Friday, January 28, 2011

The Roots of Community

Last Sunday I helped chaperone a group of 18 teens from my church on a visit to another church in Oakland, part of the nine-month long confirmation program. The program's name, "Confirm Not Conform," sort of says it all - it's designed to let the kids sort out what's important to them and to make confirmation a choice, not an obligation. It's the kind of groovy, inclusive program that always makes me happy to be a member of my church.

True Vine Church meets at the Grand Lake movie theater in Oakland on Sunday morning, a massive Art Deco jewel of a movie house at the edge of Lake Merritt. The kids perhaps felt a bit sorry when they heard we'd be visiting a church that doesn't even have a building big enough to house its members. What they - and I - figured out on Sunday is that even the massive space that is the Grand Lake's main auditorium was barely big enough to accommodate all the joy that the True Vine congregation stirs up when they get together.

The first hint that it was slightly different from our quiet, snug Episcopal sanctuary in the Oakland hills was the sight of the five piece band up front, complete with bass, lead guitar, 2 drum sets and electric keyboard. When the Praise Choir rolled out I was a bit surprised - only six or seven people, when I'd envisioned a full gospel choir. Turns out we in the movie seats-turned-church pews were the rest of the choir, and we spent the first 40 minutes "resting on our feet" and singing along, clapping, and dancing.

I am trying to think of the last time I got that sweaty and winded in my forty plus years of attending Episcopal church services, and I'm coming up blank. We're better known for our expert mixing of gin and tonics.

Throughout the service the predominantly African-American congregants hugged us, patted us on the back, asked us if we needed anything, welcomed us and welcomed us again. Then Pastor Zachary Carey stood up to talk, reminding us that we are more like the redwood groves than the solitary oaks, our roots interconnected and our survival dependent on our community. 

At True Vine, the community is accustomed to being denigrated in the news, reminded about the drug problems and poverty and crime and substandard education that plague Oakland. The church tackles those issues head on, through work with prisons, clothing and food pantry outreach, mentoring for younger members of the church.

But, the pastor reminded us, there is also so much to praise. 

He called down a congregant, a 24 year old woman who is all-but-dissertation for her PhD, and had us give her a "hand praise" (that's clapping, for you Episcopal readers.)  Another woman, a pediatric surgeon, was recognized, as well as young men who are going to school and working in the church. 

And, as Pastor Zach pointed out with a laugh, we were all meeting on a Sunday in January - and it was 65 degrees outside. If you can't feel grateful for anything else in Oakland, there's always the weather. 

I looked up and down the rows at our kids who were smiling, bobbing, genuinely touched by the friendship they were offered and hopefully taking a broader view of what constitutes spiritual practice - and the boundaries of their Oakland community - out into the world with them.

In the middle of his song "Walking in Memphis"  Marc Cohn gets asked "Tell me, are you a Christian, child?"and he sings back, "Ma'am, I am tonight!" Spend a morning at True Vine and whether you're a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or none of the above, you'll say you're a True Viner too.

You're either going to love or hate this Cher cover of the Cohn song. Let me know. And remember to cherish your wide spreading redwood roots this weekend -

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