True North: a New Look at My Old Stomping Grounds

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You know those guys who wear orange vests and carry glowing orange sticks so they can direct you where to park when you are going to a concert in the the city? Well, on Sunday morning, those same guys stand in the parking lot of the local elementary school amid waving flags that read “True North Church,” directing worshippers where to park as they arrive for the morning service. I pull my car into a spot near the front, wishing I could have parked further in the back, in a place less open.

I follow a trail outlined in volunteers in neon green t-shirts that read “I Can Help!” into the lobby of the school I attended as a sixth grader 13 years ago. The lobby is crowded, filled with tables with signs reading “What’s Next?” and “Compass Kids Check-in.” Off to the side, there are refreshment tables with water jugs and light snacks. Two volunteers stand along side a computer monitor at an information station, disseminating information. I remember that the lobby looked similar during my sixth grade enrichment fair, though the tables displayed replicas of classic American landmarks, like my own Golden Gate Bridge, rather than God’s word.

Screenshot (48)I enter into the gym, which seems to be transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. There are eight rows of blue folding chairs in the middle, facing a stage decorated with dark black fabric. There are six rows of the same folding chairs angled at the stage to the left and right of the center set-up. The stage is home to a large drum set, a drum set encased in a clear walls. There are other instruments on the stage, as well, including a keyboard, two guitars, and a bass. Above the stage, aligned left and aligned right are two large monitors that rotate through the following five slides: “Welcome Home,” “Download the True North App,” a compass kids advertisement, a website advertisement, and an Instagram handle.

Most of the congregation appears to be in their 20’s or 30’s, and most attendees are couples. There are a few families throughout the church, but many take their children to a classroom just down the hall from the gym. Those sitting in the folding chairs talk over coffee. Most of the seats are still open, and groups of young people stand around the room in animated conversation, conversation full of laughter and leaning. I am the only person sitting alone.

I feel a little awkward, but I brush this feeling aside. It’s most likely because I am unfamiliar with the service and the set up.

Music plays, the current song a song by Echo Smith.Multicolored lights flash designs on the white cinder block walls. The overhead lighting is off.

At 11 am, a countdown begins on the screens, and Judah, the creative Pastor of True North, begins talking to the congregation, inviting them to share in the worship experience that True North has to offer. The displayed experiences on the screen show baptisms, youth group, church set up, and Compass Kids classes. The soundtrack of the video is so loud that I can feel the music vibrating in my chest and through my feet.

The service begins with three songs, and all the members of the congregation stand and sing along with the projected lyrics. Hands are raised. Feet tap. Bodies bounce up and down, as though they are channeling a spirit outside themselves.

The music stops, and we all sit down. A video begins playing, introducing the More Initiative, a tithing initiative that will help the church develop its own permanent location. Then, church announcements are shared, a baby is dedicated to the church, and the baptism schedule is discussed.

That’s when the congregation is invited to stand and greet each other. As I do so, Judah, a former classmate of mine, approaches, taps me on the shoulder, and then opens his arms for a hug. “I’m so glad you made it,” he shares. Then, he sees I am sitting alone. “I will sit with you. You shouldn’t have to sit alone.”

He sits in the empty folding chair next to me as his brother, the pastor, gives a sermon on faith and purpose. He interacts during the sermon with “yes” and “come on” with every sentence he finds insightful.Screenshot (49)

The service ends with a song, and then the lights come on. “Well, what did you think of all this?” he asks, motioning around what feels like a set design in the cafeteria-auditorium mix.

I think for a moment, and then I am reminded of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, a book that shows us “how to see the spectacle of the ordinary.” I wonder what he can tell me about all of the items they set up. I was still struggling to see the space as more than the place I used to eat my lunch in the middle of the afternoon.

“It’s different,” I said. “Very different. I’ve never seen a church with screens before. I think that if more churches had those, people would come more often. We’re so used to looking at screens.”

He laughs. Then he shakes his head. “People think that, you know. They think if their church just had this stuff, more people would come. But this stuff really isn’t different than anything else. I mean, yea, we put the lyrics on a screen, but other churches have the lyrics in accessible song books. I just see it as my job. I’m the creative pastor. God is the ultimate creator. Everything I try to do is just a way to channel his creativity. I try to make the normal be more of an honor to Him, but our church in Haddonfield, it doesn’t have any of this and it has 160 loyal attendees every Sunday at 10. It’s not about what you have. It’s about the experience.”

