Sundays in America

When Pope John Paul II died, Suzanne Strempek Shea, who had turned away from the Catholic Church of her childhood, pondered her lack of knowledge about the rest of Christianity. The result was her year of visiting a different Christian church every Sunday, a journey that would take her through the broad spectrum of both contemporary and age-old Christianity lived in this country, from coast to coast and out to Hawaii.



By June Sawyers
March 15, 2008
Cradle Catholic Shea was told that Protestants were going to hell, and so were she and her friends should they ever step inside a Protestant church. She felt no urge to visit such churches until after a personal health scare and the death of John Paul II, when the passion of the mourners on her streets and TV impressed her. She had drifted away from the church but, fascinated by and a little jealous of the mourners’ intensity, began wondering about what lay beyond other churches’ doors. Her curiosity eventuated in this book. For one year she attended different non-Catholic services across the country—Methodist, Shaker, Quaker, Seventh-Day Adventist, interfaith, Mormon—in buildings ranging from unadorned chapels to huge megachurches. She wanted to learn what makes the denominations differ, and different from the Catholicism she was raised in. She visited Baptist churches in New York and South Carolina, a “cowboy” church in Colorado, a Quaker meetinghouse in Philadelphia, a Greek Orthodox church in Rhode Island, an evangelical church in New Hampshire, an Episcopal church in Hawaii. She stopped in at Barack Obama’s place of worship, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, as well as 320-year-old King’s Chapel in Boston. It was for her and is for readers a captivating trip into the heart of non-Catholic Christian America that reveals the amazing diversity of one complex faith.

© Copyright Booklist.

The American Catholic

By Denise J. Stankovics
April 2008

In Sundays in America Suzanne Strempek Shea confronts her feeling of spiritual homelessness resulting from the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, coupled with the anger she experienced when breast cancer upset her tidy and well-ordered life. As a result, she drifted away from the church in which she was raised but never lost the desire to belong to a community of committed worshippers, a place to “refuel” for the week ahead and to feel God’s presence.When Pope John Paul II died, the author was captivated by the degree of sorrow expressed by his mourners. She experienced a homesickness for the faith (if not for the institutional church) of her youth and wanted to find what she termed “the right place for her heart and soul.” To accomplish this she decided to go on a pilgrimage to learn what goes on in other churches and what form devotion takes in these religious communities. Traveling throughout the United States, from Hawaii to Maine, she would visit a different church each Sunday for a full year. The book provides accounts of what she encountered in each one.

To discover how Christian churches differ from each other and from the Catholic church, Ms. Shea wanted to experience their services as a worshipper rather than a guest or tourist. There was, however, an impediment to her project: she was brought up in a conservative Polish parish where she had been conditioned to believe that Protestants were automatically doomed and that if she so much as entered a non-Catholic church, the ceiling would fall in. The motif of the potentially falling ceiling recurs throughout the book, adding a note of levity to this thoughtful study.

Ms. Shea’s spiritual odyssey began and ended on Easter. Her project was off to a promising start at Harlem’s New Mount Zion Baptist Church, the polar opposite of her usual worship experience, where she found a solid, welcoming, exuberant faith. Her journey would take her to mainstream churches such as Manhattan’s Riverside Church as well as to more unusual houses of worship like Colorado Springs Cowboy Church, San Francisco’s St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, and the Hopi Nation’s Kykotsmovi Mennonite Church. Ms. Shea’s quest for spiritual fulfillment was not limited to attending services; while in Alabama she also volunteered to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The author found herself at home in an alternative Roman Catholic church, St. Sebastian in Baltimore, where “unabashed love” greets those, such as homosexuals, who feel marginalized in traditional Catholic churches. Seeking a place where acceptance is extended to everyone, she was turned off by fundamentalist churches preaching intolerance in any form. As she visited each church, she took note of the race, age and gender of her fellow worshippers in the hope of finding a healthy mix that would confirm inclusiveness.

Ms. Shea concludes that her ideal church is a community based on joy rather than fear, one that welcomed her warmly, cared about social justice rather than an individual’s politics or lifestyle, contained little-to-no hierarchy, gave members a say in decisions, provided a spiritual message based on love, “and did all this in an art-filled space that rang with awesome music.”

