall, the fear that gnaws away at our trust. We are tired with labor that does not satisfy; we are possessed by our possessions. We seek you aimlessly and listen to you casually…”
It continued, but at that point I had begun to tear up and did not hear the rest.
Religion has been a subject of deep investigation most of my adult life. I shudder at those who cling to the defense of their God while lacking civility to their fellow man. I cringe at the Facebook posts that inform mee that only 9% will share that they love God. I roll my eyes at those who shoot down any religion, especially Christianity because their self-deluded Atheism has provided them with more arrogant answers because they took at course on Niche or Sartre I am the doubtful believer, but believer nonetheless. I don’t want to flaunt, I don’t want to deny.
I recall a course offered at Assumption College titled “The Problem of God”. I almost signed up because I confused the preposition “of” with “with”. I was a confused 18 year old who had more questions and doubts about religion than ever before. Confusion lied in naively thinking “God” and “religion” were synonyms.
I’d never call myself an atheist or even an agnostic. I always believed in a higher being, and was not arrogant to believe that all “this” was signals, codes and animal survival instinct. I believed in love. I found the phrase “secular morality” a semantic definition to explain why there would be such things as happiness and love. Even though I can see the argument that humans can be ethical and moral without religion or a god, it left me with more questions than answers.
Then in 2002 I read Life of Pi.
A poor summary of the novel would state it is about an Indian boy named Pi who is fascinated with Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam and journeys by ship with his family and their zoo to begin a new life in Canada. He is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, except for the tiger he shares a lifeboat with until he is found in Mexico.
But that’s the plot of the story. Not the message of the story. Let me edit that; it’s not the story.
As I opened the novel and read the words, “Life will defend itself no matter how small it is, ” I was interested. When I read the words, “There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless,” I chuckled in agreement. When I read the words, “If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation,” I was blown away.
And when I read some of the last words, ” If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe,” I realized I had just finished reading a book that was a life changer. Were Yann Martel’s ideas in this novel new? No. Had anyone had them before? Of course. But just as some are inspired by a painting, a song, a person, a moment, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have a few “aha” moments that cause those spinning puzzle pieces of questions to connect into place, even if only for a little while.
After the service today, we stuck around for awhile. Those friendly people had grown on me and have found that if given time, I quickly revise my first impressions of those I meet. We met the Reverend, Nancy Elder-Wilfred and began to talk about the church. She had to make rounds with her members, but she introduced us to one of the Deacons, Dave Cote for a more in depth history of the church. The following blew my mind.
In 2010 United Congregational Church voted to donate the entire building and their multi-million dollar endowment to the Worcester Area Mission Society (WAMS). Let me say that again. The Church did not sell, or abandon, but rather donated their building and a multi-million dollar endowment to an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Central Massachusetts through an integrated set of programs in prevention, permanent housing creation, advocacy, and employment.
The UCC leases space from WAMS for worship. Many members thought with the loss of their permanent home base that the church would close its metaphorical doors. The congregation in fact has grown in the past two years. As Dave Cote said, “The only thing that keeps us together is faith. That’s fascinating to me; it knocks me off my feet.”
They gave up their building and still their practice thrives. Now, that’s inspiring.