“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
That was the Bible passage presented to me by my minister at my 1995 confirmation. I liked it; it had a really cool ring, and it seemed to have a cloaked message about how I was going to go on to become a great religious leader or something. But I also wondered just what the minister saw in me that he thought it fit to bestow that passage on probably the most stubborn confirmand he knew during his long ministership. I had, after all, probably set a record in the number of parent/minister meetings he set up. I was the one who ignored the workbook, colored on my sneakers, forgot what essays I was supposed to be writing, avoided listening to the tapes of classes that got made for absentees, once wore sneakers on acolyte duty, and tried to forge his parents’ signatures for assignments. This wasn’t what anyone could call casual mischief, either; I was doing it out of a contempt for the very idea of getting stuck in a weekly two-hour class for my invitation to the wafer/wine club. Although church membership was the ultimate reward for putting up with the Reverend’s extended sermons, I didn’t see it that way; I saw it as the right to take communion every two weeks and nothing more. I wasn’t shy about my bewilderment in having to do this, and I constantly presented the question of just who the hell thought up this stupid idea. The eternal answer never changed: That’s how its always been done. It’s tradition. Because we said so!
In my two years, I was one of only about three confirmands through those classes who went on to be a Sunday regular. I wasn’t outwardly religious, but on the inside, I was very conservative about my faith. I tried like hell to suppress my naturally inquisitive personality, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and left the church for a whole new religion, a process which became pretty familiar to me at the outset of the 21st century. In the ensuing years, I switched religions three or four times. Add one more if you count my conversion to the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam, which is probably still the one I feel the closest connection to. (Yes, I’m counting Atheism.) My soul, as you can assume, became an unsalvageable wreck. In 2006, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I became embroiled in the political and artistic counterculture when I joined an organization whose stated goal was to round up enough support to impeach George W. Bush. That group wasn’t religious, but its primary meetup joint was a gallery owned by an art group on Chicago’s West Side and shared by a lot of small businesspeople. They held jazz nights every Monday while we were in the back room, and the jazz was always drowning out whatever point the leader of the group was trying to make. The building was also very hot, and the back room we were in was hotter, so I would usually creep out of the meeting once or twice a night to order a pastry and a root beer from the barista in the front, cool off a bit, and catch a few spare notes from the band of the week. I got to be acquainted with one of the regulars, Nanette, in the way one usually finds acquaintance with a regular server or grocer: We exchanged friendly words, and she knew what my usual order was. Nanette was basically a nonentity who seemed to be clearly affiliated with NNWAC, the Near Northwest Arts Council, who held our building. A very friendly and welcoming nonentity, but a nonentity nonetheless. And she got me on a path that changed my life.
The story from there is one I’ve told a million times. My group’s lease ran its course and it was forced to alternate meeting spaces, leading to a mix-up one Sunday where I showed up at the wrong place. Not wanting to immediately face the stiff late-October breeze again, I took up Nanette’s invitation to a prayer service which was starting soon. Expecting my participation at the time to be a one-shot deal ending in a polite disinclination to future services, I was drawn back when I learned that this peculiar Christian group didn’t revel in common religious dogma. Instead, they challenged it, and were very pointed about doing so. Nanette turned out to be an ordained minister whose little church wasn’t part of NNWAC. (Although, for the record, the church believed in and supported NNWAC.) At this church, I finally found an outlet where the people took my questions and doubts seriously and didn’t offer single-serving answers about just believing or spending extra time with the good book. I also think they made me a better person, to a very large extent. At least that’s how I see it, anyway; Nanette herself once told me she saw a gradual change in the way I looked at religion.
The church, Wicker Park Grace (now known as Grace Commons), was my introduction to a rising branch of Christianity called Emergent Christianity. (Some circles refer to it as Red Letter Christianity.) Along with a cadre of new sports teams to cheer for, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago city grid, and a weather-toughened ability to ride a bicycle in the worst of conditions, Emergent Christianity and my newfound religious questions were among the most important things I brought to Buffalo from Chicago. Even though I live in the fucking suburbs, far away from civilization, and therefore can’t visit any of Buffalo’s one or two Emergent churches, my newfound outlook on religion is getting to be far more important than I expected when I returned.