He points to the seats. No, I look again. He’s not signaling to the emptying seats but motioning toward the people filling them. “This. These. These people are the church. This building isn’t the church. Church isn’t about a building. You know, my mother-in-law can’t seem to wrap her head around a church that’s mobile.” He’s explaining that while a church provides a foundation for many, a church doesn’t actually need a foundation. I’m reminded of the Francis Nurse’s claim in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which he says, “My wife is the very brick and mortar of this church.” The congregation is the foundation; the people are the ones that can be relied on for guidance, for direction, for comfort, for prayer. The building itself doesn’t do anything. The building is just a place for the church to come together.

I ask about the band whose music served as book ends during the service. I say something about how it must be cool to have rock music at church that people enjoy singing along to, but he corrects me, albeit politely, informing me that there are many misconceptions about that, as well. Worship bands aren’t just about the music. The participants are church leaders, directing and engaging worship, channeling the spirit for others.

I nodded, taking in his perspective, seeing the pieces less individually and more as components of one whole. And then, unexpectedly, his words became more than words. An old friend, a friend I hadn’t seen in years approached, “Lauren? Is that you? How’s it going? It’s been a while!”

We talked for a bit, and he said he was glad to see me there. He told me that attending this church has been one of the best choices he made. I saw the church as the people in it.

The cafeteria was more than just a cafeteria for me then, if only just a moment or two.

It was a unique experience, and I would be interested in returning to try and see more of these things for myself.

Images courtesy of @truenorth_church (Instagram)

A Prodigal Catholic Returns: Field Notes, Transcriptions, and Scene

On Sunday, March 22, I made the decision to go to church. It was the first time since I was 16 that I went without a death or memorial service dictating obligatory attendance.

I entered the church and moved to the far left. Why? Comfort. That was the area I always sat in when I attended church as a CCD requirement. I looked at this location as a way to join the general population without feeling like I would be in the spotlight or the priest’s direct line of view. I genuflected and entered the pew as though I were a regular and looked around, taking in the scenery. I sketched the church to familiarize myself with the different aspects of the church and altar.

In the time remaining before the start of the mass, I jotted down some notes and observations about those surrounding me. I knew I shouldn’t feel too guilty, as it wasn’t as though I was ignoring the priest or something, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I thought everyone would suspicious of the woman hunched over a tiny blue notebook, scribbling furiously before church began.

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Transcriptions

Pages 1 and 2 of Notes

Timagehere are 90 rows of pews in the church. Two straight, altar-facing rows line the sides of the tiled center aisle. A baptismal font and a table holding the offering stand halfway up the center aisle. There are two angled rows on either side of the two straight rows. The front of the church is raised three steps of above the rest..

At the center of the raised section of the church is a large, white, marble altar.  Behind this, hanging on the red brick wall is a large crucifix. To right right of the crucifix, if looking at the front of the church, is a statue of Mary and Joseph. To the left of the crucifix is the tabernacle holding the Eucharist. Above the gold tabernacle is a lit candle in a red jar; this candle hangs from the the ceiling on a gold chain. The lectern is diagonally between the altar and the tabernacle. Three large chairs are in a neat row diagonally between the altar and the statue of Mary and Joseph. The center chair is the tallest, and the two smaller chairs frame it.

Page 3 and 4 of Notes

A majority of the attendees seem to be about 50 or older. About four or five families with kids sit around me. There are big gaps in between groups of people, and thereimage seem to be about 20 in my section and the row of pews to my left. There are several rows in front of me that are completely empty thought a few people on the other end of the pew in which I am sitting.

In terms of dress, it seems as though everyone under about age 21 is wearing a hoodie or sweatshirt.

In regard to the families, there are three dads alone with children. The largest family in my immediate vicinity has three teenager daughters.

The left side of the church is more full than the right.

The church balances out a bit as many people arrive after bells signaling the time is now 5:00. The back half of all rows in the church is nearly full. There are still only two or three people sitting in each of the front rows.

