Friday, March 27, 2015

A church in search of a mission

As it begins its seventh year of operation the inter-denominational Community Church of San Miguel, to which Stew and I belong, faces the crucial question Alfie was once asked: “What’s it all about?” This is an existential quandary that goes beyond incidentals such as whether the church needs a bigger choir or different flower arrangements.

Historically, churches have taken their creedal and liturgical cues from a visionary founder, in the order of Mary Baker Eddy or John Knox, or later from denominational lore, as in the case of Methodists, Roman Catholics and other mainline churches. Some rely on the fire of a charismatic leader to fill the pews on Sunday, like Joel Osteen’s  Lakewood Church in Houston and other megachurches with Walmart-size parking lots.

Alas, the genesis of the Community Church was not nearly as lofty, inspirational or focused: Some parishioners at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel, an English-speaking, buttoned-up congregation, became embroiled in a very personal and bitter feud with its pastor Michael Long and ultimately a dozen or fifteen members walked out and convened their own "church." 

In the beginning: The beautiful grounds of
 St. Paul's Church in San Miguel.
Indeed, the split was nasty, rancorous and to some extent petty—hardly the most productive soil on which to plant the seeds of a new religious organization. Certainly the separation had little to do with liturgy or theological nuance.

Initially the new church was led by two retired Episcopal priests and a deacon who had officiated at St. Paul’s and gave the new group some direction. An “outreach” program was created to distribute tens of thousands of dollars donated by the congregation for charitable projects.

Those founding elders left after three or four years—the two priests because of age and ill health, and the deacon and her partner mostly as a result of infighting with some members of the congregation.

With their departure the church lost whatever liturgical or theological moorings it had. In effect, lay members were left to fill in the blanks as they went along and purely by default adopted, almost to the letter, the Episcopal order of service the dissenters had left behind at St. Paul’s.

The only "professional" guidance now comes from visiting ministers who are offered free airfare and housing but who preside for periods of approximately two months. They come from various Protestant denominations but here they celebrate the same Episcopal-ish mass or liturgy.

Three years after its founding, and over the strenuous objections of some of the church’s founders, a new, less encumbered service was created by members unhappy with the Episcopal/Anglican rigmarole of the main event. At its core, the minimalist new service so much resembles an Alcoholics Anonymous or Quaker meeting in that all members voice their opinions about the discussion topic of the day. 

Except for joint services on Easter and other holidays most attendees at the earlier, lite service don’t interact much with those who attend the full-strength, Episcopal  liturgy. The new service in effect has become a mini-denomination of its own, confirming the fears of elders who opposed its creation.

About now, there’s a sense among some of the members that as the initial insurrectional fervor fades—and with no theological underpinnings or rationale to help guide it—the Community Church faces a potentially fatal loss of momentum.  

So a new committee has been convened to develop strategies to attract new members. Even the participants of the early, more informal service are grappling with Alfie’s Dilemma: What’s this all about?

A few members have whispered about a thermonuclear option. Since the offending Michael Long has retired and our main service is nearly identical to St. Paul’s, why not shake hands, pass around the peace pipe and disband the Community Church?

St. Paul has its own English-speaking minister—a retired Episcopal bishop, no less—and the church has a beautiful facility with a closetful of vestments and liturgical paraphernalia.

But I suspect the cardinal sin of pride gets in the way of any such official rapprochement even though several individuals have quietly returned to St. Paul’s fold.

During the early service last Sunday Stew posed several trenchant questions for which no one had any ready answers: What makes this congregation different? What’s our special niche among the various religious groups already in town? What’s our mission? How do we explain to outsiders what we do and why we exist? Where do we fit in the vast firmament of Christian denominations?

Indeed, what's this all about?

To collect money to fund various charitable projects in town? That’s the role of a not-for-profit, of which there are literally over a hundred already operating in San Miguel. You don’t need candlesticks and communion wafers to help the poor.

Where’s our prophet to articulate the religious beliefs and liturgical practices of  this so-called church and lead it beyond its original and rather uninspiring creation story?

Those questions are crucial to the church's long-term survival. I'm not very sanguine there are any answers.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tacos with your Tosca?

One of the happiest developments around these parts recently, aside from the nearly six inches of rain that we received over the past week, has been the appearance of the Metropolitan Opera of New York's high-definition simulcasts at a theater in Querétaro, a booming city about forty-five minutes from the ranch.

No, you don't experience the frisson of seeing the real thing in New York City, but for approximately ten dollars a ticket plus whatever you munch on during the performance, Met HD has to be the best entertainment value here or anywhere.

Neither Stew nor I can be considered opera queens, one of those urban sophisticates who simply must buy season tickets to Chicago's Lyric Opera or the Met in New York, even if all they can afford is a far-left perch on the fourth balcony, a foot below a chandelier.

Low-budget divas: Most of the people in the audience in
Querétaro are Americans from San Miguel. 
For those discerning souls, fevered discussions during intermission about the night's opera, over a flute of champagne if at all possible, are almost as much fun as the show itself.

