Abrahamic Three Day Immersion
By Sr. Kathleen Brighton
This summer I took part in the first 3-Day Faith House Immersion from July 25-27, 2012! Abrahamic Manhattan included visits to three different Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in Manhattan, providing a rich sampling of Abrahamic diversity in NYC.
We walked the streets of New York City! And, boy did we walk! Sweat dripping down our brows, water bottles being filled at each stop. The information we received said that “instead of trotting beaten tourists paths, you are entering its real and pulsing religious life sideways. You are immersed in authentic, colorful, and welcoming spiritual communities with some of the city’s most profound guides and teachers.” And, so we did. Visiting the Abyssinian Baptist Church for their Midweek Manna, where a few days before a funeral was held for Sylvia Woods, the American restaurateur who co-founded the landmark restaurant Sylvia's in Harlem on Lenox Avenue, New York City with her husband, Herbert Woods, in 1962.
Met by ushers, both men and women, wearing badges to identify themselves, and white gloves, we were taken to two pews that would hold our group of about 7 participants and 3 leaders. Hospitality was shown from the front door into the sanctuary and also upon leaving. Guests were welcomed and asked to stand as the name of their town or country was announced. People from Italy, Spain, Austria, England, Georgia and many other places stood and received applause for being present. The choir was superb and the musicians so gifted that the time spent in singing (very possibly one hour) seemed to speed by. Prayers were mostly extemporaneous and met with many “Amens.” I wondered to myself what it would be like in my own church to have standing room only because people were so eager to worship! I left knowing I had experienced God in a new and exciting way.
To top the day off, we had a Magrib and Iftar dinner at Kine Senegalese Muslim restaurant on Frederick Douglass and 116th Street. (Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. It is often done as a community, with people gathering to break their fast together. Iftar is done right after Maghrib (sunset) time). Believe me; this restaurant knew how to break a fast! Platters of Dibi Alloco – Grilled Lamb or Chicken served with a rich peanut sauce with onions and beans, or the grilled fish called Poisson Grill – whole fish (including the head!) served with sweet fried plantains (alloko) in a rich mustard sauce and garnished with a hardboiled egg cut in half, sliced tomato and lime.
I arrived home, my head hitting the pillow at midnight! What an unbelievable and most exciting day. I knew I was a long way away from a little coal mining town in Southern Illinois (where I grew up) and wow, was it ever delightfully different and unexpectedly unique and inviting.
On Thursday, we visited Eldridge Street Synagogue. The internet says this synagogue is, “home to Kahal Adath Jeshurun. This small Orthodox congregation has never missed a Saturday or holiday service in the more than 120 years since the synagogue first opened.” I missed the tour because I got lost on the subway! When I finally found the group, I got a chance to glimpse the “monumental new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. This permanent artwork is the culminating piece of the Museum’s 20-plus year restoration of the synagogue.”
A little later in the day, we visited St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church where we participated in mass. I experienced what is called Eucharistic Adoration. Held after the 1:05 PM Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for prayer and adoration based on the tenet of the presence of Christ in the Blessed Host. Afterwards, the priest met with us to answer questions.
After lunch at Zuccotti Park, we visited the World Trade Center and then Park 51, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, a center modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Our tour guide was a young Muslim woman who later shared her story as a native Brooklyite who is Muslim.
Removing our shoes, we entered the Muslim prayer space that has been open for two years. There were 3 people, two men on one side of a room divider and a woman kneeling on their prayer rugs. Most of the rest of the building is unfinished drywall only on the walls. Some rooms have tables and chairs and others are empty.
Fundraising is under way to complete a 15-story building that will also include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios.
The mosque is especially needed in lower Manhattan, he said, because thousands of Muslims either work or live in the neighborhood, "and in our religion, we must pray five times a day." (Huff post)
Each day provided time for those participating to share their own short faith story. The path to ministry is not always smooth and sometimes the bumps in the road are caused by the places where we worship, be it churches, synagogues, or mosques.
The Magrib & Iftar Dinner this day was at Turkuaz Restaurant where, once inside, one feels like they are in a Turkish tent because of the fabric draping the ceiling and walls. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the most incredible selection of food one could imagine. The appetizers started us out: Large Cold Appetizer Plate (7 items) including Babaganuş - Eggplants roasted over an open flame and peeled, Lebne (yogurt cheese), Hummus served with the most incredibly fresh bread and other items. Then came the main dishes followed by dessert and Turkish coffee.