The procession of religious leaders in the church is led by two young boys who appear to be in about 3rd or 4th grade, and they are dressed in altar server robes.

At this point in the service, there are two people still kneeling and praying. They both appear to be over 30. One of the women is alone; the other is with what appears to be her husband.

About five minutes into the service, families are still arriving. A family of four sits a few rows in front of me. The woman and the man kneel to pray, but the two children with them do not.

Pages 5 and 6

The few adults that are still entering the church stop to bless themselves with holy water as they enter, but the children who enter walk by the basin without stopping or turning back. The adults then genuflect but the children do not.

imageFather Gormley and Deacon O’Brien say the mass.

The first reading is read by an older parishoner dressed in a suit. He reads quickly and steps down.

The responsorial psalm is sung by one singer. She is accompanied by one guitar player.

Five people in my section of the church have missiles open and follow along with the songs and readings.

Three teenage girls enter together without an older adult after the first reading. Only one of the three kneels and bows her head in prayer before sitting in the pew. The others sit right away.

A father and elementary-school age daughter enter while the gospel is being read.

The priest, who is wearing robes of purple, black, and gold, gives the homily. His voice is booming, and he has stepped down onto the main floor. While he speaks, many parishioners, especially those sitting near the front, look down. They do not look at the priest.

The two teenagers sitting in front of me are not accompanied by adults.

Page 7

After leaving church, I discussed the mass with Mark, who attended with me. He is Baptist and has never attended a Catholic mass. I asked imagehim to share his thoughts on the service and how it compared to the services he was used to.

He said the mass had less scripture reading than his own church services. It also moved quicker. There were less prayers, but he isn’t used to the recitation of specific prayers that the mass involves. He had expected more people to sing than were actually singing.

The space was difference because it was bigger than his own church. His church also doesn’t have a crucifix at the front. They have a plain cross.

In terms of the church attendees, he was surprised by the casual dress. He said no one at his church would come in anything less formal than khakis and a collared shirt.

Scene

The bells above the church toll five times. As the family enters the foyer, they see the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest moving up the center aisle. The mother pushes her children gently ahead and points to the left of the church as they glance over their shoulder. They turn after crossing through the doorway, skirting past the basin of holy water, and make it to the diagonal column of pews before realizing their parents are a little further behind them.

The parents had stopped to make the sign of the cross over themselves before finding a seat. The daughter seems a bit flustered by this. She’s tapping her foot as she waits for her parents to catch up.

When the parents meet them at the start of the column of pews, the mom points her children in a direction again, using her index finger to indicate an empty pew halfway to the front of the church. The children walk, their foot steps heavy. They sit down as soon as they enter the pew and rather than walking down until they reach the spot in which they’d like to sit, they slide all the way down. The buttons on the back of their jeans making a slight grating sound.

The dad, genuflecting on his right knee, shakes he head side to side, as though he his disappointed in their distracting movement. He scoots into the row, followed by his wife, who drops the cushioned kneeler. Both she and her husband kneel, heads bowed over their folded hands, saying their prayers.

After a minute or two, the couple settles back into the pew alongside their children. The mother looks to her right and gives the kids a look, perhaps to suggest they should be paying closer attention to the reading. The look must have worked because then all four are facing the lectern, and all I can see are the backs of their heads.

Reflections

Returning to church while knowing this blog post would be forthcoming was more troubling than expected. I felt like I had to choose between trying to be aware of my surroundings or listening to the readings, songs, and homily. By the time the mass got to the first reading, I resolved not to write down anything else and instead opted to make jottings if I had any when the service was over. I think this went well enough, and I didn’t feel like I was being rude.

Something I’m really interested in after attending this mass is generational differences. The clothing, actions, and apparent attitudes of the assorted age groups seem to vary drastically. I wonder what opinions of their counterparts these various age brackets would have. I also think this gets back to the tradition aspect of religion and church.

I will also be going to a Baptist church service before the end of the month, so as interesting as I found it to have a discussion about comparisons, I’ll be interested to make some comparisons myself.

