Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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And The City

Is New York City the least religious place I have ever lived, or the most?

Demographic surveys and census polls should make this a no-brainer. Right? Almost 60% of the people who live within three miles of my church claim that they have “no involvement in any faith”—easily, the highest percentage of any region in the U.S.

So, the answer seems obvious: “This is the least religious place I have ever lived.”

Except for the fact that it doesn’t feel that way.

Not at all.

Walking around New York, I am regularly evangelized by people of all kinds of different faiths.  I have even had a taxi driver preach to me.  It blew my hair back.  Admittedly, the most disconcerting thing about the sermon was not the crazy content, but the fact that (as we weaved up First Avenue) this guy was determined to maintain good eye contact.  Yikes!

Last spring, late one evening, on the Saturday after Easter, I was sitting in my apartment reading.  Shortly after 11:00 p.m., I got up.  I got up and went to the window because I heard singing—voices below were lifting simple notes all the way up to the twelfth floor.  Peering down at the street I saw a procession—a crowd of people holding candles that illumined their faces—two hundred glowing ovals that followed a group of clergy adorned with white robes and arched hats.  The police had stopped traffic.  Every twenty yards or so, the clergy would pause and a man at the front of the crowd would lift a glowing orb and sing out (in Russian), “The Light of Christ.”  The people would sing back, “Thanks be to God.”

It was a scene of such striking beauty and piety that I called for my wife to come and watch it.  We stood together, holding hands, watching as the congregation of the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church turned the corner from Fifth Avenue and walked along 97th Street.  It was a perfect New York moment.  Then, some less-than-impressed driver, whose progress to some super-important-something had been halted, leaned on his horn.  Other cars joined in.  In seconds, the bleating obliterated the peaceful chants, and we shut our window.

Amongst the glitz and the grime, there is faith in this city.  Sometimes, it flashes disturbing and cruel.  At other times, it croons so simple and beautiful that even the horns and sirens hold heir breath.  If only for a moment.

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