Mystery Worshipper: Fractious Glueball
Church: Church of Grace to Fujianese
Location: Lower East Side, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 11:00am
A roughly cubic double-storied brick building painted white – perhaps a converted shophouse – on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The church shares walls on both sides with flats and shops. A cross on the flat roof and signs in front indicate the nature of the building.
As its name suggests, the church serves mainly immigrants to New York City from the province of Fujian in China, where more than 70 dialects are spoken. Names of Fujian dialects are marked with an asterisk below.
I was told by friends who live there that the Lower East Side used to be mostly slums but has now become more bohemian and yuppified. This New York City neighbourhood is adjacent to Chinatown and Little Italy.
The service was led by lay preacher Ding Yong Wong and the chairman, Mr Ding King. The former preached the sermon. Ms Ding Guok Choo translated from Hockchew* to Mandarin or vice versa as needed. The Dings seem very active in this congregation.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Afternoon Worship (11am)
How full was the building?
Very full! All the pews had four or five people in them, which is about as many as they can comfortably hold.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several people greeted us as we sat down. I'm not sure if this was because one of our party had visited before and was recognised, or if they would have in any case. The peace was exchanged at the beginning of the service. During the service, first-timers were invited to stand and be greeted (with clapping). Towards the end, during the announcements, we were invited to proceed to the basement level for some sort of briefing. I was reluctant to do either of these things, but was urged to do so by people sitting around me. In the end, I stood up but did not go downstairs as I had to leave soon after the service. The congregation really made sure that newcomers didn't fall through any cracks!
Was your pew comfortable?
It was wooden and just right. I was tempted neither to slouch and doze nor to squirm.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We arrived 10 minutes early and the church was already half full. The sign on the projector screens said to pray quietly and not to talk. Several people were talking in subdued tones, while others had their heads bowed in prayer.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
One of the lead vocalists said, Ge wei ping an – "Peace be unto you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Bible and the Hymns of Life (in English and Chinese) published by the China Alliance Press.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and choir, led by various microphoned vocalists, including a woman who appeared to be the choir director and sang much louder than necessary, though it could have been the microphone.
Did anything distract you?
The constant ringing of mobile phones throughout the service. Mercifully nobody answered their phone.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Neither. There were some old hymns (including one of my favourites, Neander's "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty") from the hymnbook, and some newer ones I didn't know which were projected onto screens. Some people clapped, some people didn't.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Forty five minutes, if you include the lesson (read by the preacher) and prayers at the beginning and the end. Otherwise, 38 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was John 20:11-17. The sermon was about the resurrection, and the joy and peace that that comes with our apprehension of the risen Lord. Oddly and interestingly the preacher began with the observation that there is no conflict between faith and science: scripture tells us what happened, science tells us how. At the end, he briefly talked about the transformed life of a member of the congregation, whose name was not mentioned, after her conversion.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The heartfelt singing by a church full of people. It was quite a contrast to the mumbling by people in "one pew for you, one pew for me" seating configurations that I've become accustomed to.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not being able to understand what people were saying very well. The sermon was translated into Mandarin, so that was all right, but most of the people seemed to be Hockchew* and the only Fujian dialect I really speak or understand is Kutien*. I could have spoken Mandarin, but I had been speaking Kutien that weekend and found it difficult to make the switch just then.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't get a chance to feel lost! There was lunch after the service and the people sitting around us urged us to dig in. The food looked quite good, but I had already made arrangements to meet friends for lunch.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It appeared to be rice, veg, tofu and perhaps some meat. The food was served in the foyer just inside the entrance to the building and people ate sitting in the pews or standing around.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If I lived close by I would think about it, but I don't intend ever to live in a city, and especially not New York.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The youth and enthusiasm of the congregation. The atmosphere as a whole was like that of a subdued carnival. People were reverent, but they also seemed very happy to be there!