Student Center Observations: Hair and Reflections (Post 3)

As I’m sure my readers are all well aware of by now, I have been posting research practice to be transparent about my process for my current project. On March 3, my Research Methods for Writers class met in our campus student center to practice recording ethnographic field notes. Post 1 focused on translating jottings into complete sentences, and post 2 focused on creating narrative scenes from my field notes. The final task for this practice assignment was to compose a short, descriptive piece about a student’s hair and a reflection about my experiences as an observer.

Hair

2015-03-06 10.26.22

Not many 20-something women can boast a flawless hairstyle in the midst of a two-day rain and sleet storm. Most have sloppy top knots and twisted messy buns that droop with dampness to this side or that. Not this girl, though. Sleet, rain, and impending snow be damned. Her hair had style, and she was pulling. it. off.

Her fashionable “do” was a thick collection of box braids, a unique mixture of jet black plaits and a dark, caramel colored brown twists. Think of the square-shaped caramel candies a grandmother might carry in the pocket of her housecoat and then deepen it by two shades. They didn’t hang long, but were gathered just above the nape of her neck. Brown braids fell over black. Black braids snaked through brown. The colors intertwined artistically within the confines of a single, black elastic. To my surprise (as a person with extremely thick hair), the elastic wasn’t looped more than once; the thick mass of braids rested within–more than they were held by–the rubber. The twisty, knot-like ponytail didn’t sag with heaviness. Instead, the long tresses hung to her shoulder blades and draped over the top of her backpack. So thick were her locks that they puffed up a bit at the crown of her head, reminiscent of pageant participant bouffant. Beyonce’s “Flawless” comes to mind in the sense that she looked neat and polished but also effortless, almost as if she “woke up like this.”

The braids pulled all of her locks back from her hairline tightly, framing her face elegantly. Not one hair was out of place. Not one hair curled. Not one hair frizzed. Not one hair fell in front of her eyes. Her hair knew who was boss: she was. Her style reflected complete control.

Her style also reflected fearlessness.Her jacket’s hood was tucked beneath her backpack, suggesting she hadn’t worn it during her trek the student center and probably wouldn’t put it up before leaving. Absent from her hands was an umbrella. She, and her braids, remained un-phased by the weather, much to envy of those of us with damp, frizzing, and waving tresses.

Reflection

2015-03-06 10.26.36

At the start of the assignment, I found myself hesitant and confused, unsure if I had a thorough understanding of the expected tasks. Though I had spent 20 minutes discussing with my group what aspects of observations could be deemed “field note worthy,” I continued to ask myself, What’s worth it? What will be interesting enough to put down on paper? What’s interesting enough that someone would want to read about it?  How long should I sit in one place?

I realized, after completing about 40 minutes worth of observations, that I was fortunate to have selected a central location that saw many people. I was able to take in a great deal, including setting, clothing, actions, and conversation. My notes spanned many topics and many “characters,” which helped me write a few interesting posts and scenes. I was impressed with the quality of these products.

I also conducted a brief interview during my observation, something I was terrified to do at the start of class. It was weird at first, but after a minute or two, especially when I stopped focusing on taking notes while speaking, the “interview” felt more like a normal conversation I might have with a classmate or friend.

I learned that when I conduct interviews in the future, I should be careful to give my interviewee enough time to think of answers to questions I ask. My interview subject that night seemed a bit caught off guard and nervous when I asked him questions, and therefore, took a lot of long pauses in between answering. I filled the silence with jabber. I might have gotten even more interesting information than I did if I stopped being terrified of an awkward silence and let him think a little bit more.

I also might try to listen to people more when I conduct observations again. I focused a lot on things I could see and ignored most of the other senses, but there were many students around. I might have picked up on some more interesting conversational tidbits if I paid more attention to the conversations happening in the space.

Finally, I spent more than two thirds of the observational time with my back to some of the space. To avoid losing sight of half a space, I might try to slightly alter my physical positions in the space throughout my observational period to ensure I’m getting a complete snapshot.

Overall, I enjoyed my research practice a great deal. Hopefully, I can use these techniques when I visit some new churches and church services later in the semester!

Student Center Observations: Translating Jottings (Post 1)

On Tuesday, March 4, my Research Methods for Writers class took place in our university student center. In an effort to make my role as a researcher apparent, I will periodically post about my research practices and methodology.

