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  1172: The Riverside Church, Manhattan, New York, USA

The Riverside Church, Manhattan, New York

Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, Manhattan, New York, USA.
Denomination: Interdenominational, affiliated with the American Baptist Church and The United Church of Christ.
The building: This Neo-Gothic tower with a church attached adds some skyline to the Harlem end of Manhattan from the Hudson River. With John D Rockefeller Jr. as the chairman of the building committee (in the early part of the 20th century) a lot can be accomplished. The architects Collins and Pelton are not well known, and one assumes that this was Mr Rockefeller's project every step of the way. Aside from a beautiful nave that seats 2,500, according to the brochure, the tower, undercroft and adjoining buildings seem to house every sort of facility: theaters, dining halls, classrooms, child care (with a roof-top playground), you name it. I'm guessing that with their very full menu of social and cultural outreach activities, these rooms are put to use.
The church: I am old enough to recall the characterizing of some churches as having black congregations, but lately have been finding this an impossible distinction to make. There was a great mix of people of all ages, complexions, sexual orientations, and maybe even various income brackets. All were enthusiastically worshipping at Riverside. I would characterize them as a politically liberal group with their firm dedication to civil rights, affordable housing, job skills training and the like.
The neighborhood: Riverside Drive is a rather quiet leafy road edging upper Manhattan's west shore. Grant's Tomb (where Ulysses S Grant is in fact buried) is nearby, as are Columbia and Barnard Universities, the Cathedral of St John the Divine, Harlem, and the upper end of central park. The neighborhood looks beautiful, fairly affluent, but not as intense as mid-town or the east or west sides (around the park). I'm guessing there may be some affordable housing actually in the area.
The cast: The Rev. Dale Irvin and Cliff Fraser of Riverside led prayers and the Gospel. The Rev. Dr William D Watley of St James AME Church, Newark, was guest preacher. Dr Timothy Smith is director of music and organist, assisted by Christopher Johnson directing the choir, with Dionisio Lind, carillonneur.
The date & time: Sunday, 21 August 2005, 10.45am.

What was the name of the service?
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

How full was the building?
About 300 or so at 10.45, but that was for the prelude music. There were about 1,000 there for the 11.00 worship. There were even a good number in the lower balcony.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A very young usher – a security guard, really – sharply warned me not to take pictures until after the service (I wasn't going to), but another usher inside the nave said good morning and handed me a service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
Velvet cushions on those fine old pews. Most definitely.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet excitement. People were looking forward to church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We come together to worship the God of wilderness and promise, of mercy and justice."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A hymnal with Riverside's logo imprinted. It might be a custom job they edited for their own use. That and a fairly complete service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Only the second largest church organ in New York. This instrument was made famous in the 1970s by the flamboyant Virgil Fox. I have to say that Tim Smith plays hymns better than anyone I have heard in at least a couple of years. Absolutely thrilling.

Did anything distract you?
If you mean as in draw my attention away from worship, I would say no. To accuse the wonderful architecture, stained glass, carved stone, carillon, organ, choir, soloist, etc. of being a distraction would be most ungrateful.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy almost to the point of being clappy, but really more enthusiastic. People said "amen" out loud during the sermon and prayers. They most definitely sang.

The Riverside Church, Manhattan, New York

Exactly how long was the sermon?
28 minutes and it felt just right at that.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – It was emotional, but I didn't find it lacking in substance or erudition (as would be my inclination). It was great.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Walking with Jesus over water and through storms – the theme of the Gospel reading. A line I want to remember was: "Where you are now does not have to determine where you will be for the rest of your life." Dr Watley is a preacher of great gifts, and many of his congregation made the trip to Riverside to join in worship.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music, the prayers, the exchange of peace, the preaching, the architecture, all of it. I was glad to have heard the Dupré Three Antiphons, the Mozart, the Mendelssohn and the spectacular hymns.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I dutifully record one annoyance, and that had to do with the carillon recital preceding the service. The virtuoso playing would have been more enjoyable if it had been barely audible inside through the walls of the tower. It was instead amplified over a speaker in the sanctuary. The Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon (the world's largest with 74 bells) sounded tinny on the loudspeaker.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went looking around. The same security guard didn't want me peeking into the chapel either, but I did. He could lighten up a bit, but he seemed very young, and took security seriously, which is his job. Eventually I found my way down to the coffee hour, which is a big production at Riverside.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
They pour you a cup of coffee, and you must use the tongs to grab a cookie. The large group seemed friendly, even if I didn't have any long conversations. The gift shop was mobbed, but I snagged a few items including a book by their minister emeritus, William Sloan Coffin Jr., a liberal theologian of considerable authority.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I live a full time zone away, and I would yearn for the sacraments, but the whole place seems to just sing with life, energy and all things positive and right-thinking. Wow. I could move to New York.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The dynamic preaching, and being treated to such fine music, even including a short carillon concert. Visiting was a privilege and a pleasure.
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