Stew and I have seen a few operas, most of them well-known, the so-called workhorses of the repertoire: Think "Carmen," "The Barber of Seville," Gounod's "Faust," "Madama Butterfly," "La Bohème," "Tosca" and others in that category. I even went to see a production of "Lulu"  by Alban Berg, a notoriously "difficult" confection sung in German that somehow kept me enthralled, all the more so because I had finagled a free, molto primo orchestra seat at the Lyric in Chicago.

But you won't find Stew and I fluttering about in the lobby during intermission discussing musical minutiae or previous productions we might have seen. That's largely because, a) we know hardly anything about music, and b) we scarcely can remember plot lines from one opera to the next, except such gross details as Mimi's breathing difficulties in "La Bohème" and how Lt. Pinkerton treated poor Cio-Cio San like total shit in "Madama"—and how we wished his ship would sink on the way back to America.

Indeed, limited operatic knowledge is what makes the Met HD simulcasts in Querétaro tailor-made for neophyte divas like Stew and me.

Tickets are inexpensive enough, so when we don't like the opera we can just mutter enigmatically "that was certainly interesting" to our friends on the way home. No big loss, and far better than having sat in an uncomfortable $150 seat watching something we didn't understand much less enjoy. "Whose idea was this?" one of us might ask the other on the way out.

And in Querétaro's brand-new, 60-seat cinema, you get Singapore Airlines-style leather seats with electric recliners, small side tables with lamps and extra-wide aisles so that during the first fifteen minutes of the opera Ninja-like waiters can hop around bringing you any munchies or drinks listed on a fifteen-page menu. Anything from slider burgers and beer, sushi or croquettes. Just don't be shocked on the way out that the theater looks like Wrigley Field after a double header.

Something not to your liking? Press the button on your seat's armrest and a young Mexican guy dressed in black will come running to try fix it.

Alas, there are a few hitches. Subtitles are in Spanish, and there have been a few problems with the feed from New York though they were fixed promptly. A couple of productions ago, the audio lagged behind the video but the problem was solved after a brief pause. Last week the satellite transmission was breaking up because of a fierce rainstorm, but that was fixed too after a three- or four-minute pause. Just press that button on the armrest.

Interestingly, video and audio quality were actually better at two Met productions we saw at Mexico City's enormous National Auditorium a couple of years ago.  Interesting because this is a four- or five-thousand-seat modern theater designed for pop music and other mass productions that yet has excellent sound reproduction, acoustics and sight lines, and a screen as big as a fútbol field.

Better news still, at least for executive directors of opera houses worried about falling attendance, the two Met HD productions we saw in Mexico City were completely sold out to a demographic that tilted heavily toward young people and even families with kids.

Now for perhaps the biggest surprise: Stew and I have enjoyed most of the operas we've attended, most of them unknown to us. There were a few clinkers, like Béla Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle," whose endless screeching and bizarre plot propelled us to a quick exit at the end. That was certainly interesting.

One thing we've learned along the way is not to worry too much about the plot and to keep an open mind, as a pianist friend of ours recommended.

Most opera plots are too ridiculous to worry about the details. Who loves whom, who killed whom, who jumped off from which balcony, who cares? Just allow yourself to entertained, sometimes dazzled, by the beautiful singing and productions.

There. I'm starting to sound like a seasoned opera queen, and only for ten dollars a ticket.  Can't wait until the next season.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Jews and I

At age sixteen, two years after my arrival from Cuba in 1962, I got an after-school job as a bagger at a Safeway grocery store in Long Beach, New York that paid one dollar an hour plus random tips of dimes and quarters from shoppers impressed with my expertise at keeping the cantaloupes and canned goods from smashing the eggs and  the tomatoes.
 Long Beach is one of the barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island but it was not a posh destination like the Hamptons or Fire Island. Rather it was a middling-class commuter town, the terminus of one of the Long Island Rail Road lines, and it had a large population of Jews, a good portion of whom lived in mid-rise retirement buildings along the boardwalk.
Bagging groceries has never been a brain teaser but it was exciting enough for me because the money I earned paid for my weekend escapades to New York City, just an hour away by train. The monotony of the job allowed me to plan my jaunts too, which usually consisted of walking around Manhattan gaping at the skyscrapers and the huge avenues choking with people and cars.
While bagging groceries I also noticed that a couple of the women shoppers had numbers crudely tattooed on their forearms, something I thought strange until later, when I learned about the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. I wish I had asked the women about their tattoos. Despite the horrors they memorialized these older ladies seemed kind enough I suspect they would have held my hand and told me their stories.
Later, at my next after-school gig at the Long Beach Public Library my hourly pay went up to $1.25 an hour and I met Alfred Linsky, a paunchy, gregarious Jew who supplemented his retirement income by doing odd jobs, such as driving around town delivering packages and emptying the book-return boxes.
Perhaps because he and his wife were childless, Al virtually adopted me, guiding me through such initiation rites as learning how to drive and the meaning of trenchant all-Americanisms like, "Kid, in this country there's no free lunch."

But by far their kindest gesture was to sponsor my parents—total strangers—so they could get out of Cuba. In effect the Linskys guaranteed that my parents would not become "public charges." I guess Al liked me enough to assume my parents would be nice people too. One of my countless life-regrets is that I never properly thanked this couple for their generosity.

