Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Spirit of New York

A student brought a stack of money to class today - but it was all in a good cause. It's spirit money, and she showed us how it's folded before being burnt to transfer assets to departed relatives. This was only one of many highlights of the first set of final presentations in "Lived Religion in New York."

The Buddhism in New York presentation, of which the spirit money folding was part, compared a Tibetan center on 16th Street and several temples in Chinatown. The intrepid students were undeterred by the absence of public events at the former, and conducted an internet interview with a practitioner upstate. As for the latter, after meeting the same woman at two Mahayana temples (who was delighted to see them both times), they stumbled into a press conference being given by a top priest of Fo Guang Shan at a Buddhist youth center, and were permitted to interview him too. (Conveniently both he and one of the students are Taiwanese.) They asked the same questions to their Nyingma source (named Sam), getting similar ambivalence about the opportunities and distractions of the city, compared to the activities at their upstate headquarters. They posted the different answers in different places along the walls of our classroom, inviting us to get up and look at them and so letting us get a taste of the adventure they had. And then we got to fold paper...

Next came a presentation on the challenges of keeping a long fast in New York. One presenter focused on Ramadan, and interviewed a family member. Another focused on Greek Orthodox Lent and interviewed someone she works with. The results were fascinating, both from a comparative and a lived religion perspective. Neither interviewee described herself as religious, but both took on the ardors of fasting for their own interesting reasons. The Muslim had grown up in Karachi and Dubai and fasted in part to experience a connection to home, but described observing Ramadan in New York as far more difficult than it is in these Muslim cities, since shops here are open and colleagues blithely eat... not to mention that New York summer days can be 18 hours long! For the Orthodox fast, by contrast, New York turns out to be a great place "since there are so many vegan restaurants here."

After that we learned about the little floe left of what was once a major German population in New York City - a third of the population, making it the third-largest German-speaking city in the world. The presenters researched the German Lutheran church of St. Mark's - originally in Kleindeutschland in the Lower East Side (the building is now a synagogue), relocating to Yorkville on the Upper East Side after much of the congregation died in the General Slocum disaster of 1904. They still have services in German, not too poorly attended, according to a student who attended. Although their congregants long ago moved to the suburbs, many evidently return each week for services, as well as for German film screenings. But this tiny remnant of what was once a major part of New York's experience of itself is all but invisible today. "I've lived in the neighborhood for twenty years," said my (20-year-old) student, "and never noticed it was there."

Today's final presentation was about the St. Francis Xavier. The two students were interested in the parish's outreach to LGBTQ people, and found lots - though over the course of conversations with four different people connected to the parish they were able also to register the delicacy of being a gay-friendly Catholic church. The priest, and a long-term parishioner to whom they spoke, seemed to dodge their questions about inclusiveness by directing them to the parish's Catholic Lesbian and Gay Catholic groups, and pointing out the chapel for those lost to HIV/Aids: actions, not statements! And, they reported, everyone's favorite phrase seemed to be "who am I to judge?" - they didn't know the phrase's papal pedigree! But after talking to my colleague M, a parishioner there, they were able to end their presentation with an account of the congregation's public support of its LGBTQ ministries at the consecration after recent renovation, to which the (not so gay-friendly) Cardinal Archbishop of New York could only applaud.

A wonderfully multi-dimensional picture of New York as a place where religion lives is emerging - and we have yet to hear the presentations from groups exploring yoga centers, kosher bakeries and the Hare Krishnas who sing and dance at Union Square!

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