She comes to realize that the churches she has visited are not so different after all because all Christians have the same goal-they just take different routes to end up in the same place. Further, she concludes that there are no perfect churches and that a church consists of people rather than a building. In the final analysis, she notes, it’s all about “letting go” and “letting God.”

An artist as well as the author of five novels and two other non-fiction books, Ms. Shea makes good use of her narrative skills in describing each service that she attended. She paints detailed pictures of the buildings and the worshippers and supplies just enough background on each denomination to orient the reader.

Sundays in America provides stimulating reading for those of any faith who may be considering a change of affiliation or who are simply curious about how other denominations do things. Ms. Shea’s conclusion that all of these churches have similar goals after all is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s lines in “Little Gidding”: “…the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Denise J. Stankovics is a librarian and free lance writer living in Vernon, Conn. In a previous life she worked in communications and publications.

© Copyright The American Catholic.

South Coast Today

Our collective faith can unite us

By Nelson Hockert-Lotz
August 4, 2008

Some weeks ago I received an invitation to have Sunday brunch at Baker Books in Dartmouth with “Sundays in America” author Suzanne Strempek Shea.Ms. Shea grew up believing, she explained to the packed bookstore crowd, that as a Catholic if she ever set foot in a Protestant church, the ceiling would fall and she would spend eternity in a very hot place. When Pope John Paul II died, she realized she had strayed far from the roots of her faith — no longer attending church at all — and began a spiritual journey home to her own faith with a quixotic yearlong pilgrimage to churches of other Christian faiths across America.

I was struck by the idea of that falling ceiling recently when I saw a New Yorker cover featuring Barak Obama as a Muslim bumping fists with his wife Michelle, portraying the Democratic nominee-in-waiting and his wife as jihadis taking over the Oval Office. Editor David Remnick said the cartoon was intended to cast a sharp light upon a dark “politics of fear.”

This week, Barak Obama warned of a campaign that stresses his “differentness.” Mr. Obama’s gripping search for racial identity — as a black man raised largely by his white mother in his memoir “Dreams from my Father” — should be on every American’s summer reading list, irrespective of the politics of an election year.

Yet, Ms. Shea’s journey of American faith is a powerful story, too.

As a little girl on her way to church, Ms. Shea said she saw other little girls in her town dressed in their Sunday best headed to other churches. They also believed in God, she knew, but their mistaken doctrine would consign them to hell. Seeking her way back to faith, she began visiting those “other” churches she had been warned about.

“Happy Resurrection Sunday!” was the joyous Easter cry at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Harlem, where she began the quest that would take her to 52 different churches in a year. Gracious fellow worshippers went out of their way to make her feel welcome. On Memorial Day she visited the Cadet Chapel at West Point, to honor the war dead. On the 4th of July, she travelled to the little Maranatha Baptist church in Plains, Ga., where 82-year-old former President Jimmy Carter still teaches Sunday School. She visited the Colorado Springs Cowboy Church, evangelical churches, a chapel in Las Vegas and a Quaker meeting, too.

One week in the fall, she visited Trinity United Church of Christ, where Mr. Obama was baptized, and at least until recently, where he worshipped. Trinity United bills itself as a congregation “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” It is a church dedicated to social justice, yet it is also a church of strivers, a congregation in pursuit of salvation and the American Dream. Sitting in a pew in this church, Mr. Obama heard a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and discovered “the audacity of hope.” In an age when many churches are nearly empty, here Ms. Shea found the pews packed.

She continued her spiritual journey with a visit to St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Baltimore, where the bishop is named Sharon, and the priest is openly gay. Not your parents’ Catholic Church, she wrote, but it might be yours. And on to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the All Saints Parish.

On the final Sunday of her pilgrimage, Ms. Shea found herself stuck in the Denver International Airport Interfaith Chapel with other stranded travelers of unknown denominations and far flung destinations. It was not her plan, but she had found a place of worship as wide open as America.

Ms. Shea said she has returned to Sunday services in her Catholic church with a new appreciation for those with different beliefs.

These are indeed anxious times in America when fear of “differentness” may be used to divide us. Yet, every exercise in democracy is also a journey of faith. And as Ms. Shea reminded us at the bookstore, these are times when our collective faith can unite us: faith in God, for those who seek it, but also faith in one another, and faith in America, too.

© Copyright South Coast Today.