Living in Long Beach through junior and senior high school was my introduction to Jews, a group I never heard about growing up in Cuba except in Catholic school, where we read about an exodus from Egypt that somehow led the Jews to Jerusalem or thereabouts.

A few years ago, though, I learned that in my hometown of Santa Clara there was a tiny Jewish community whose members were called "Polacos," which in Spanish translates as Polish, not "Polacks." They must have been Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany.
Surrounded by such a large Jewish community in Long Beach I learned about Jewish holidays, menorahs and yarmulkes but the more I learned the more questions arose in my mind. Why did so many of them seem to be so generous, like Al Linsky? Why didn't the horrors of the  pogroms, ghettoes and ultimately the Holocaust turn Jews into a introverted, hateful or at least resentful tribe?

How could the couple of ladies with concentration camp tattoos etched on their skin survive such abysmal experience and still go shopping at Safeway—indeed, go on living— and smile gently at the Hispanic bagger and give him a quarter tip?

And most of all, what was the obsession with Israel? In Long Beach, fundraising for Israel—bonds, Hadassah, hospitals, universities and Israel-whatever—seemed to be a perpetual chore.

Such questions, even allowing that I was a seventeen-year-old Cuban immigrant, now seem terribly naïve or plain ignorant. Except that today, even after ingesting considerable amount of prose and films about Israel and the Holocaust, and visiting Israel twice, such questions still resonate in my mind. They are not naïve questions after all.
Early May Stew and I are going to Israel and Jordan, his first trip to the area. In preparation we've both been doing some synchronized reading, most notably Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."

Shavit's love of Israel comes through his eloquent writing along with the profound moral dilemmas that led to the creation of the country and its development into a mite-size superpower whose internal and foreign policies affect certainly its Middle Eastern neighbors but also Europe and the U.S.

Last Sunday, halfway through our reading, Shalom San Miguel, the Jewish community center in town presented a discussion of Shavit's book, led masterfully by Sharon Leder and Milton Teichman. Combined with the comments by the 30-odd attendees, it turned out to be one of the most enlightening discussions about Israel's history and the Jews that I've ever attended.

Palestinian Arabs fleeing the town of Lydda, 1948. Photo by David
Boyer, published in the Oct. 21 issue of New Yorker magazine. 
On the way back to the car Stew said that combined with his reading of Shavit's book, so much information made his brain hurt. Mine too.

My two trips to Israel, both as a journalist, were nothing if not a study in contrasts—the first was guided by a Zionist group and the second by a spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first kept me safely on the Israeli side, visiting kibbutzim, archeological sites, and various sites illustrative of the history of the Jews and Israel, and the country's astonishing economic and scientific accomplishments.

The second trip took me to the mirror, or perhaps shadow side of Israel, on the occupied territories of the West Bank, the Palestinian refugee camps, the Gaza Strip and the Israeli settlements.

The latter gave me an idea of the difficulty of implementing a two-state solution: Most Israeli settlements are not improvised pup-tents-and-kerosene-lamps operations but full-blown cities built on occupied land formerly held by Palestinians.
The stereophonic, reductionist and often hateful rhetoric that I heard was distressing. When I asked one of my Israeli guides what happened to the Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, he blandly, and somewhat disingenuously, answered that "they were afraid of the Israelis and fled."

Then again the resentful Palestinians I found on the West Bank did not fit the image of placid sheepherders who were pounced on by the rapacious Israelis. Their hatred for the Jews was scary.

Neither scenario is entirely true, Shavit points out. During the war that preceded Israel's independence, the Jews carried out a policy of "transferring" Palestinians out of Israel and wiping out Palestinian villages. His vivid description of the deportation of the Palestinian population of the city of Lydda, around the time of Israel's war of independence and within a 24-hour deadline, is wrenching and horrifying.

But on various occasions the increasingly resentful Arabs also engaged in random acts of murder and terrorism against the growing Jewish population, in a cycle of violence that persists today.

In Gaza's teeming refugee camps, presumably populated by Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, the loathing for all things Jewish seared my eyes and mind. Faded, hateful graffiti and posters of young men who earned the honorific  "martyr" by killing some Israelis or blowing something outside Gaza's fence seemed to be the only adornment on the crude concrete buildings housing the refugees.
Worst of all, the situation seemed totally static: Many of the refugees have known nothing but life in the sixty-year-old camps—and hatred of Israel and Jews. And that stench of hatred that envelops the Gaza Strip has nothing if not thickened following the merciless bombing by Israel last year, which killed hundreds of both Palestinian combatants and civilians. And so on.

Indeed, the two-state solution that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to leave peacefully side-by-side—always a Kumbaya-like pipe dream—has been pushed further into the future by the apparent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu who during the closing hours of the race declared his opposition to a Palestinian state.

So off we go to Israel and Jordan in May, which I assure Stew is a dream trip, particularly for a history and archeology fanatic like him, despite all the bad political karma.

But I don't expect any epiphanies or answers to the questions about the Jews I wondered about when I was a teenager and still swirl in my mind today, unresolved.