Who Will Save Manhattan?
The Big Apple has always been a missional magnet for evangelists determined to convert the natives. “If you can win a soul here, you can win one anywhere,” or so they sing.
In years past, I couldn’t walk around Manhattan in the summertime without being run over by the Mitzvah Tank, bombarded by believers armed with granola bars and prayer cards, and ambushed by Scientologists offering free e-meter readings. While I’m all for free speech, I would love to have just one walk through Central Park without tripping over another demonstration staged by the persecuted followers of Falun Gong. And if some stoned-on-granola groupies want to sing to their Lord and Savior, why can’t they offer their praises without sounding like they’re passing prunes? Even though these faith fanatics tend to repel far more people than they attract, that doesn’t stop them from continuing their never-ending quest to win converts to their cause.
Hordes of farm-raised fundies would pile into their local church bus and make a beeline towards this city of sin. After partaking in an all-night pizza party held inside some hot as Hades church basement, they’d descend upon the town like Christian cockroaches. They’d sashay down Times Square with their hair that praises Jesus and matching youth group t-shirts passing out The Four Spiritual Laws and singing praise power ballads. One would have thought the Great White Way was fixin’ for a revival courtesy of the cast of High School Musical: The Homeschooled Version.
As an unsaved Anglican, I have the dubious distinction of being one of their prime candidates for conversion. They tend to view Episcopalians as Catholic-lite, which puts us in the category of icon-worshipping winos—slightly better than pagans and Jews, but we’re still headed right straight to h-e-double-toothpicks. I finally quit wearing my Yale Divinity School-branded gear after I got tired of explaining to these biblical buffoons that my alma mater was in fact a “Christian” institution even though we embrace such worldly notions like evolution, women in the pulpit, and public schooling.
But for some reason no one wants to save me this summer. I shouldn’t take this too personally as I suspect this lack of personal soul-care could be attributed to the global fundraising crisis that’s befallen many ministries. After all, the Barna Group predicted in December 2008 that “Churches Stand to Lose Several Billion Dollars in Lost Donations Due to Economic Downturn.”
I had a hunch I might be in for one helluva pitiful prayer season when the 2009 Summer Salvation season opened with Night of Hope with Joel & Victoria. This dynamic duo might be sellouts but their ungodly glamour and glitz failed to attract a full capacity crowd to the brand new Yankee stadium. Compare the Osteen’s performance with the pope’s performance a year ago when he came to play ball at the old Yankee Stadium. Not only was that event sold out but a number of press (including yours truly) could not snag a press invite to any of his performances.
When I venture around the city, I still might trip over a bunch of bodhisavattas or get papered by some praiseworthy pamphleteer. Even though the Disneyfication of Times Square has driven away the heathen hookers, I still get bombarded by street preachers who appear to be more juiced up on Jack Daniel’s than Jesus.
But the evangelicalistas just aren’t flocking into the city in devotional droves. These days I can’t even find a granola bar and a prayer card at Broadway and 94th Street, which used to be my favorite free snack stop. The only time this summer I even got a bottle of water with some Christian logo on it was during Book Expo 2009, when the Faithworks people were distributing The Shack-branded water bottles.
The summer salvationists may have failed to show me the light of their Lord, but I found glimpses of God on my own. Over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt transported to another realm thanks to the recently renovated Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art and the Medieval Europe Gallery. The soft lighting and plethora of stained glass and crosses feel so much like a church that whenever I enter this space, I almost cross myself. In these medieval masterpieces, Jesus almost seems to be “enjoying” the crucifixion as though he’s already heaven-bound even while the Good Friday massacre unfolds here on earth. We would have brought along God’s only son but the crucifixes at the Met still give him the creeps. As the late great Bill Hicks wryly observed, “Do you think when Jesus comes back, he’s really going to want to look at a cross?”
Also, I hung out with the creator God a bit over at the Hayden Planetarium. Their new space show, “Journey to the Stars,” proved to be a singular spiritual sensation though it can be a bit annoying to keep hearing how much the movie deviates from the Book. Even MOMA got a bit religious on me by featuring a death defying exhibit featuring the works of 18th century Belgium avant garde artist James Ensor.
Without the faith flies swarming all around me, I could sit and just be. But as much as I relished soaking in the silence, some days I got thirsty for a bottle of salvation water.
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).