That evening at 10:30 pm, we participated in the Ramadan Zikr (Zikr meaning names of God). Most gatherings are held on Thursday or Sunday nights as part of the institutional practices of the tariqah (since Thursday is the night which marks the entrance of the Muslim "holy" day of Friday). This Sufi Order is known as Nur Ashki Jerrahi, a modern dervish order (tariqah - meaning "way, path, method”) of Sufism. It is a branch of the Halveti-Jerrahi Tariqah of Istanbul. Dervishes perform whirling dances and vigorous chanting as acts of ecstatic devotion.
Upon arrival, we removed our shoes and entered the worship area, seating ourselves on rugs or chairs without legs allowing one to sit with legs crossed on the floor. The chanting began with a circle of people at the front repeating the names of God and continued for perhaps 45 minutes directed by the sheikh of the tariqa, or one of his representatives; monitoring the intensity, depth, and duration of the phases of the haḍra, the sheikh aims to draw the circle into deep awareness of God and away from the participants’ own individualism. The haḍra section consists of the ostinato-like repetition of the name of God over which the soloist performs a richly ornamented song. The participants join hands in a circle, bending forward while exhaling and standing straight while inhaling, so that both the movement and sound contribute to the overall rhythm. The climax is usually reached through cries of "Allah! Allah!" or "hu hu". After this, many then sat down while some dervishes twirled over and over, eyes closed and hands raised skyward.
At the end, close to midnight, people went upstairs for something to eat and I headed back to Bay Ridge. How, I wondered, did these people get up for work the next day?! Falling into bed at 1:40am, I was grateful that the next day did not start until 10:30am!
Gathering for a Croatian Brunch at Samir’s house, the director of Faith House, we discussed our agenda for the day, which included Juma’ah prayers, a visit to Cathedral Church of St. John Divine, and Shabbat with Romemu ending with Shabbat Dinner with Romemu members.
The juma’ah prayer (a congregational prayer (salah) that Muslims hold every Friday) began at 1pm at the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Manhattan. Muslims pray ordinarily five times each day according to the sun's sky path regardless of clock time.
The women in our group covered our heads with scarfs. We then removed our shoes and ascended the stairs to the women’s prayer room. Before entering though, we did the “ritual washing” consisting of splashing water on our faces from hairline to chin three times, the same with hands, forearms and elbows - three times. The last part consisted of running wet hands over our normal hairline in front to the occiput (almost to our hairline in back) three times, and the same with our ears, feet and ankles.
Most women sat on the floor, the older women sitting in chairs. Coming into the room, each woman performed The Sujiud (Prostration) which is obligatory and consists of one going down to the floor prostrate and pressing one’s bare forehead to the floor while putting one’s palms, knees, and pads of the toes on the floor. Both feet are kept vertical with the heels up and the toepads down, touching the floor. They remained in this position for at least the time it takes to say subhanallah (Glorious is God), or God is devoid of all evil. It seems that the Christian counterpart is "Hallowed be your name". After the sermon (transmitted from the downstairs men’s area), those of us who were not Muslim left the room while those remaining prayed. Whew! What a week and we still had Shabbat with Romemu and dinner.
Romemu advertise themselves as “Judaism for Body, Mind and Spirit. They meet at West End Presbyterian Church (which is not air-conditioned!). Online, you will read - “Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. We are a progressive, fully egalitarian community committed to tikkun olam, or social action, and to service that flows from an identification with the sacredness of all life."
We were handed song books that read from right to left and seated ourselves wherever we chose. Off to the left in front were three musicians playing bass guitar, keyboard and bongo drums. The Rabbi lead the singing from the center dressed in the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. Extemporaneous dance by individuals, and a sort of circle dance around the worship area with people joining hands and singing, was part of the ceremony. Once again, we, and all of the visitors were warmly welcomed.
Faith House write that they have “worked for 4 years to discover the treasures that this most-religiously-diverse city on the planet hides and have developed relationships to be able to take you through 3 days of prayer, insight, surprises, music, dance, food, and friends that can only come to those willing to experience their neighbors’ faith. Or, you can just be present, and hold back, ask difficult questions, or offer the wisdom and experience that you bring. Either way, that song, that scent, that conversation will renew your life like a breeze of fresh air or like a strong wind, and you will find your own faith deepened.”
Yes, my life had been renewed by songs and scents and conversation and meals. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt a oneness with Jews and Muslims. I knew in my bones that all of us are God’s children worshiping in the way that we know, and honoring those whose worship is different than ours and loving them because of it, not in spite of it!
To learn more about Faith House, visit: http://www.faithhousemanhattan.org/