I wouldn’t have gone to New York City if it wasn’t for Sarah Ruth.
Excluding family vacations, I have been to New York City more than anywhere else in the world. When I was 15 my sister moved there right out of high school, and I visited her many times. The summer before college I lived on Manhattan for six weeks while attending classes at the School for Film and Television. I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and St. John the Divine. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and caught a show at the Village Vanguard. I’ve done the NYC thing. I had planned to skip it altogether.
But then Sarah Ruth got a summer internship at Saveur Magazine. Sarah Ruth was one of my best friends in college. We met in our improv troupe, and spent several quarters waking up early every Wednesday morning to get waffles at one of the dinning halls on campus. Wednesday Waffles were a good time to share all the things we didn’t want to say to other people, usually because they had to do with our problems with said people. We discussed our various tricky situations and tried to help each other out. Some Wednesdays we’d both be too tired to talk and we’d just stare blankly at our strawberries and whipped cream. I always loved our Waffle Wednesdays.
After graduation we would still get together occasionally for waffles. It was never on campus and it rarely included actual waffles, but the point was the same. We met and gabbed and felt better for it. Eventually Sarah Ruth moved out of state, and waffles could only happen every few months when she came back to town to visit friends and family. So I knew that if I had the chance to see Sarah Ruth while she was in NYC, I needed to take it. There was no telling how long it would be until the next waffle opportunity.
I sat on the New Jersey Turnpike for more than 20 minutes, trying to get to the front of the toll line. I was being aggressive, but I couldn’t change the behavior of the people in front of me who seemed hell bent on letting every cheating taxi cab cut to the front of the line. I was waiting so long and the sun was so hot my car started to overheat. At times I thought I might never get out of New Jersey at all.
Once I emerged from the tunnel onto the streets of Manhattan, it was time for red alert. Having been a pedestrian in NYC many times, I can say with confidence that it feels much more dangerous be a driver. You have less control. There are bikers and walkers and motorcyclists, and not a one of them has to deal with the same physical restrictions. On Manhattan everything is small, and everything is moving. It was like learning to drive again, trying hopelessly to expand my spatial awareness to accommodate the full size of the vehicle. Every passing bicycle felt too close, every moving pedestrian felt too fast. I had lived in my car for more than two months, and suddenly I felt like I had no idea where the thing started and ended.
In my own biased opinion, I did well. I didn’t run into anything or get turned around. I didn’t get honked at or feel the need to honk. And I managed to get to the other side of the island, approximately 12 blocks away, in less than 30 minutes. It went well, and I can safely say I understand what they mean about driving in New York City. I can also safely say that I never need to experience that again.
I paid a toll to get out of New Jersey, and another one to get onto Manhattan. There was a third toll to get off the island and into Queens, and another one to get out of Queens the next day. In total, I spent $30.15 trying to get through the city. I can’t imagine how commuting is even possible.
Sarah Ruth got an apartment through AirBnB that just happened to be blocks away from where my sister used to live. We hung out at her apartment for awhile before heading to a local diner for some long overdue waffles. Like every waffle conversation, we ran the gamut from frivolous problems on the subway to the serious problems of marriage. It was the first time I’d seen her since she broke up with her long-term boyfriend. It was the first time she had seen me since I changed jobs. After dinner we walked back to her place and moved on to another important topic of conversation: church.
I needed somewhere to go for church the following morning, and Sarah Ruth was trying to help me decide. There was a huge, non-denominational church in Times Square that intrigued me. But that would mean a long subway ride first thing in the morning. There were a few churches just down the street from the apartment, and Sarah Ruth offered to join me if I decided to go somewhere nearby. We got out our computers and began looking up the various churches online. That’s when we found Pastor Marnie.
The website for The Rock Church was certainly the most developed of the churches we looked at, and its reviews were the most … passionate. On Yelp it seemed that the church was only getting one star or five star reviews with nothing in between. The five stars praised the congregation for being so close to God. The one stars said it was a money-grubbing cult and a construction eye-sore. The church had an active blog with posts by someone named Marnie, and I pulled up a video of her called “Life with Marnie – Health Tip.”
Sarah Ruth and I were in love. Marnie’s accent was so thick and her talk so rambling. “Like a dog. An angry dog. Some dogs are nice. Most dogs are nice. I love animals.” We were sold. We had to check out the perpetually under construction house that Marnie called home.
