IT WAS MY last day in New York last summer. I was in Park Slope on 7th Ave, waiting for the copy center to open so I could print my Megabus ticket to Toronto for that night. I had nothing to do and no money to spend (I’d spent the last of my US dollars on a chocolate bar). I crossed the street to sit on the church steps. The doors were open and without thinking I entered…
[Note: The following are hastily scribbled notes that I just found saved in my Drafts folder of my email. I’ve left them untouched.]
Walk in to hear the end of a girl speaking into the microphone. Scattered attendees around the pews. Lots of empty space. Take a seat as far back as possible, right at the edge of the bench for an easy escape. I find myself hoping that they don’t close the doors when the service starts.
Lady sits at the pipe organ elevated above the congregation and starts playing. Three pre-teen girls sit on the stage in big wooden chairs. One in a summer dress, one in short denim shorts. I’m wondering if they’re showing a little too much leg and shoulder for church.
The pastor enters, wearing all black with two white strips that descend from his collar, like Canadian and British lawyers. There’s a small table at the back of the room in the corner with a big coffee pot on it and paper cups. Down at the front I see a door with the sign for men’s/women’s bathrooms. At the back the traffic outside on 7th Ave makes it hard to hear sometimes, but I’m not moving any closer.
The pastor explains that the girls are from the Sunday School and will be doing some reading. But first we stand and pray, then sing a hymn. A woman in her Sunday finest two rows down keeps looking back at me. When the prayers are being read, she offers me the prayer sheet. I smile and say, “I’m fine, thanks.” When the hymn singing begins, she looks back again and this time offers me a hymn book. Again I smile and in a whisper that almost approaches full-blown talking say, “thanks, I’m good.”
The pastor looks like a choir leader up there. During the singing he raises and lowers his right arm in choreography with the song. High note, the arm comes up. He has about five levels of notes I count.
People are filtering in slowly, spreading themselves out. Apart from the lady two rows down from me and maybe a couple others, everyone is in casual clothes. Maybe the girls showing all the legs aren’t so out of place.
Before the girls start reading passages, the pastor takes a moment to welcome everyone. He makes sure to mention that EVERYONE is welcome: all races, ethnicities, sexual orientation. We’re all welcome there to praise God.
About 10 minutes in it hits me. Despite what I think of organized religion, this is just a gathering of people, brought together with a common goal. Every Sunday they gather as a community. In today’s world, where more and more isolate themselves, I think it’s an important thing.
In The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner — after stating that social scientists have determined that “about 70% of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors” — comes to the the following conclusion:
…the greatest source of happiness is other people — and what does money do? It isolates us from other people. It enables us to build walls, literal and figurative, around ourselves. We move from a teeming college dorm to an apartment to a house and, if we’re really wealthy, to an estate. We think we’re moving up, but really we’re walling off ourselves.
I just finished watching a CBC documentary called Peep Culture. In it, they explore the Internet and reality-TV culture, how we’ve become obsessed with sharing our most intimate and mundane details with the rest of the world (or anyone who’s willing to listen and watch). The host, Hal Niedzviecki, ponders:
putting ourselves out there for public consumption is supposed to make us happier, help us meet people, help us feel like we belong. But point a camera at us, and we change. The question is, what are we changing into? What are we becoming?
It is easy to dismiss this culture as narcissistic people screaming for attention, but what is at the root of it? I think it’s community. Connection. To me, this is a backlash at what our society has become, how we’ve walled ourselves off from each other to such an extent, that the need for connection is so strong many of us are willing to go to great (and strange) lengths to get it.
I am at a lonely time in my life. I find myself on Facebook more than I probably should be. But this is exactly what I am seeking. Connection to other human beings. What is that surge of emotion you get when someone “friends you”, or invites you to an event, “likes” your status update, or comments on your photo? It’s a feeling that you’re being heard, that someone else relates. For a brief moment you’re connected. And it feels good.
I grew up in a big city and really had no frame of reference of what community actually meant and how important it is to us. In the past four months, Nelson — a town of about 10,000 people in southern British Columbia — has taught me more about community and human connection than in my previous 30+ years. At the moment I am learning how to love myself and be happy within myself. But at the same time, I know that connection is a basic human need and I will always seek it.
Is it fair to judge how people choose to connect to others? Or is connecting — in whatever manner — all that’s important?