The Valley Advocate

Welcome in This Place: A local author makes her own discoveries about the ways Americans worship

By Maureen Turner
March 27, 2998

Growing up in Three Rivers in the 1960s, Suzanne Strempek Shea had a fairly typical Catholic childhood. Weekdays, she donned a plaid uniform and headed to the local parochial school, where she was taught by nuns, both the book-hurling, skull-rapping variety and the inspiring “fun nun” variety. On Sundays, the Strempeks climbed into the family Chevy for weekly Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church. On the way, they passed one of the town’s non-Catholic churches. Its congregants, Suzanne and her classmates learned in school, were doomed to hell, and its threshold they were warned never to cross, lest they meet a similar fate.As an adult, Strempek Shea knew she could enter one of those “other” churches without the roof crashing down on her head. But she still attended the Catholic church, albeit with mounting reservations.

“While I held on to my parents’ gift of God, it was his house that I came to find problematic,” Strempek Shea writes in her new memoir, Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith (Beacon Press).

Her disillusionment sprang in large part from the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, including, locally, the still-unresolved case of Danny Croteau, an altar boy murdered in 1972, and allegations that the Springfield diocese had covered up information that linked the murder to Richard Lavigne, a Valley priest who subsequently pleaded guilty to molesting other children. “Discovery of the deception practiced by so very many of the men in charge of my religion made me look anew at the place that was my spiritual home,” Strempek Shea writes.

Further complicating matters was Strempek Shea’s diagnosis, in 2000, with breast cancer (chronicled in an earlier memoir, Songs from a Lead-Lined Room). “Some people run to religion when they’re ill; I went in the opposite direction,” she writes. “Fear of death propelled me, as did anger that the tidy little cart of my life had been upset.”

Strempek Shea still attended church but skipped mass, instead seeking out the quiet and solitude of an empty building. And that remained her habit until the death in 2005 of Pope John Paul II, a figure of immeasurable significance in the Polish-American community in which she grew up. Strempek Shea found herself drawn to news coverage of his wake and funeral, her attention focused on the devoted mourners who crowded St. Peter’s Square.

“As a Catholic who in recent years has experienced a disconnect, I felt a true homesickness for that level of passion,” she writes. While Strempek Shea never lost her personal faith (“God and I might have had our disagreements, but I’ve never stopped loving and believing in him,” she writes), she found herself missing the sense of community that organized religion can offer.

“[F]our years after floating away from organized religion, I got the idea that I might want to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community,” she writes. “Rather than sit quietly by myself in an empty church, I would, for a day, be part of a congregation once more.”

A former Springfield Republican reporter and award-winning author of five novels and two previous memoirs, Strempek Shea, naturally enough, approached her pilgrimage as a writing project. Sundays in America tells the story of the year she spent visiting various Protestant churches (“the ‘banned’ Christian faiths of my childhood”).

Strempek Shea didn’t do much research before visiting the churches, preferring to experience each place with the openness of any off-the-street visitor. Nor did she tell the people she met about her project, since she didn’t want them to treat her differently than they would any visitor.

Strempek Shea’s background as a reporter allowed her to experience the services while still taking copious notes, capturing long stretches of sermons and jotting detailed descriptions of church interiors and the people who filled them. She took notes in a series of small black moleskin books that bore a convenient resemblance to prayer books. But, she says, her notetaking drew little notice; in fact, she was happily surprised to find many congregations provide pencils and bulletins with blank pages for congregants to take notes on the sermon.

Indeed, Strempek Shea was only questioned about her notetaking once, at a Rhode Island evangelical church where one congregant who sniffed her out as a reporter—and who, she notes, bore a striking resemblance to the Cheers character Cliff Clavin—yelled at her from the pulpit. “You better get your story straight. God knows what you’re doing,” he scolded.

“I’m in church and being yelled at, something that hasn’t happened to me since third grade, when Roseann Gondek and I had a giggling fit during First Communion practice,” writes Strempek Shea, who managed to escape the service without further confrontation.

Strempek Shea’s journey—and book—began in a decidedly warmer atmosphere: Harlem’s New Mount Zion Baptist Church, where she and her husband, Tom Shea, a Springfield Republican columnist, visited on Easter Sunday, 2006.

