The Vulnerable, Liturgical Space of James Chapel at Union Seminary NYC

James Chapel at Union
James Chapel at Union

This past fall I walked back into a liturgical space that formed, birthed, agitated, healed, nurtured, and spit me out into the world: James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary in NYC.

I started going to chapel in James Chapel my very first week at Union.  Almost instantly I woke-up.  Never mind the fact I had just left Atlanta, Georgia, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and the Open Door Community where I got my world rocked. James Chapel kept peeling off the layers of privilege and self-protection. I woke-up to myself, the experience of worship and the Creative Force at work in liturgy.

Throughout my three years at Union, James Chapel became this vulnerable space for me where I started to expand the perception of myself. I gained a sense of worthiness and belonging. James Chapel pushed me to let go of who I thought I was,  the binary living of head and heart, and led me to start living as me. The space consistently held agitation and healing, comfort and disruption on the personal, interior level with the political, global demand for justice.

For the first time I saw people crying in worship. Then I started to cry in worship. And I realized tears became a sign the Spirit was at work and liturgy was this consistent experience to witness this Holy work.

I was back in James Chapel in early October to help plan and lead worship services for Union Days--Union's reunion days.

Opening worship. Check. Dinner liturgy. Check. Two workshops on worship. Check.

Liturgical beauty.
Liturgical beauty.

I was hesitant to go into worship on Friday at noon. I was tired. I had been "on" for 2 days. I wanted to be by myself. Yet I pushed through, knowing I needed to suck every life giving particle I could out of the chapel space.  I went into the space, and grabbed a chair in order to sit in the back by myself.

Union alum, David Lewicki, was leading worship that focused on memory sharing. Instead of a sermon (thank you!) David invited folks to share memories. David started by sharing the memory of holding his daughter's hand for the first time.  People continued in that vein and soon it flipped to sharing memories of James Chapel.

  • I remember making bookshelves out of the old pews.
  • I remember crying in this space.
  • I remember being in here for the first time.
  • I remember sitting in this chapel and feeling totally inadequate.
James Chapel
James Chapel

Ten, twenty, fifty years later Union folks were still processing experiences of James Chapel. And the memories were vulnerable ones---revealing how the space holds the search for belonging, worthiness, and purpose. I was struck on how those stories and feelings were so readily available within folks to share and be seen again.

As the memories unfolded, my own memories started to come back to me, and tears started to flow down my cheeks. It was the kind of crying that makes me snort the snot coming out of my nose.

Once again, the liturgy of James Chapel took me to my most vulnerable. I was touched by the memories of others and how those memories let me access the deepest parts of me--my own  memories, struggles, and challenges while at Union. The continued challenge of living as me rather than expectations I put on myself.

The discipline of self-differentiation and letting the Holy and the stories of Jesus define me rather than the socially constructed, Imperial ways of the Church.  The work to tame ego-driven reactions when someone says, "I didn't like that in worship" and my first, internal reaction is "what the fuck is the point of all of this." That's Empire in my head.

As I sat in James Chapel this past October, the Spirit did the work again of peeling the layers off.  The decades of vulnerability that were embodied in that space let me let go. I let myself sink into my emotions. I stopped wondering "why the hell am I crying?" and let liturgy connecting to the past and present span of God's time do the work that was needed.