Commentary: East Tennessean in New York finds a church that reminds him of home

Commentary: East Tennessean in New York finds a church that reminds him of home

As one who enjoys regular spiritual stimulation and Christian fellowship, I usually do not like to miss going to church – even while I am on vacation.

So when my wife, the Rev. Laura Shearer, and I were in New York City recently visiting her son’s family, we decided to go to a United Methodist church in the heart of Manhattan.

It was a wonderful worship experience, and I was gratified to know that the United Methodist Church is alive and well in the Big Apple. I was also tickled to find a church that almost seemed to be a soul sister in worship experience and style to my own church, Church Street UMC in downtown Knoxville.

Since I started attending Church Street in 2005 after Laura was assigned as an associate pastor there before becoming the fulltime director of the conference Pastoral Counseling Center, I have fallen in love with Church Street’s people, its wonderful music, and its more formal style of worship with intellectually stimulating sermons. I also like its beautiful and historic stone architecture designed in part by a New York architect.

I also enjoyed attending the very middle class Red Bank UMC in Chattanooga for much of my life, and loved the experience when Laura pastored some small rural churches in the Cleveland District from 2003-05. Show me a United Methodist church and I am ready to worship there.

About four years ago, we had worshiped at another United Methodist church farther north in Manhattan, one of only a small handful apparently located in the central area of New York City. While it was an enjoyable experience, I am not necessarily sure I would have wanted to be a member there. 

But as soon as we walked into Christ Church UMC near the southeast corner of Central Park, I felt at home – even as a Southerner. We were greeted at the door, and Laura soon met a friendly former resident of Columbus, Ga., who had been a member there for a long time.

As we took our seats, a good number of people were already in the nave, and I could immediately tell this church had a vibrant congregation. And it seemed to have a healthy variety of ethnicities. This was also reflected in the pastoral staff.

As the service started, churchgoers – including a few children -- continued to wander in from various side entrances after apparently having just finished Sunday school.

Like Church Street, this was an early 1930s stone church with a powerful organ and a wonderful choir. Only the occasional rumble of the subway below made me remember I was not in Knoxville.

The choir sang some simply beautiful songs, including one of the best renditions I have ever heard of the Christian folk song, “Kumbaya.”

The Sunday we were there, June 5, was Ascension Sunday, so the Rev. Javier A. Viera, an associate pastor, preached on the topic. He even quoted Barbara Brown Taylor, as many Holston ministers like to do.

He talked about how Christ’s absence again after he ascended following his reappearance to them was important. It helped them begin their miraculous works as documented in Acts, he said.

“In his absence, they gained clarity,” Viera said. “In what they feared would be an interminable silence, they heard his voice anew with greater lucidity than ever before.”

We then partook in Holy Communion, and I was touched at how the clergy staff rushed back to an elderly man’s seat to serve him at the end after he was unable to walk to the front.

As the service ended, a graduating seminary intern who was getting ready to serve in the Florida Conference was recognized.

Laura and I then greeted Viera, she told him she was a fellow UMC pastor, and we also mentioned that we had thoroughly enjoyed the service.

“That’s the kind of church of which I would love to be a member if I lived in New York,” I thought to myself as we hit the streets to continue experiencing the nation’s largest city.

John Shearer is a frequent contributor to the Knoxville News Sentinel and Chattanoogan.com.