Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
Moving with the Spirit
Why are there so many churches in Albion? I leave my house to find out, and my first visit is to Salem United Church of Christ (UCC) on W. Pine Street. The occasion is a spaghetti dinner fundraiser to which I am invited by Susan Heisler, and where I join Diana and Rex Wade at a round table. And yes, the shape of this commonplace item is important to mention because these furnishings are a response to a quest by parishioners to have people come closer and to engage in more inclusive conversations. Upon joining the Wades for a supper of pasta topped with tomato sauce, bread, salad and dessert, Diana and I are off on a discussion on the Prayer Shawl Ministry of which she is part, the ornate corn boxes that Rex makes, and my offer to translate into Spanish the statement accompanying the shawls that are prayed over by the whole congregation and then gifted upon request to people going through illnesses and distresses in their lives. The smooth peanut butter cake that Suzie Zerbe made for the occasion delights my palate as I take breaks for conversation. During these sweet pauses I learn that the crocheting or knitting of the shawls entails a three-point stitching technique that alludes to the Holy Trinity. UCC is an open and affirming church, meaning a place welcoming to everyone irrespective of our gender, sexual, racial, economic, national, or political backgrounds or stances. I am not surprised then to hear how it took arduous training and more than a year of dialogues to have congregants reach a consensus. Neither am I surprised with the loving patience with which the hands of a member of the community picks up, in a service a week after the spaghetti dinner, the debris left behind on a pew by another. Meanwhile Pastor Loree Grinnell delivers a sermon focused upon seeing situations from different perspectives as opposed to assuming an attack-mode on a group or person. One of her examples is about the animosity some of us might feel at drug addicts receiving publicly funded medications to help them overcome potentially deadly overdoses. Pastor Grinnell is wearing a shoulder-arm sling due to an injury, yet this does not prevent me from witnessing how Spirit dances through her body in the form of words. Church as discerning community. Church as home where everyone is fully embraced.
I am told how the number of churches in Albion has gone down from 60 plus to something like 40, in a city with a population of 8,000 or less residents. My impulse is to average churches to people, but who cares about percentages when there are more important matters at stake. The first day I walk to Lewis Chapel, the AME Church in Albion, I miss it. Not the second time. It is not directly on W. Cass, as I initially thought, but off to my left on W. Center. Once in the space, I notice that my boots match the cadmium red carpet and the pews’ upholstery, and I immediately feel at home in a hospitable atmosphere. Reverend Donald Phillips greets me by introducing himself with a handshake. In our swift exchange as the service gets ready to begin, he asks about the kind of art I make. “Meeting people,” I respond, summarizing my artist statement in two words. The morning kicks in several minutes after 11 AM with announcements, including one informing the community that the church will no longer be printing materials as a way of easing the load of an already burdened Earth. People are urged to look at the projections on the screen and to take photos of the postings when of interest to them. The picture my imagination snaps is that of the trees that one church at a time can save by following this wise policy. Reverend Phillips walks us organically through a communal encounter with Spirit that includes humor, storytelling, worship, art, and activism. Racism and the incarceration of black and brown bodies are articulated from the altar honestly. Like it is. At Lewis Chapel I find myself immersed in a group choreography with the Divine that integrates life and death concerns, laughter and a recognition of the arduous journey on the social justice road. Church as the collective space for enduring and yes, for overcoming injustice. At some point midway through the morning, we are invited to mingle and talk with one another; eventually we get together in pairs to hold hands or place them on another’s shoulders and pray with that person. The singing ministry is performed by three vocalists. I recognize Ikpemesi Ogundare in one of them! Several people approach me as I exit the building to invite me to return. I leave the place complete. The inner image that bubbles up for me is that of Spirit as cosmic DJ. Church as sacred dance floor. Church as extended family.
