A Catholic Skips Mass for Communion in the Streets

By Scott M. Korb

I skipped Mass again last Sunday. While I imagined newly-landed RNC delegates from across the country donning their top-notch Sunday-go-to-meeting outfits to keep their Sabbath holy in the city’s churches, we met on the corner of 15th Street and 8th Avenue as a group of ragtag friends with the idea of keeping ours a bit holier—whether we all liked it or not.

Late-August mornings in New York can be unbearable for regular churchgoers. We grow tired and sweaty after an hour-plus of paper fanning. In the summer, Catholic churches here are usually more empty than full, and parishes adjust their Mass schedules to accommodate low turnout. Much to his credit, my priest often keeps it brief while most of his congregation is off summering in the Hamptons. Growing up in a small, conservative farming town, I never skipped Mass, people didn’t know summer was a verb, and nothing but a noon kickoff to a mid-November Green Bay Packers game could keep a homily to a few choice words“Go team, amen.” In August, the doors of my breezy hometown church were kept wide open while giant electric fans circulated air well enough to keep us all comfortably cool. Still, weather-wise, August in small-town Wisconsin is nothing like what you find in the city. New York City streets generate their own wavy heat, the subway stirs up miniature cyclones to lift skirts, and high-traffic stores blow A/C breezes to advertise just how refreshing a little shopping can be. It was hot last Sunday.

We were about twenty strong. Of those, four or five of us might have professed a belief in God in a more or less traditional way. Most of us had gone to church as kids, and many of us had lapsed. I’d attended Easter Mass with three of these people, and had kept regular church dates with two others for months. We had a Muslim among us. One girl in the group leaned in to ask me during the march if she could come to church with me sometime; she hadn’t been for years and didn’t know a single other churchgoer in the city. I figure she and some others would probably have called themselves agnostics — in its popular sense of maintaining a vague belief while remaining aloof from tradition or practice, as opposed to claiming a firm middle place between theists and atheists where we just cannot know about God. Finally, though, together we were largely a bunch of highly opinionated gnostics, or knowers, and by no means in the capital-G, ancient mystical sense, but more simply, and less religiously: Whether or not we know God, we all seem to know about God. And we have beliefs and attitudes about God. The streets were filled with us gnostics; while I stood in front of Madison Square Garden a motherly police captain told me we must have been some 400,000 strong, all of us skipping church.

There were signs—some cleverer than others. The signs bobbed on cardboard tubes and we mocked: “Who would Jesus bomb?” “Repent GOP! The end is near!” “In God We Lust!” We seemed to know our Bible and we scolded our President for not knowing his: “Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Oil!” Protesters dressed in lion and lamb costumes announced: “BUSH! Try Reading Your Bible Again!” They reminded him that, as it says in the Good Book, “The Lion Shall Dwell With The Lamb.” We speculated over the President’s desire, if not his basic ability, to read Scripture: “Me Read?” said a thought bubble over a comic-book caricature of Bush, “I Get Mine Straight From God.” A bona fide Christian, identifiable by the cross he’d affixed to the back of his sign, had written in a ragged script: “BACK! OH YE CORRUPT MINIONS OF THE EVIL ONE! BACK TO THE SULFROUS CAVERNS FROM WHENCE YE CAME!”

This was our jeremiad. We riffed on the moral authority of the religious right: “Abstinence in 2004-2008. No Bush! No Dick!” A group of women, with a member or two in drag, stood on the south side of 34th Street with a banner that read “Church Ladies for Choice” and sang over the protestations of three literal Bible-thumpers: “Jesus loves the white male fetus … the white male fetus of the world!” I spotted a “BUSH/SATAN 2004” button. A group calling themselves the “Apocalypse Crusade” marched the route on hobbyhorses, wearing crusader armor and ghostly white face paint, each of them portraying a member of the Bush administration on his Christian high horse, mustering in for another round of Christian wars. The most impressive demonstration of the march was a funeral procession of hundreds of flag-draped caskets honoring every soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. An aerial photo published in the TimesMonday morning would show this public funeral as at once heartfelt ritual mourning and an angry rebuke.

Certainly, to know about God is not the same as to know or have faith in God. But, what we gnostics share, believers and non-believers alike, is a sense that much of religious language is not just beautiful in its imagery and broad in its reach, but also just in its teachings. In the Christian version, justice is nothing more and nothing less than actual compassion, loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. As a result, we grow furious when teachings such as this are misused; we are right and capable to reclaim compassion from the “Compassionate Conservatives.” To know about God is to know that God cannot belong to those who believe in God most fiercely, without doubt, or without question. Even without faith in God, we can keep the Sabbath holier than they can. And we needn’t put on our Sunday best or fold our hands. We don’t even need to be clever. We had all gathered in opposition to our President’s faith in our having turned some corner as a nation, that the war, the economy, our growing joblessness, etc., etc, is on the mend. Knowing we haven’t turned any such corner, we gnostics held a protest with faith and hope in turning the tables in Washington, D.C.

By the end of the day, the heat had sent some of my group packing. One friend just had to find a toilet. The girl who asked me about attending Mass got lost in the crowd. So, I finished the march alone. At Union Square I walked along briefly with two older women, no doubt real church ladies who also actually skipped church to be here. They were carrying a large painting. One of these women, Lili Sanchez-Ruiz, had depicted Jesus at his angriest. Her friend introduced her as the artist.

Sanchez-Ruiz’s painting, “The Turning of the Tables in Washington, D.C.,” updated the Gospel story of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple with the Bush administration in the role of the moneychangers. Perhaps not as clever (and certainly not as crass) as the call for abstinence over the next four years, nor as elaborate as the five horsemen I’d passed two hours earlier, Lili’s painting was not just in the same spirit, but it somehow spoke the very same language. It was, like so many of us, at once mocking and knowing.

Scott M. Korb’s last essay for The Revealer was “Real Live Preacher.” He’s also an editor ofKilling the Buddha; read his latest on holy basketball in Brooklyn. 

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