Before going out in the field to do some observational research, my classmates and I spent some time reviewing how to take ethnographic field notes by discussing in small groups the first three chapters of Writing Ethnographic Field Notes by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw. My group decided that the following information was significant to composing field notes while observing action in the student center:

  • Bits of talk/action
  • Sensory Details
  • Avoiding generalizing characterization
  • Interactions/quotations
  • Expressions of people in setting
  • Own feelings/impressions
  • Sketches
  • Lists

We then divided the building into the following different areas of research:

  • Pit/Starbucks coffee stand
  • Prof’s Place
  • Market Basket Convenience Store
  • Laundry Room
  • Marketplace
  • Entrance
  • Food court
  • Student Info Desk
  • Ball Room

I was tasked with the space by the downstairs entrance and the food court. I took 11 pages of jottings in my small Field Notes notebook. To practice writing field notes, I have been tasked with turning 2 to 3 pages of these jottings into full, legible, descriptive field notes.

Field Notes

There are three sets of glass doors to enter the student center from the ground floor. If I were entering through the doors, a wet floor sign and then the stairs to the pit area would be directly in front of me. However, I am sitting in alcove that is both to the left of and underneath the stairs.So the wet floor sign and the stairs are a bit behind me and to my right. The small alcove, composed of two walls and a single support beam, is crowded with furniture. There are nine round tables with faux-wood tops, and four chairs encircle each table. The chairs have rounded metal backs and different patterns on their thin cushions. Two of the chairs at each table have brown cushions, and two have striped cushions. In addition to the furniture, there are three, rectangular trash cans/recycle bins and four large, lit vending machines. In the corner of the space hangs on old, rounded screen TV (it’s rare to see these, especially on a campus like this which works to stay up-to-date technologically).

The floor is made up of bumpy bricks of brown faux-stone. The walls are a muddied gold color (it seems as though the designer was working to capture some school spirit through the color choices). There are six, rectangular fluorescent lights embedded into the ceiling of this small space.

Across from this alcove is what seems to be a quick service snack stand with a bulbous glass case containing a few pre-made sandwiches wrapped in plastic. Behind the case are two African-American workers wearing all black uniforms and black baseball caps. They lean on a counter, a counter that is also home to a soda fountain. Next to the snack stand are the open glass doors to the cafeteria-style food court. These glass doors, unlike the main entrance doors which are framed by black metal, are framed in a bright silver metal.  There is a sign with information in front of the doors.

Four tables in the alcove are currently occupied, one of which is occupied by me. Two young men (later teens to early 20’s), both dressed in plaid button down shirts (though one is red plaid and the other is black plaid) sit at table that is two to left of me if I were to draw a diagonal line. An open silver Macbook is positioned on the table between them. Sitting down, they are close to the same height, though the blonde in the black plaid shirt is leaning toward the computer a little more (he must be taller if he were standing). Four tables away, by the back wall, sit another two young men (these two are early to mid 20’s). Both of these men are on the heavier side and wear gray t-shirts. Each of these men hs a laptop open in front of him and is clicking on a mouse and typing on keys with fervor. The one closest to me looks up to the one sitting with his back to the far wall and says, “I got the drag for us.” They high five and talk rapidly.

I turn slightly in my seat so that I can see the doors to the entrance behind me and watch the students that are entering and exit. Every entrance or exit made is by a pair of two people or a group of three. All people who entered and exited while I was watching, with the exception of one group, were wearing black coats. All of the females who entered, in addition to black coats, wore either a hood or carried an umbrella. All young women also had on boots, though some were combat-style, some were rain boots, and some were Ugg style. Many of the jackets had the “North Face Fleece” emblem on the left chest of the coat. The biggest group that exited while I was observing was a group of six young men all around 18 or so. None of the group member were wearing coats. All were close to the same height. They emerged from Prof’s Place, and each  was carrying a white bag. Five were walking fairly closely, with a step or less between them. The last was about three steps behind and was texting on a cell phone.

These field notes came from four pages of jottings [Images 1, 2, and 5] from the gallery at the top of the post. When looking at the images in the galleryt, count clockwise to determine the image number.