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14 January 2009

by John Wall

These vagabond shoes . . .

A FEW weeks ago, I went on a long-planned trip to New York.

Originally, it was to be a shopping expedition, but as the exchange rate was in free fall, we ended up just pres­sing our noses against the window displays in Macy’s depart­ment store on Herald Square, whim­pering.

I love New York. I love its vi­brancy, its swagger, and (rather bi­zarrely) its familiarity. I know that it is an odd thing to say, but New York is like Venice: when you get there, it is just as you think it would be from books, television, and film.

We had a tiny apartment in a 1930s block in a leafy side street in the most bohemian and arty part of Man­hattan: surrounded by delis, diners, bars, pretzel stalls, and flower shops, we felt as if we were in an episode of Sex and the City — but, sadly, with­out the clothes by Prada, watches by Rolex, or shoes by Manolo Blahnik.


BECAUSE we were there on a Sun­day, we went to the Episcopalian church just a block away, and joined in with the main morning service. Afterwards, with some difficulty, we found our way to coffee in the dining hall of the school attached to the church. And stood there.

Not a single person spoke to us. I smiled at the lady who had handed us our service books, and at the man doling out coffee, and was blanked by both. So involved was everybody in his or her own conversation that there was not even the opportunity to take the initiative and say “Hello”.

After a few minutes, we were going to slink off by a short cut through the church gardens, but I thought “Stuff it!”, and we retraced our steps through the corridors and into the church. It was there that we encountered the Rector, who swept past at a rate of knots with a curt “Good morning,” making it clear he was not going to stop.

People have told me before about how unfriendly churches can be to newcomers, but it was the first time in my life I had actually experienced it. The friend I was with said that it had happened to her more than once, and that maybe, as a priest, I was used to being taken notice of, which was rather chastening. (I was not, incidentally, wearing a dog collar.)

On the pew-sheet was a list of church personnel, enough of them to run a small country: a Rector, a Curate, an Assistant Priest, nine other assistant clerics, and more admin. people, chairs of committees, pastoral assistants, and Sunday-school teachers than you could shake a spreadsheet at. There was even a “Resident Horticulturalist” — but not one person to say “Hello” to newcomers.

I suspect that, for all the inclusion and outreach we had heard preached in the sermon, we were indeed wearing the wrong clothes, watches, and shoes. . . I was really quite upset and angry, and needed an extra help­ing of crispy bacon with breakfast in our local diner to get over it.

Life moves on

A FEW days later, we went to a place that I knew would restore my faith. St Paul’s Chapel stands next to the footprint of the World Trade Center, and miraculously survived its destruction on 9/11.

It soon opened its doors as a refuge for the exhausted Fire and Rescue Service personnel, providing food and hot drinks, counselling, and a shoulder to cry on. George Washington’s presidential box was turned into a foot-massage area, and the pews were laid out with blankets. It became a national shrine, and banners, quilts, and fire and police badges were sent from all over the United States in an act of solidarity.

It was an Anglican church com­munity rising with quiet determina­tion to a huge challenge with hu­man­ity, love, and gentle care. Every pew-bed had a cuddly toy put on it. It was this last thoughtful gesture that moved me to tears.

I first went there some two years after the attack, and emotions were raw. Five years later, it was still very much a place of pilgrimage and grief; yet the displays had gently been pushed to the sides, most of the banners taken down, and the pews with all the scuffing from firemen’s boots removed.

In the centre, a new circle of chairs around a nave altar witnessed, un­obtrusively, to the fact that life was moving on, that the chapel was not a cenotaph, but a living, growing church community.

I told the lady in the bookstall about our earlier experience of in­hospitality. She was shocked. “It would never happen in my church,” she said, and I believed her. Having experienced Anglicanism at its institutional worst, it was humbling to see it at its best.

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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