Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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The Bowling Lanes of the Lord

January 19th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Faith and the City

In the 1920’s, my father’s parents (Beatrice and Edgar) emigrated from Scotland to the United States.  Passing through Ellis Island, they moved into an apartment at 94-13 Jamaica Avenue in Queens.

My grandfather was a journeyman carpenter who plied his trade in the New York shipyards.  My grandmother was a clerk at Bloomingdales.  Together they raised three sons: my uncle, Robert; my father, Malcolm; and my uncle, Neil.

They were pursuing the American Dream.

Then tragedy hit.  My grandparents’ firstborn, Robert, was killed when he fell onto the subway tracks and touched the third rail.  It was terribly difficult time for the whole family, and especially my grandmother.

In telling this story, my Dad would recall the way in which a local Presbyterian congregation encircled him and his younger brother throughout the season of my grandmother’s grief.  The church plugged the two boys into theatrical productions and sports.  A spark would kindle in my Dad whenever he explained that the church that embraced them “had a bowling alley in it!”

Last Spring, I visited my friend, Patrick O’Connor, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, and I explained that my grandparents belonged to a Presbyterian church in the borough, but I didn’t know which one.

“All I remember,” I told Patrick, “is that the church had a bowling alley in it.”

“Scott,” Patrick said, “this is the only Presbyterian church in Queens that has a bowling alley in it!” He checked.  Sure enough.  In the church’s records, Reverend O’Connor found the baptismal dates for my father and his brothers.

This past Sunday, I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica.  The church, planted in 1662, was celebrating its 350th birthday.  It was a rollicking party of a worship service.

My grandparents might not recognize their old church.

The pipe organ was silent.  Music was projected on a big screen and accompanied by trumpets and drums.  Three different liturgical dance troupes performed.  It’s a different congregation with a different style of worship.  Long gone are the faded-blue-jean eyes of the Scottish immigrants.  In their place are the deep brown eyes of the African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino/a families that live in the neighborhood.

Youth from these families—young boys and girls from the surrounding community—were prominent in the pews.  Patrick tells me that they come to the church to play basketball and volleyball; to get tutoring and computer training; to eat at the multi-generational meal served every Thursday night; and to discover a worshipping community full of energy and love and wisdom.

Come to think of it, I bet my grandparents would recognize their church.

Standing in that pulpit this past Sunday, I looked down at the baptismal font that claimed my Dad and his brothers and probably most of the young people currently in that sanctuary, and I thought, not much has changed.  Not much at all.

First Presbyterian in Jamaica still shelters the people of its neighborhood with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Anonymous

    this post gave me chills.
    the good kind, the kind that reminds me God’s steadfast love through generations.

  • SBJNo Gravatar

    You know, it gave me chills too. I can count on one hand the number of times that I have gotten so choked up while preaching that I had a difficult time going on. Last Sunday was one of them. Thankfully, the congregation quickly vocalized their support by calling out, “That’s all right!” “Take your time brother!” Mmm. I know that churches get a lot of critical feedback, and we deserve a good bit of it, but there are times when I think… It doesn’t get any better than this. This is community as it was meant to be.


  • Matthew

    Scott, this is so AWESOME! Thank you for sharing your experience. With so much talk about what’s wrong with the church, it is so nice to be reminded about what is right. What an incredible experience that must have been.

    • SBJNo Gravatar

      Thanks Matthew. The church is not dead–it is so full of amazing life that it is overwhelming at times.