I’m a nonbeliever who loves to visit churches – all kinds of churches: massive Gothic cathedrals, plain Quaker meetinghouses, Buddhist pagodas. I go, not just to see the architecture but to experience the spirit of a place, as I went on Sunday to Riverside Church, which rises above the Hudson River on Harlem’s Morningside Heights.
Although modeled on some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals, there is something uniquely American about Riverside. It embodies the paradoxes of our history. Everything about it is enormous, from its 392-foot tower, the tallest in America, to its vaulted nave and intricate stained glass windows. Conceived and built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., it was financed by the greatest of the robber baron fortunes; yet it has been a progressive, activist force for 87 years. It counts more than 40 ethnic groups among its worshippers. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. first preached against the Vietnam War, the sermon, some argue, that got him killed; here that Jackie Robinson was laid to rest, eulogized by Jesse Jackson; here that William Sloane Coffin, a CIA-agent-turned-freedom-rider-and-peace-activist, preached for ten years, and then left to pursue nuclear disarmament fulltime.
On Sunday, in a full church, we were invited to say the Lord’s Prayer in “the language or version of your heart” and to reflect on the words of Mother Teresa, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” It’s a place that does not ask me to embrace a doctrine that excludes all others, but urges me to believe in something larger than my own small world.