Catching a glimpse of fellow churchgoers entering the church that morning, Strempek Shea knew this was going to be a novel experience, even on the most superficial level. These worshipers were “dressed in the kind of glitzy attire I am more used to seeing on parents of the bride than on people heading to church”—certainly not to a Catholic church.”Catholic chic,” she writes, “has changed drastically in my lifetime, the meaning of Sunday best morphing from suits and ties for men and nylons and dresses and even gloves for women to a unisex combo of baggy Levi’s and Red Sox hoodies.”

Not that Strempek Shea particularly minds. “Attire certainly can be a way of honoring your creator, but in this day and age of shrinking church attendance, might it not be more important to celebrate that someone has shown up at all rather than that she’s shown up in Gucci?” she writes.

What Strempek Shea went looking for was a welcoming community, and a service filled with joy and celebration. That’s what she found at Mount Zion, from the moment she and Tom entered the building to warm greetings from the finely dressed congregants.

Then the service began. “The organ kicks in at a punchy pace and heads throughout the church nod as the choir fills the front and faces the congregation in three long, loose lines. The congregation, now standing, claps, shimmies, raises arms, agitates tambourines. From the balcony on down, throughout the church, nearly everyone sings along: Be praised forever. Be praised forever. Be praised forever, and ever more …”

By the end of the service, Strempek Shea had held hands with strangers, watched uniformed nurses hand out paper fans and tend to fainters and those otherwise emotionally overcome, and shouted out her own “Amens!” in response to the pastor’s dynamic sermon.

“I’m sold,” Strempek Shea writes. “This is, in short, fun. You can move. You can be moved.”

Mount Zion set the bar high for Strempek Shea as she spent the next 51 weeks traveling the country. In a recent interview, she described the not-especially scientific process she used to draw up her itinerary. With about 2,500 Protestant denominations in the U.S., “I had a lot to choose from,” she says.

Sometimes convenience guided her choices. She picked some churches because they were near friends she wanted to visit, some because they were close to places she was already planning to travel, some because they were in cities where Southwest Airlines was having a good sale that weekend. When Tom began experiencing inexplicable (and, fortunately, short-lived) health problems that summer, she stuck to churches within a quick driving distance from home.

Along the way, Strempek Shea worshiped with Shakers and Quakers, Baptists and Episcopalians, Christian Scientists and Mormons. Some churches she chose for their novelty: a San Francisco church built around the music of John Coltrane; a non-denominational Cowboy Church in Colorado Springs, which held special appeal for Strempek Shea, a lifelong wannabe cowgirl.

Other churches were chosen for their relevance to current events. Volunteering with Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Strempek Shea visited a Mississippi Presbyterian congregation that was founded to help rebuild the area, and where the worshipers sat on folding chairs with “FEMA” written across the back.

On Memorial Day, she visited the West Point Cadet Chapel, where she appreciated the sermon but was saddened by the absence of any mention of the many West Point graduates who died in war. “But why should the subject of death be brought up here,” she writes, “when the government forbids publication or broadcast of images of caskets returning home from Iraq, and whose commander in chief has yet to attend a single funeral for any of the 2,474 soldiers killed there in the 1,170 days the war has been waged as of this writing?” Before they left, Strempek Shea paid her own tribute, visiting the grave of one of the war dead, a 24-year-old named Laura Walker who was killed in Afghanistan.

Other churches had celebrity appeal. Strempek Shea traveled to a Baptist congregation in South Carolina to hear its visiting preacher, Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, and to Chicago to worship at the United Church of Christ attended by Barack Obama. (The candidate wasn’t there that Sunday, nor was the pastor whose controversial statements have lately caused much agitation for the Obama campaign.) In Memphis, Strempek Shea visited a Baptist church founded by R and B legend Al Green, where the celebratory atmosphere within the modest church tempered her disappointment that Green wasn’t preaching that day.

Another Sunday found Strempek Shea at the Baptist church in Plains, Ga., founded by Jimmy Carter, who teaches an adult Sunday school class “unless he’s off shaming the slothful rest of us … by building houses for the poor, teaching college, or preventing blindness,” she writes. Strempek Shea appreciated the former president’s candid, humble teaching style but was sorely disappointed to hear Carter—a “civil rights icon,” she notes—speaking out against gay marriage.

