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425: St Stephen's Church, The Bronx, New York
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St Stephen's Church, Bronx, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: St Stephen's Church, The Bronx, New York.
Denomination: Episcopalian.
The building: A simple wood structure with a peaked roof. The church is white with a red door. There is one large stained glass window behind the altar with the figure of an angel. Many paned windows with decorative tops line both sides of the nave. There were a few small decorative panels at eye level, but other than that not much ornamentation. There were a number of flower arrangements on the altar.
The church: It seemed to be a small dedicated congregation, with a good representation of age groups, especially considering there were so few in the congregation. About a quarter were black, and the rest were white Anglo-Saxons, as best I could judge.
The neighbourhood: I had wondered how large the congregation would be, for this is mostly an Irish immigrant, working class neighborhood. The neighboring Catholic church, St Barnabas, has a large dedicated congregation and a school.
The cast: The vicar, Rev. Laurence Le Seure; vicar emeritus, Rev. Peter Carey; organist, Dr David Pizarro.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist – Rite I. 20th Sunday after Pentecost.

How full was the building?
Nearly empty. There were approximately 25 people in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I walked into the church with a blind man, Jim, who I'd met in the street. The organist standing at the entrance greeted Jim and began a conversation. I went on into the church. No one was passing out programs, so I picked one up and went to sit in the pew.

Was your pew comfortable?
Simple wooden pews that were very comfortable. The kneeler could have used a bit more padding, as my knees became quite sore.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. A few people greeted each other, but most went to their pews and engaged in silent prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
1982 Hymnal and a handout. There were copies of the Book of Common Prayer and references to it in the program, but the entire service was within the handout.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, very ably played by Dr Pizarro, who had long white hair and a beard and looked a bit as if he belonged in a haunted castle. The organ sounded as if it could use a bit of maintenance. There were also some bells that were rung during communion by the vicar emeritus.

Did anything distract you?
A few people behind me talked during the sermon and some people came in late.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Well, it was certainly not happy clappy. It was a generally quiet, formal service, and yet there was a break when the vicar made the announcements and I got the feeling this was a friendly congregation that know each other pretty well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Short but sweet. Eight minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The Rev. Le Seure was very charismatic, and I enjoyed the directness of his approach and thought his sermon was well constructed. However, although he delivered it well, it was obvious that he was reading every word and I would have appreciated a bit of extemporaneous speaking.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel was Luke 18:1-8, Jesus' parable about the judge and the widow who demanded justice. Rev. Le Seure pointed out that we usually think of ourselves as the widow and God as the judge. But he turned it on its head and said that he felt that God was the widow, constantly calling on us to come to him, and we have to be ready to hear his call. He went further to say that God is doing more than calling on us to recognize him, but calling on us to work to improve the world, to provide aid and comfort, to help others seek justice, and in general to behave in a moral, righteous manner.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the sunlight seemed to fill the church. During the peace, the vicar came up to me, wished me peace, and said, "Good to see you here." The church and its worshippers made me feel warm and welcome.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This was a sung mass, and I enjoy singing in church in general. But many people did not sing during the service (admittedly, it was hard at times to follow the music) or sang very softly, so I felt a bit alone at times. Yet a woman behind me sang quite spiritedly, which kept me going. But for a sung mass, I prefer a larger, more active congregation.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I made my way to the back of the church, the vicar was waiting. He immediately shook my hand, invited me to coffee, and asked me to sign the guestbook. I didn't even get a chance to look lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good, strong, freshly made coffee. There was also cake with chocolate chips. The day before, the church had held a memorial service for a local firefighter (Peter Bielfeld) who had perished at the World Trade Center. Along the walls of the coffee room were pictures of him and handwritten messages from his friends. Although the Bronx is a long way from the WTC, Peter had just happened to be in the neighborhood and borrowed another fireman's gear, leaving a note behind that he would return it to its rightful owner, if he could. It was very touching.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The vicar and the people were so welcoming, and the seriousness of the worship is to my taste. My only reservation is the small size of the congregation. Sometimes I prefer a little anonymity in my worship, and that would be impossible here.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. This church to me represents all that is good about a small local church.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The memorial to Peter in the coffee room.
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