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Church crawl
by John Pederson
Issue 4
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The evening started as most Friday nights in Helsinki. I put on some tunes after dinner, hopped in the shower and cleaned up for a night on the town. But the night broke sharply with routine as soon as I locked my apartment door behind me. I was in search of a Church. It was Good Friday 2004.

I headed down to the Catholic Church by the harbor, two modest steeples rising above the shops marked the spot. Dressed in my black suit I entered through a side door, late as usual. I took a seat in the back and lost myself in the comfort and nostalgia of familiar rituals. I remembered sweaty palms and Our Fathers, babies staring wildly from their mothers’ shoulders, shooting my brother and sister mischievous winks. It all came rushing back, and for this I thanked the lord… for this I have faith.

I sang loud and stood tall in my fine black suit. The mass ended and I left feeling good, much calmer than I was an hour earlier. But I had no where to go, no dinner or friends waiting, nothing to sustain God’s good vibes. I started walking home and passed the Lutheran church, a much larger and grandiose building. I thought I’d do the fair thing and give a shout out to my daddy’s Father, as I had the suit on and all.

This time I sat in a side pew. I participated but was more of an observer here. The general thrust of the service was the same. I was surrounded by soul searching humans, crying babies, annoyed old ladies, tired mothers, hesitant fathers and dreamy youth. The choir provided beautiful music. The congregation weaved their thoughts though the intricate harmonies, assembling the truths to get them through another week and pushing aside any knots of doubt – for this I am confident that Jesus did not die in vein.

As I shuffled out with the crowd, a series of bells caught my attention. They weren’t the bells from the cathedral but those from an adjacent church. Crossing the street for a closer look, I was amazed to find that the loud ringing was coming from two unassuming bells above an even more inconspicuous church. The church sparked my curiosity. It was almost hidden in the shadows of the large Protestant Cathedral yet, once noticed, its simplicity drew me in.

I entered the building only to find myself in one of the most ornate worship spaces I could imagine. Paintings and murals laced in golden frames, candles surrounding a number of oddly placed statues, no chairs or pews. The women stood with headscarves, the children milled around at their feet and the men stood somberly listening to the priest chanting in an ancient Bulgarian dialect. The church was a Russian Orthodox. I had attended a similar one while I was in St. Petersburg.

Despite the grandeur of the interior design and decoration, the service was rather informal. People came and went throughout the ceremony. They talked in the corners. The priests, dressed to match the formal and elaborate interior, often broke during their chant to whisper to one another or an usher, kids wandered around the alter to light candles and look at me suspiciously.

What conclusions can I draw from my ecumenical evening? Despite the ostensible differences of decor, language and dress, the general trajectory of my experience was basically the same. I felt more at home at the Catholic Church, more in tune with the ritual. It was easier to search myself without noticing or thinking about my surroundings. But in the second two churches I was able to notice this search just the same in those around me. I was more distracted in the Protestant and Russian Orthodox services, but distracted by the apparent and familiar searching that was taking place around me.

This triangular experienced helped me perceive my faith as an access to a wider united community, rather than a membership to an exclusive denomination. It recently occurred to me that my political views could benefit form this non-denominational perspective. Instead of embracing a party-line and my label as a left-wing liberal, I should challenge myself with the ambiguity of the role of a discerning citizen. While I firmly believe in the separation between church and state, my ecumenical evening reveals there are transferable lessons between these institutions of identity.

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