I should start this post by saying I’m not a religious person and that even my spirituality is rooted very much in the human world. When people ask me about my religious or spiritual beliefs, I always answer that I put my faith in people—and in the artistic creations of people. Literature. Music. Visual Art. All arts, really. While I normally avoid organized religion, that faith in literature is what drew me in to a real church on Sunday. When I saw that a sermon about Eudora Welty was offered at Judson Memorial Church just around the corner from our lodgings at NYU, I was intrigued. My friend Casey, a graduate school colleague who also studies southern literature and culture, visited, and we decided to brave the sermon together—along with two of my literature students. It just seemed too good, too serendipitous: how could we pass up a church service about a Southern writer in New York?
When we arrived, we were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised to learn that it was children’s day, which meant that the Sunday school class would be performing all of the music, much of the reading, and even some theatrical skits. We double-checked the program to make sure that the Eudora Welty sermon was still part of the service before climbing the stairs to the church space. Once inside, we were warmly greeted by a chaotic scene of diverse peoples roaming around, including the Sunday school teacher who would deliver the sermon. (Just so you get a good picture of this place and its people, our speaker was a long-haired bespectacled hippie-type, wearing a Yankees jersey with “Grand Poobah” printed on the back). After looking again at the program, I noticed that the songs sung were not traditional hymns but instead Wilco, Patty Griffin, and Nick Lowe songs. I was a little astounded that this could be categorized as “church.” It seemed more like “fun,” which has never been my church experience (at Episcopal or Methodist churches, anyway).
When the service started, the children—age ranges 5 to 16 or so—took over. All of their performances were moving, from the piano preludes to the songs to the theatrical deliveries of significant first lines of literature (like Harry Potter, which apparently is not devil-worship material in this church!) and brief important scenes from the Bible (my favorite was Samson and Delilah: ask me about it when you see me). By far, the most meaningful was when several children of different ages spoke about what God meant to them. For instance, a boy in his tweens or early teens said that he didn’t really know how God fit into his life or if he believed at all, that he was still figuring it out. Another, a girl probably 10 or so, said something like this: “There are lots of stories out there about God and the Bible. Some of them I don’t believe. I don’t believe that God is a great big man looking out over all of us from the sky. I believe that God is love.” I was still astounded that a “church” would allow young people to express their beliefs so openly—mostly, to question their beliefs so openly. By the time our guest preacher stepped in, I was pretty much converted—converted to the idea that religion can reflect the best parts of my faith in humanity and the arts. Certainly, this place was challenging all of my previous beliefs about the nature of God.
But, going forward, the sermon absolutely opened my heart in ways I had not expected. It was more than a nod to Eudora; it was the life story of a southern ex-pat from Alabama who lived his life in New York. It was the life story of our guest preacher, who told us about his love for the city, but also his love for his birth place—who spoke to the discomfort of being asked to explain (and perhaps apologize for) a southern region characterized by ignorance, violence, and prejudice. He talked about college football as a sort of religion. He talked about sweet tea. He led us into Eudora Welty with pride in his home region, suggesting that, although the South may be a region historically associated with tragedy and trauma, it is also home to the best American writers of the past 100 years. He must have listed at least 50 writers (including all of the writers on my syllabus—our own Carson, too). We Southerners in the audience pretty much clapped—we pretty much clapped out loud, happy to hear our region being discussed in positive terms in this Northern city. In a church. Surrounded by people of all walks of life. I now knew I had been converted to thinking about religion in a different way.
But let me get to Eudora Welty’s significance in the sermon. First, he acknowledged that Welty might roll over in her grave, that it might be a stretch to include her in a Sunday sermon, and then he read bits from The Optimist’s Daughter. He kept discussing Welty’s use of the word “confluence”—of her descriptions of confluence. Of course, he related it to his own experiences in New York and to the congregation itself. And then, as so rarely happens to me in church (but often happens in a good class with a good teacher), I understood. Sitting in this peaceful space with my friend and students, surrounded by a diverse group of open-hearted folks, listening to a man tell me that the meaning of Welty’s confluence brought us close to something spiritual (what he referred to as God), I believed it. I was converted by his discussions of confluence, what I viewed as the confluences between North and South, literature and religion, the cultural confluences of the people in this great city. But really, I was simply affirmed: he affirmed that my faith in humanity and the arts does not (perhaps should not?) have to conflict with Christianity. It’s about embracing our confluences—not dwelling on our differences in hateful ways—which, not surprisingly to me, is something that we Southerners work hard at, despite our history.