Over the last several years, our congregation has renewed and strengthened our relationship with a number of local houses of worship, perhaps most notably our Harrison neighbors at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Halstead Avenue. Among other initiatives, we have been blessed to be joined by their pastor, Father Richard Guarneri at Yom Kippur services each year and our congregation has responded to his presence with grace and warmth. This past month, for the second time, Father Guarneri reciprocated with an invitation that I join him and his congregation for their Easter Vigil service, which takes place the evening before Easter Sunday. Most years, including this year, Easter and our Passover dates coincide and they make great mention of Passover throughout their prayers. Their service is held primarily in the dark with candles, beautiful choral pieces and musical accompaniment throughout. This year, as the service concluded, I was invited to share a few words (just as we have invited Fr. Guarneri to speak on Yom Kippur). Excerpts of what I said follow here:
“Father Guarneri, I know how you feel this evening and how you will feel tomorrow morning, looking out at this beautiful sanctuary packed with parishioners this Easter holiday. I know how you feel, because I feel the same way – when “my” Jews show up en masse for our blessed Fall Jewish High Holy days. But reality sets in sometimes – with the knowledge that these holy days may be the exception for us. Next week, service attendance will retreat to more recognizable lesser numbers. A recent study by the Barna Group identified increasing numbers of Christians who QUOTE ‘love Jesus but not the church.’ They also hold orthodox Christian views of God but seldom attend church. That cohort has increased from 7 percent in 2004 to 10 percent today — kind of like many Jews who are ‘proud to be Jewish’ but are unaffiliated with a synagogue. You here in this room may know those Jews better than I do!
In New York, only about one-third of Christians attend church services regularly, according to the Gallup polling organization. One-half say they never attend. Our state is somewhere in the middle of the pack, not as bad as Vermont (where only about 17 percent of Christians attend church weekly), but not as admirable as Utah (where 51 percent of Christians attend weekly).
But, don’t feel bad! Jews are even more religious about staying away from religious services — you could call them “seventh-day absentists.” It’s not that they abandon all home observance and other connections with Judaism. For example, 70 percent of Jews say they held a Passover Seder meal in their home last week.
My not-yet-so-long experience as a rabbi has already exposed me to some of that “I am proud to be a Jew but not religious” theme. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone would say to me, “Rabbi, I am spiritual, but don’t like organized religion.” We see this trend in many Christian and Catholic churches – and synagogues as well, too.An important cultural trigger for that de-churching may have begun with “Sheilaism” in the 1980s. Religion in America moved from being highly public and unified, as in colonial times, to very private and diverse. In the classic work “Habits of the Heart,” author Robert Bellah quote a nurse whom they call Sheila Larson: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”
Sheilaism, described as “religious do-it-yourself-ism,” may have finally caught up with those who believe in Jesus, and it may have finally caught up with those who are proud to be Jews, too. Some believers also want to do it in their own way, with as few institutional constraints and definitions as possible.
I understand Sheilaism’s appeal. All religions began spontaneously and eventually became encrusted with “official” institutions and clergy – like us. But perhaps the Sheilas have gone too far. Consider what churches and synagogues provide the believer.
A community of seekers. Surely, faith is personal. But it is also seeking God while sitting next to and sharing meaningful experiences with other people doing the same- just as you are all doing on this beautiful evening.
How about the physical space and structure that churches and synagogues provide? Compare the church institution with secular education. One can be self-taught at home or in a library, but most find it more educational to enter schools and universities that are structured, spaced and staffed to facilitate learning. Churches and synagogues too are structured, spaced and staffed to facilitate religion. And let’s not underestimate the value of ordained clergy members. Years of study and preparation have taught us how our particular religion understood the sacred scriptures and prayed the prayers. My message to you on this 5th day of Passover, on this holy Easter eve, is to stay your course – and to ask you neighbors, Catholic, Christian or Jewish – when the last time THEY went to synagogue, to church. And then invite them to join you. We’ll all be proud of you.
A happy and healthy Easter to all to you.
And when a rabbi speaks in church, the response is thunderous applause! Let’s remember that when we next welcome our local non-
Jewish clergy friends. Warm Springtime wishes to all.