And at a Thanksgiving service at a Cape Cod Baptist church attended mostly by Mashpee Wampanoags, Strempek Shea was saddened to hear the minister indiscriminately describe Muslims as terrorists. “This makes no sense to me,” she writes. “Wouldn’t these people, of all minorities, avoid stereotyping others? And how about the black pastor who’s doing the preaching? Has his heritage been without misery due to discrimination? What I’m hearing from the pulpit, the scalding stream of intolerance, is heating this chilly church in which I sit beside a black guy and two rows behind a Native American woman.”

Strempek Shea’s sense of social justice shaped many of her reactions to the various congregations she visited. “[A] big part of these trips [was] finding out what other people believe and who—if anyone—they feel is unworthy to worship next to them,” she writes. In many churches, she was disappointed by explicit anti-gay sentiments, whether in the form of outright condemnation or qualified “acceptance” that only welcomes gay people if they deny or feel apologetic for who they are.

Most of all, Strempek Shea balked at how many churches traffic in notions of an angry God and damnation for unrepentant sinners. Churches aren’t alone in their dependence on the galvanizing power of fear, Strempek Shea notes, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign ad featuring a sleeping child and asking voters whom they’d want answering a 3 a.m. phone call at the White House. “Isn’t that how people get to you when they really want to get to you?” Strempek Shea points out.

But certainly, it wasn’t the way to get to Strempek Shea’s heart. On a visit to Calvary’s Light Church in Three Rivers—one of the mysterious Protestant churches she passed by as a child—Strempek Shea was happy to see the roof stay in place but disappointed to hear a message based on hell and damnation.

“The theology of fear is the foundation of this church, too. It doesn’t scare me, it simply scares me away,” she writes. “[T]o me, this type of message … doesn’t feel like faith, but like anger and intolerance. And religion furthering negatives rather than love is more frightening that the most swiftly falling ceiling.”

To Strempek Shea, a church should be a place of refuge and peace, not fear. “I never liked that sort of approach,” she says. “When I was a child and a priest was yelling from the pulpit—even if it was in Polish, I knew what it was. And I didn’t like it. This isn’t the house for that. This is the house where we’re all supposed to love everybody. We’re all in the same boat.”

Not surprisingly, Strempek Shea found herself especially drawn to congregations that reached out to people often excluded from more traditional churches. In Richmond, Virginia, for instance, she celebrated at a church that caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Watching the pastor warmly embrace each person as he or she came to the altar to receive communion, Strempek Shea was profoundly moved.

“Who wouldn’t want these people? Who wouldn’t want this community?” she writes. “I nearly tie myself to a chair leg with my backpack strap, so badly do I want to be standing up there in a circle of God’s children, being told I am loved and wanted and, above all, okay just the way God made me.”

As the weeks of Strempek Shea’s year of Sundays passed, she writes, a sort of composite ideal church emerged: “… a community that welcomed me warmly, didn’t give a whit about my politics or lifestyle, gave tons of whits about the social justice needs locally and beyond, contained little to no hierarchy, allowed congregants a say in decisions large and small, offered a spiritual message inspired by love rather than fear, and did this all in an art-filled space that rang with awesome music.”

While Strempek Shea is unflinching in her critiques of Christian churches that spread shamelessly anti-Christian messages, she approached each new church with an impressively open mind and an open heart. That allowed her to find something positive— a “souvenir,” she calls it—in just about every place she visited: moving music, welcoming congregants, a sermon that made her think about an old parable in a new way.

“I tried not to condemn anyone,” she says. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful. I didn’t want to laugh about what anyone thinks.”

A year after her pilgrimage ended, Strempek Shea still considers herself a Catholic. “That’s how I see myself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go visiting, or see what other people are up to in their churches,” she says. She still spends many of her Sundays visiting churches of other denominations, and she retains a soft spot for churches, of any denomination, when they’re empty. “They’re very peaceful places,” she says. “It’s not just a building. It’s a place of peace.”

For all her inquiring, Strempek Shea never questioned her personal faith. “I think I stayed with God rather than religion—which I think is what wrecks God for a lot of people,” she says.

