Rebel Sanctuary – St. Mary’s Episcopal

I wasn’t raised with much of a religious foundation. At one point, we abided by an Ital diet, worshipped Egyptian dieties, celebrated every Eid, and even attended Catholic mass. The one thing that remained constant in my ubringing however, was my family’s desire to seek justice and social equality for the underserved. This is a place in my parents’ heart that was not served by their place of worship. I believe this is what ultimately led to their decision to conclude God must not exist.

When I concluded for myself that the world’s existence could not possibly have been the result of happenstance, I went on a quest to find spiritual truth. After years of soul searching, I was called & drawn to Christ. I started to attend a church whose mission was community centered. This church helped bail people out who were struggling to pay their mortgages. Hired people who couldn’t find jobs. Fed those who were hungry. Clothed those who had not. It was a racially and ethnically diverse church that mirrored the multi-national makeup of my family, as well as the community it served. And the best part of it all was those helped did not need to be members of the congregation to be served. It was a service oriented church that fought to uplift and sustain the PEOPLE of Columbia, MD.

I started attending Bridgeway while away at school. I have since moved back to my hometown of NYC and have been attending a church that is Bible centered, but is not community centered. The pastoral staff is comprised of white men from the South who all go back down South to celebrate all the major Christian holidays. This leaves me without a church home every Christmas and Easter. I haven’t been able to find a church that mirrored Bridgeway’s commitment to service until Sunday December 27th, 2009 – second day of Kwanzaa, first Sunday following Christmas. I was led to this Harlem gem by April Davis of (you can follow on twitter @AroundHarlem). I expressed a need to see diversity in the pastoral staff, a commitment to service in the mission of the church, an anti-racist and anti-sexist attitude and devotion to the Holy Bible. These things I found – and much more – at St. Mary’s Episcopal.

The service was led by a fairly young woman with a warm smile, sea green eyes and dangling decorative earrings. We celebrated Kwanzaa (all of us did – irrespective of race), sang songs in English and Swahili, prayed for our President, prayed for victims of war and victims of violence. We prayed for our incarcerated brothers and sisters. We prayed for our troops. We prayed for the Iraq occupation to end, for “prisoners abused while in detention” and we also prayed for those detained as terrorist suspects whose whereabouts are unknown. What moved me the most in St. Mary’s Episcopal’s prayer list was “that we might reform our criminal justice system to be humane…”. Obviously my work as a public defender is why that prayer struck a chord in my heart. Praying for reform in my field of work while in my place of worship was exhilarating, emotional, overwhelming. In addition to pondering on and studying the Word, we “loved” each other by making ourselves aware of injustice in our community. The initiatives sponsored by the church were Harlem based and sought to uplift our people.

St. Mary’s Episcopal is indeed the “I am not afraid” church – “standing up as a community of faith in West Harlem to pursue justice and peace for the poor and oppressed, to pray for the sick, lonely and at risk, and to put into practice the message of the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. DO NOT BE AFRAID – Luke 1:30”

I had a blessed, overwhelming, amazing time. Looking forward to another visit. (or perhaps I might join!)

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