The Rock Church operates inside of the sort of huge old theater that makes you pine for earlier days. You look around and think, “This place could really be something if they just fixed it up a bit.” We were greeted when we walked in the door and found our way to the center of the folding chairs. The size of the building made the place seem empty, and it felt as though we were the only ones who didn’t have something else to do. Over a dozen people stood near the door, preparing various things and talking with one another. Several others were getting the light and sound booth ready and setting up the cameras. People were on stage, walking back and forth in front of a giant “I heart Jesus” sign. A choir was collecting off to the side. When I think about it, there were probably already 100 people there when we arrived, but the church felt empty since only a handful of us were actually sitting in the chairs. Sarah Ruth and I waited, constantly turning our necks to the back to see if anyone else was going to show up, or if we were to sit in a sea of empty chairs the whole time.
After the token promotional video on the big screen, the service began. The band started playing and the congregation started singing. I didn’t know the tune but I did my best. There was a woman on stage who seemed to be in charge, but it clearly wasn’t Pastor Marnie. Sarah Ruth and I whispered our disappointment.
“Maybe Marnie’s not here every week?” I asked. Sarah Ruth shrugged.
A few songs went by, and another woman came on stage. It was like we had seen the warmup act, and were now moving on to the headliner. But there was still no Marnie. We sang more, we prayed some, we stayed standing the whole time and most everyone had their praise hands up like in those videos advertising Christian Rock compilation CDs on television at 2AM.
Finally, after more than 20 minutes had passed, it was time for the main event: Pastor Marnie took the stage. Her heels were high and her skirt was long. She prayed and talked, back and forth. I had no idea what was coming next or what was typical for the service. We heard Marnie preach. She referenced being “at the point of death four times,” but gave no further information on the subject. She introduced a man who came out to do a sermon of his own. And they passed the collection plate – twice.
But more than anything else, what stood out to me at The Rock Church was their use of the word amen. Most people know amen as the word you use to end a prayer. In more vocal congregations it can be used as a sort of expletive, a way to shout your agreement during a sermon. In common speech you may even hear amen as a strong affirmation of something said, such as using the phrase, “Amen to that.”
At The Rock Church, you use it like a period. It goes at the end of almost every sentence.
Pastor Marnie said amen quite a bit, often posing it as a question to the audience. “…and that’s what you’re really looking for, amen?” We were supposed to say amen back to indicate that we both agreed and were paying attention. To me, this was an acceptable use of the word. I’ve seen the tactic used before. It’s a standard presentation technique.
But then another woman, quite pregnant, took the stage for announcements. Amen became the Valley Girl up-speak that turns every sentence into a rhetorical question.
“…which will start at 7PM on Thursday, amen?”
“…since we had so much fun last year, amen?”
“…we have that going on, amen?”
Over and over again. It started it wear at me. I was reminded of those times in high school when our teachers challenged us to listen for how often our classmates said “like” or “um” in their presentations. Suddenly you can’t hear anything else. Amen, amen, amen. Without end.
On the way out the door both Sarah Ruth and I had to thwart attempts to get our contact information. Luckily we could both honestly say that we wouldn’t be around for much longer, since she was leaving in two weeks and I was leaving in 20 minutes. Our pursuers seemed quite disappointed to hear such a clear explanation for why our info would be useless. I imagine they have arguments ready for most visitor rejections, but “I don’t even live here” is probably less common.
I will say one thing about The Rock Church. It reminded me of the power of following along. At one point during the service, I decided to raise one of my hands up. Just the right one, just a little. Everyone else was doing it, and when visiting churches I take on a very “when in Rome” mentality. And it worked. I enjoyed the songs just a bit more, even though my hand had moved less than six inches. But that six inches says a lot. It says why not. It says let’s go. It says I’m trying. And I know that if I kept listening to Pastor Marnie, she would start to make more and more sense. I know I would start using amen to punctuate my sentences. I know I would greet people at the door and insist on getting their information.
Most people bring these things up when talking about the dangers of herd mentality. And it can be very dangerous. But it’s not inherently detrimental. Herding animals herd for a reason. Herding lets us rely on others, and helps us to make good decisions even when we can’t have all the information. Sometimes religious believers are mocked for following blindly, but that is a trait we all share. The only difference is what you follow. Some people blindly follow God. Some people blindly follow family. Diets, politics, culture, social convention, it’s all there. It’s just waiting to be followed. And sometimes when you make the choice to raise your hand up a little and be part of the crowd, a strange situation becomes a bit more familiar. We’re social animals, and we will always find a herd.