St Paul's, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, USA

St Paul's, Coney Island, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's
Location: Coney Island, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 October 2006, 11:00am

The building

The present church building, located at the corner of Neptune Avenue and West Eighth Street, dates from the early 1960s. The rather plain A-frame brick structure encloses an attractive sanctuary of white and light gray, with a pitched wooden ceiling, oak pews, and an oak altar and reredos. A large crucifix is suspended over the altar. To the rear are choir stalls, slightly raised from the sanctuary floor, and the organ console. The organ pipes are in the gallery. One enters the church via a porch that connects the sanctuary to the church offices and recreation hall.

The church

This is the oldest Christian fellowship in Coney Island. Beginning as a Sunday school meeting in 1875 in the basement of a Congregational church, the parish incorporated in 1907. They hold morning and evening prayer throughout the week as well as church school and worship service on Sundays, and sponsor several study groups.

The neighborhood

Coney Island is actually a peninsula jutting out from southernmost Brooklyn. When the Dutch explored the area in the mid 1600s, they found it overrun with rabbits and so named it Rabbit Island, or Conyne Eylandt in Dutch. By the late 19th century, Coney Island had become a recreational area for the working class. Street names such as Neptune, Mermaid and Surf Avenues lured swimmers to its popular beach, while a midway of beer gardens, dance halls and prizefighting rings gave the place an aura of rather thrilling disrespectability. The world's first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted here in the summer of 1884, followed by other thrill attractions such as the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone and Parachute Jump. During the early 20th century Coney Island reigned as the king of amusement parks. But as the century wore on, after a series of catastrophic fires and the introduction of low-income housing projects accompanied by a sharp rise in crime, the once-famous attraction had become a virtual ghost town. A recent major revitalization effort is once again transforming Coney Island into a summer haven for thrill seekers, although yesterday's thrills seem rather quaint when compared to today's high-tech amusements.

The cast

The Revd Harvey W. von Harten, pastor; Anna Haye, deacon. The names of two servers and a lector were not given.

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

I counted 20 people, mostly middle-aged women, in a church that can hold 120.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not at first, but just before the service began the pastor came up to me and said hello, asked me where I was from, and made sure that I had a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The seats inside each pew were actually fold-down chairs with arms, with green upholstery. There were also upholstered kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

About a half dozen people were watching a Bible study program on a video monitor, after which the pastor commented briefly on the program's contents. When that was done, the pastor said, "Our service will begin shortly."

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. I think we can officially declare summer over." The service opened with the collect for purity and the confession of sins said at the altar, after which the pastor moved to the back of the church for the procession and opening hymn.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Lutheran Book of Worship; service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ. The church's 1938 MP Moller instrument was obtained from another church and is in the process of being installed. It is playable, and was played well, but most of the organ case is covered by a curtain.

Did anything distract you?

Coney Island is the terminus of several subway lines, and the rumble of trains permeated almost the entire service. The altar party pronounced Hosanna to rhyme with Roseanna. And they used the modern-language Lord's Prayer.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

High Lutheran. Pastor von Harten was vested in alb and stole and donned a chasuble at the offertory. Deacon Haye wore an alb and deacon's stole, and recited several of the prayers. The Gloria, collects, psalm, preface and Sursum Corda, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were all chanted. The gospel was recited in parts. The pastor kissed the altar before giving the peace. Everyone bowed their heads at the mention of the name of Jesus. We received the communion bread on the tongue, and the wine (a very nice sherry) either via intinction or in tiny glasses.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The sermon was a dialog between pastor and congregation, with lots of questions and answers. I liked this very much, although the congregation didn't seem to have retained much of the gospel passages they had just been studying.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Pastor von Harten connected the Messianic prophesy of Isaiah 53 to Jesus' journey to Jerusalem in Mark 10. Mark 10 describes the end of Jesus' ministry phase and the beginning of his passion phase. Jesus healed a blind man who "saw" that Jesus was the Messiah even before he had regained his sight – and that's why Jesus healed him. Just as the blind man followed Jesus after he had been healed, so should our lives be ones of vision and faith. God does not expect payback for all he has done for us – all he wants from us is love and thanks. Living a life of grace in a graceless world takes practice.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The dignity of the service was most inspiring, and Pastor von Harten chanted in a delightful baritone.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The organist played Londonderry Air during communion – I didn't quite see how that connected up to the theme of the day's readings. And in so playing he exercised every reed stop the old Moller had in it, some of which were painfully out of tune.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

One woman invited me to coffee, and another made small talk as we waited in line to shake the pastor's hand. No one else said anything, though. I told Pastor von Harten that I thought the service was rather high up the candle, and he laughed and said he hadn't heard that expression in years.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Good coffee served in styrofoam cups. There was some macaroni salad in a plastic bag that people were dishing out onto paper plates, but I was put off by its presentation. There were also some store-bought cakes in their original boxes, but again I was put off. It would only have taken a moment to transfer the macaroni salad to a bowl and the cakes to serving dishes. I chatted briefly with one of the altar servers, who turned out to be the pastor's daughter, and then with the pastor. No one else introduced themselves or spoke to me, however.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I liked the service and Pastor von Harten's style. I would want to see a choir, however (the church has none), and a more diverse mix in the congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. I could get used to worshiping with Lutherans.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Pastor von Harten's dialog-like preaching style.

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