To believe in something you’ve never seen is remarkable. I sit in this church and wonder what unflinching faith must feel like. There are ways of manifesting that faith here – lighting a candle, kneeling on the pulpit, singing a hymn, praying. The homeless sleep on the benches that are left of the aisle. Some fashion pillows out of their coats. Others are sitting, head down. From the back they appear devout. Maybe they are. One man draws my attention without meaning to. He is half sitting, his head hanging back, dreams behind closed eyelids facing the ceiling. The light bounces off his fierce salt-and-pepper beard. It illuminates the beautiful brownness of his skin, not so different from the pools of light directed at the stone faces of the holy. Up front stands Jesus, a headful of brown dreadlocks. He appears to be sweating, caked with a layer of dust as if back from a day of working in the fields. He faces the benches left of the aisle, the dozing nomads. To the right, a pious Mary, ashen blonde curls enhancing the paleness of her features. She wears a crown and faces the few who have chosen to come here this morning. She faces a man looking ahead, his palms facing upwards. She faces a redhead in a business suit. She faces a Chinese man with high cheekbones and prominent shoulder blades, visible under a maroon T-shirt. He sits behind the upward-palmed man. They may never speak to each other, but in the spiritual realm, they connect at a level that doesn’t need words. She faces me, a non-believer, sitting in the back, notebook in hand, observing the connections and contradictions in this vast room that smells of wooden floor boards.
Jesus, the story goes, said Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. This church reminds me how applicable that is to everyone here. Life is about bouncing from one meal to the next, and if you have that covered, from one job to the next, or one person to the next. We have spun our own webs of desire and now we’re stuck. Perhaps religion helps some people escape that. I choose another route, one where my experiences – not those of some mythical, virtuous superhuman – dictate my experiences. If I have a problem, my actions alone can fix it, not the love that a candle’s light spreads. In this church, a house of prayer, I see a powerful story coming alive. I see beauty in the stained glass windows framing the walls – a kaleidoscope of orange, blue, and surprising bits of lime green. I see discipline in the mental and physical rituals some participate in. I respect that. And yet this is a facade – a thin veil that shrouds the immense business acumen of religion, its franchising power, its replicability. Like a virus, its growth can not be curbed. My mind is free of this infection but damaged from other ones. To believe in something you’ve never seen is remarkable. I walk up the aisle, knowing that the memory of this visit will fade, and the stillness of solitude is temporary. That is my reality.