Emergent Christianity explores original languages, cultural contexts, and histories of the original scriptures in a way that traditional religionists either can’t or don’t want to think about. The result is frequently an interpretation that challenges, offends, and frustrates the Christian orthodoxy. To get an idea of just how new and comparatively radical Emergent Christianity is, consider that its ideas – which include theologies like the Kingdom of Heaven not being a place we go when we die, the book of Revelations being an angry satire of the Roman Empire and not a preview of the end times, and the idea that one doesn’t even have to believe in any gods in order to be a good Christian – tend to baffle and piss off a generally open-minded populace in Chicago, a 21st century megalopolis. Even the atheist groups there – one of which I belonged to for a couple of years – hate Emergent Christianity because it turns a lot of their common arguments against Abrahamic scriptures into nonfactors.
My views on religion were seen as weird and offbeat in Chicago, but the beauty of a large-scale multimillion-population city like that is people see the freaks as nothing more than the kook on the corner. The misfits and offbeat are seen as facts of life, and the better part of the greater populace even looks at them as colorful accompaniments who are welcomed into the city’s multi-personal tapestry. Chicago doesn’t totally LIKE everyone who creates his own drumbeats to march to, but it knows how to deal with them and even grow a little from the experience. The trouble with Buffalo is that it’s not the world-class city it used to be. Although the city has improved since I lived in Chicago, it still adheres to a more rigid way of life and still has trouble accepting anyone who doesn’t conform to a much narrower definition of the normal. Buffalo doesn’t respond well to things it sees as challenges to the greater lifestyle, and it sees challenges in things as simple as riding bicycles.
In matters of religion, Buffalo is still very much a witch hunt town. South Buffalo is such a hotbed of Irish Catholicism that my family was seen as odd just for being Protestant, and Protestant is the most common Christian denomination in the country. I think this story tells how religion plays an important role in a proper South Buffalo identity: In February of 2008, I stopped in a sports bar in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks north of The Loop, to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play against the San Jose Sharks. The Blackhawks weren’t serious contenders quite yet, but they were newly reloaded with players like Martin Havlat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. They were playing that season with the main purpose of letting the league know that, after years of performing doormat duty for Detroit, they were fed up and not going to play dead anymore. I was interested in that particular game because the team was having a ceremony to welcome two of their alienated legends – Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull – back into the fold as ambassadors for the team. The team was in a thick hunt for a playoff spot which they eventually missed by just two or three points. As I drank Rolling Rock, watched the game, and chatted up fellow puckheads, I took notice of a few older folks who entered the bar around the start of the third period and watched the rest of the game out. The older folks began talking Sabres, and I immediately identified them as Buffalo natives. They happened to mention that they were relatives of Patrick Kane – himself a South Buffalo native – and were at the game but left because it was starting to run a bit later than they expected. When I mentioned that I was born and bred in South Buffalo myself, they asked what street I grew up on (Rutland, where they knew of) and what family I belonged to (they didn’t know my family, since my father is from rural New York and my mother is from Long Island, my family has no real roots in the city), and tellingly, what parish we were affiliated to. I said the closest parish was Saint Thomas – again, they knew exactly what I was talking about – but that we were members of Salem, in McClellan Circle. They weren’t quite as familiar with that, and when I mentioned that it was a Protestant church, it closed the topic.
In Buffalo, what I’m doing is heresy which itself is worthy of crucifixion. Old dogs are of course notoriously difficult to teach, but in matters of faith, they are perhaps more stubborn than in anything else. The more religious faction of Buffalo’s old guard sees itself as the last hanging thread between the Christian morals of a decent person and the anarchistic outbreak of society because of those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior. And here I am, questioning and critiquing everything they believe, calling bullshit to the cherry-pickers’ faces, and challenging them to defend their archaic dogma. What I’ve learned, though, is that there is a small contingent of people who agree with me are are having trouble reconciling fire-and-brimstone Christian faith with humanity. And if the conversation steers toward religion, I’ve turned into some kind of sponge which they use to absorb all of their problems and questions about what their pastors tell them. Often, these aren’t people I see often, and sometimes its happened with people I didn’t even know. Within minutes in a discussion about peoples’ problems with religion, I’ve formed a connection with the other person. And I don’t mind doing it.
Vines bring life to certain plants, and I’ve been bringing life to peoples’ questions if they’ve been too timid to ask them in the past. Maybe my old minster was on to something after all; gradually, I’m becoming the vine.