The old Catholic church in town is a stone’s throw away from my home on E. Cass. The new incarnation of it is, however, far out of my way, so far that I dismiss the idea of walking there. I contact Juanita Solís Kidder for a ride to the Saturday Mass and off we go to Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church on Irwin Avenue. Past Superior, into the West side, and out by open fields and not far from a grassy cemetery. At Saint John the Evangelist I get to see some of the elements that have been transferred from the building on Cass to the new site, including the stained-glass windows. Mass goes in the order expected, with the Eucharist at its height, handled reverently by the caring hands of Father Joseph Gray. Then silent prayer. Then the priest’s blessing on us all before we head back outside. In this seemingly predictable environment, I come across an image that disrupts the steady flow of events. In the lobby of the church a painting hangs that depicts a baby Jesus surrounded by three four-legged creatures, a mother sheep and her two offspring, and the infant reaching out to them with great curiosity. Compassion and love are the most accurate words to describe the tableaux. Any potentially saccharine elements in this artwork get dismantled on the spot by the appearance of the known and yet unforeseen. Juanita points to the three nails that are carefully scattered on the ground around baby Jesus. They signal the crucifixion. This is corroborated by the positioning of the infant’s arms in the shape of the cross. Church as divine museum. Church as dwelling for the sacraments and for sacramentals.
The Albion First United Methodist Church is at the heart of the campus and at the center of the College’s story. This is the organization that originally sought to offer a place where Native Americans and settlers to the region could pursue a formal education. I am lucky to meet a couple of neighbors of Native American ancestry; they are not connected to this past initiative, but their enduring presence speaks of those who have been here before most of our peoples set foot on this land. Albion First United Methodist Church is a focal point in the landscape, its steep bell tower pointing to the town’s open skies. The Sunday I attend, Reverend Leslee Fritz delivers a sermon on faith where the iconic image of the tiny mustard seed is used. When the choir makes it to the altar I recognize some familiar voices. Communion takes the shape of sculptural gluten free bread and down to Earth grape juice. I am moved as to how Reverend Fritz descends from the altar to share communion with those who have difficulty walking. Church as abode of straightforwardness. Church as place where the stages of life and the wonder of our bodies are acknowledged.
Bodies are of relevance in the Russian Orthodox Church. This applies to those familiar with its practices and to the others like me who are novices to this space of worship. Michael Willett and I stumble upon each other at the entrance of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church on Austin Avenue. We mistake one another for regulars, but soon discover that we are walking together in new territory. Once inside, I stay within the main nave, but then opt for going upstairs to the balcony. I let Michael know that he can join me there if he decides that he would like to sit during part of the Mass. He appears upstairs a few minutes later. Soon we find ourselves looking for guidance as to when to stand and when to sit, when to cross ourselves and how to do so properly, and whether or not we can partake of the bread and wine placed on a small table aligned at the opposite end from where the Eucharist is being offered. Father Joshua and Father Evangelos together with Deacons John and Justin officiate. In this context babies are not the subjects of a painting, but they crawl joyously around one’s feet as Mass goes on. They also play with children’s books and explore the elaborate gilded surroundings with wide-open eyes. Attendees kiss holy icons with devotion. Youngsters of all ages run to touch and kiss the priests’ and deacons’ vestments as they proceed through the aisle. Mass here is a mingling of orderliness and the ordinary, where life moves within the scope of carefully performed rituals. This paradox becomes more tangible when we descend to the basement to have lunch as a community. Priests and deacons laugh, tell travel stories, sample dishes, and rejoin the day-to-day outside a world of incense and burning candles, but one imbued with the fragrance of chopped cilantro and freshly made bread, and with the heat coming not from melting wax but from big cooking pots. Church as residence of magnificent mystery. Church as life with all its gorgeous complexities. There are about 35 plus more churches for me to visit in Albion!
To listen to a public broadcast –– throughout Superior –– of the recording of Albion’s streets song by Ikpemsi Ogundare, join Nicolás on Monday, November 25th, 4:00 PM, outside The Bohm. This event is free and open to everyone! See a photo of this event by visiting the Caminata page here: http://albionmich.net/caminata/