Among many inspiring, joyful places she visited on her journey was Baltimore’s St. Sebastian’s, a breakaway Catholic church for worshipers who feel unwelcome in the traditional Catholic church. On the day Strempek Shea attended, the openly gay pastor preached against discrimination, while the congregation sang a hymn with the chorus “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”

“Unabashed love is as much the structure of St. Sebastian’s as the wood and bricks and mortar,” Strempek Shea writes. “And shouldn’t that be the first fact in any church that claims to serve God?”

© Copyright The Valley Advocate.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Author gets firsthand look at Protestant Christianity

By Robin Farmer
July 26, 2008

Suzanne Strempek Shea, author of “Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith,” visited 50 diverse churches in 30 states to get a better understanding of contemporary Protestant Christianity.Tomorrow, she will speak and sign books at Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, which is featured in her book. Shea talks about why she embarked on her journey and what she discovered.

What prompted you to write the book?

Because I was raised Catholic and am Polish-American, I had a strong interest in the telecasts of the wake and funeral of Pope John Paul II back in April of 2005.

The fervency of the mourners was what really hit me, though, and got my writer’s brain thinking in a few different directions — about my feelings for my religion, and about the fact that I didn’t know a heck of a lot about any others.

Back in that Catholic upbringing, the nuns and priests told us that if we ever entered any other type of church, the roof would fall in on us and we’d go to hell. At age 48, I thought I’d take my chances and decided to spend a year finding out just what goes on every Sunday in the rest of Christianity.

Why did you select Easter as the day to start and end your journey?

Easter is a major holy day for Christians. For Polish Catholics, it’s even bigger than Christmas, and it seemed like a logical day on which to start this new project, when I might get to be part of an extra special liturgy.

I certainly got that on the first Easter Sunday, which is the first chapter. As for the second Easter, and the final chapter, it was quite different, and an example of that whole thing about God laughing when you make plans.

Talk about your visit to Richmond’s Metropolitan Community Church.

Because gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual people are not always welcome or comfortable in the religion in which I was raised, I was interested in visiting an MCC church, where they, and anyone else who wants to enter . . . are most welcome.

I really was blown away by the palpable love I felt during the service, which, due to some structural problems at the church, took place that day in the basement.

I looked around and was struck by the fact that his congregation happened to be meeting in a room where we normally throw things we don’t want or need or like, but here were God’s people, too.

The communion service, during which couples or entire families formed a prayer circle with the pastor before receiving, was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

How has writing the book affected your faith?

It’s brought me a lot closer to God. Over and again in the testifying portion of many of the services during the year, I heard people telling how God had been with them during a job interview the previous week, or how he was going to be with them when they went to a doctor’s appointment in the coming week, or how he was next to them as a new baby was born into the family.

Too many Catholics leave God inside the building when they close the church door on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning. I really was struck by the numbers who spoke who invite God along everywhere they go, every day of the week. It was a great reminder to do that!

What did you learn from your yearlong trip to 50 Protestant churches in 30 states?

I think everyone should stick their head outside their own doors once in awhile. I now hear from Catholics who say they received the same warnings that I did, and from Protestants who say they were warned to not go into Catholic churches.

How are we going to learn about one another if we stay where we’ve always been?

No roofs fell in, I’ve yet to plummet to hell, and I’ve learned a whole lot about the depth and breadth of Christian faith and worship in this country, at top volume in Joel Osteen’s 16,000-seat megachurch, or without a sound in a Philadelphia Quaker Meeting House, in grand buildings like West Point’s hilltop cadet chapel, and within the rubble of a historic Episcopal church on Maui.

I’d really encourage others to visit at least one new church as they travel, or stay home, this summer.

What church touched you the most during your yearlong road trip?

I know I’ll be in your city on Sunday, to return to Richmond Metropolitan Community Church, but I have to say my experience there really sticks out due to the total love and acceptance I felt that one Sunday morning. And isn’t love and acceptance what God’s all about?

Why didn’t you visit other faith communities?

Growing up, I didn’t know about Jews, Muslims, anyone other than us Catholics and “them” Protestants, the rest of Christianity. And we were warned to stay away from “them.” So Protestant churches were my destination.

© Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Boston Globe

An alienated Catholic studies devotion

By Rich Barlow
April 12, 2008

In 2005, Suzanne Strempek Shea, a lifelong Catholic who felt alienated from her church, sat mesmerized by the televised images of Pope John Paul II’s wake. She envied the mourners’ passion and wondered how widespread such religious devotion was. Thus was launched a yearlong pilgrimage to 50 different worship services around the country. The Bondsville author’s new book, “Sundays in America” (Beacon Press), details those visits to Christian churches.She decided to focus on Protestant churches, bypassing non-Christian “majors” like Judaism and Islam partly to contain the project, and avoiding Roman Catholic churches, with which she was already quite familiar. She found the churches as diverse as you’d expect – some dynamic in their devotion, some boring; some rigidly fundamentalist, others less biblically literalist and open to gays, women, and others.

Shea read from the book this week at one of the profiled churches, King’s Chapel in downtown Boston, and plans to give a presentation on April 29 at Harvard Coop in Cambridge.

Excerpts from an interview last week follow.

Q. Some people might read Wikipedia on other religions. Why did you need to enter their physical spaces?
A. Being a writer who loves detail and setting, I thought it would be a much more rich experience for research and a lot more fun than just sitting down with someone saying, “What’s it like to be an Episcopalian?” I think I bring more to the reader [that way]. I didn’t notify the places that I was coming. I didn’t want that treatment of, “Oh, we have to be on our best behavior.”

Q. It seems odd that Catholic mourners’ passion for their dead pope led you to Protestant churches.
A. As I’m watching this wake incessantly – at home, at my mother’s, when I get up in the middle of the night – another part of my thinking broke off and said: “Well, how about other religions? Do the Methodists have a pope?” Tommy [her husband] was brought up the same way – Do not enter these [Protestant] places.

Q. He was raised Catholic?
A. So much so that a good part of his childhood was spent waiting to be pope.

Q. I wasn’t surprised by the theologies you encountered in the various churches. Were you?
A. What surprised me was how similar a lot of the liturgies were to the Catholic liturgy. I tell the story about an uncle who went to church in England. It wasn’t until he was leaving and looking at the sign that he realized he had been in an Anglican church.

I was disappointed in Jimmy Carter, getting to hear him teach Sunday school [at his Georgia Baptist church]. I thought Jimmy Carter would be a little more open. [The former president argued against gay marriage.]

Q. That triggers a question: Is it fair to judge a church by one visit? Maybe he was just off his game that day.
A. I liken this to if I came to your house. Could I say I was welcomed warmly, I was made to feel at home, they talked about interesting things? They always tell kids you have one chance to make a first impression. [Churches] never know who’s sitting there; somebody who might be searching.

Q. Did your research make you curious about those non-Christian “majors?”
A. I think you could keep going with this, definitely. I hit just the tip of the iceberg for Christianity.

Q. Where did you wind up, churchwise and spiritually, after your road trip?
A. I’m probably more spiritual than I was. A very popular [Catholic] church around here has a 25-minute Mass, and it is packed. We want to get in and out. In many of the churches I went to, by the time the service had begun, they’d already been to a Bible study, women’s group, church meeting, and afterwards there was going to be a coffee and their kids were going to get together. This was their whole day.

I go to church very often, but I love to sit in there and meditate and pray and be grateful. I don’t really attend services.

Q. I take it you did not shed the spiritual disconnect that you felt with the Catholic Church?
A. I didn’t, but I think I’ve grown closer to God. I have seen, Sunday after Sunday, so many ways that God has worked in untold lives.

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Book Club Questions

  1. Due to childhood warnings, Suzanne Strempek Shea never worshipped at any church other than Catholic ones. Can you relate to what she was told, whatever your religious background? Is there a place or a group of people or a custom you’ve never familiarized yourself with due to such warnings – regarding religion or anything else?
  2. Travel is a wonderful opportunity to try something new. Have you ever sampled a different church while on the road for business or pleasure? What were your experiences?
  3. Have you visited any of the churches written about in Sundays in America? If so, what were your experiences there. If not, which would you like to most visit, and why. Which would you stay away from, and why? Is there a church you wish she had visited? Which one and why would you have liked to read a chapter on that particular one?
  4. If you belong to a church, what do you think the author would have found if she visited yours? What aspect would you have wanted to show off? What would you have hoped she didn’t notice?
  5. Shea didn’t notify churches that she was visiting, or that she would be writing about her visit. Do you think she should have? Do you think the experience would have been different if she had – do you think a church or congregation would display different behavior if it thought many others would be reading about it?