I had only lived in Providence for a month the first time I went to Prospect Park. It was dusk and some boy led me by the hand to the thin strip of grass encased by wrought iron fences on Congdon Street. Although the boy has been forgotten, the view from Prospect will signify Providence for me until the day I die: it is a statue of Roger Williams, the paterfamilias of the state, with arms outstretched, overlooking the city.
As the basis of state lore, Roger Williams came to this little river outpost to escape the religious persecution maligning him in Massachusetts. Many firsts of American religious history happened in Rhode Island. Any local school kid can parrot trivia about the First Baptist Church erected in 1639 in Providence, or go on about Americaís first Jewish temple in Newport. They might even be able to tell you about Anne Hutchinson, who came to the Providence Plantations seeking religious freedom and ended up founder of the town of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island.
Most elementary schools are probably not, however, teaching about Rhode Islandís first Wiccan festival in honor of Samhain, marking one of the great doorways of the Celtic year. I doubt theyíve ever heard of the Kwan Um School of Zen, and if they have, they probably think it has something to do with the Wu-Tang Clan. In honor of the independent spirit upon which this great state was conceived, here is a guide to religion for those seeking to worship in ways a little off the mainstream.
WICCA: FIND A FRIENDLY TREE
Until a few months ago, my only knowledge of Wicca came from the movie The Craft. The film would lead one to believe that Wicca involved lots of rats, snakes, and an eventual trip to an insane asylum. Wicca does involve rats and snakes, but only insofar as they are part of nature and the natural world.
According to www.wicca.com, Wicca "encourages learning and an understanding of the earth and nature, thereby affirming the divinity in all living things." Wiccans are also practitioners of folk magic, which involves herbs, stones, colors, and rivers, among other natural phenomena. The folk magic is used mostly during pagan rituals, and although the use of magic is only one facet of Wiccan practice, the link with witchcraft has given it a bad pop cultural rap (in addition to The Craft, see Felicity). Peter, a self-proclaimed pagan who works at Estas Too on Thayer Street, agrees. "A lot of people have dangerous and erroneous presumptions about witchcraft because of the media," he says.
Because of its focus on nature, there are no specific sites of worship for Wiccans in Rhode Island. Many Wiccans practice the craft individually, and those who practice in covens or groups tend to get together only on major celebrations, like Samhain on October 31 and Beltane on April 30, both of which are festivals to acknowledge the harvest. "Itís a little tricky to get involved," says Peter, "Iíd suggest doing an Internet search first." Sites such as www.witchvox.com can be helpful.
Peter, though, is not technically a Wiccan. "Iím a Celtic neo-pagan," he explains, pushing his curly brown hair away from one eye with black painted fingernails, "but we end up at most of the same functions as the Wiccans." Peter explains that Wicca is a subset of paganism. While neo-pagans follow many of the same rituals as Wiccans, Peter says the specifics are unclear because followers of any of the nature-based religions are fairly autonomous and somewhat secretive. "Most circles that exist are very informal, and thereís a general attitude that people donít necessarily need to know what youíre up to," he says. "Silence requires discipline, and pagans arenít really out to make more pagans . . . I donít go around shoving it down peopleís throats."
CHURCH OF GOD AND SAINTS OF CHRIST
105 Dodge St., Providence, (401) 351-5681
I stumbled on the Church of God and Saints of Christ because on www.providenceri.com, St. Paulís Community Church is listed as "full gospel." This spurred visions of preachers decked out in various hues of orange or yellow, shouting at New England parishioners, just like the Pentecostal ministers hollering at Georgians on early Sunday morning television.
Calling St. Paulís "full gospel," though, is misleading, as Elder William Scott will tell you. "Weíre affectionately called Jewish gospel," Scott tells me. "The nature of worship is through a cappella, but [the service] comes out of several different religious texts." While mainstream Judaism recognizes Jacob as the founder of the religion, the Church of God goes back further, to Abraham, but it also "goes beyond the Old Testament," says Scott. "We accept Jesus as a prophet," because he is a "truth seeker," just like the prophets of the Old Testament.
The Church of God, a traditionally African-American sect, was incorporated in 1896 and follows the teachings of Prophet William S. Crowdy. The Providence branch of the Church of God has been around since 1905, moving around quite a bit. Itís current location on Dodge Street is a large white building, and Elder Scottís office is a wood-paneled affair, covered with pictures of black dignitaries and menorahs with Hebrew lettering etched in their various metals.
As I sat in his sanctum, Scott took out an ancient tape player and played me an example of a Church of God ceremony. Despite the less than stellar recording quality, the harmonies of the service shined through the tapeís distortion. Elder Scott suggests attending services as a first way to get involved in the church. The Church of God observes the same Sabbath as Jews do. "We have services on Friday evenings at 7 p.m. and Saturday mornings at 9," he tells me. Scott adds that he is trying to provide sustenance for widows and orphans, and hopes to create a food storehouse in conjunction with the church. Scottís main objective is to welcome newcomers into his spiritual community: "I want everyone to know that they are welcome, and as a congregation when a person is new, we strive to form a relationship with them . . . our objective is to make people whole."
BELL STREET CHAPEL
5 Bell St., Providence, (401) 273-5678
Within walking distance of St. Paulís sits the Bell Street Chapel. Wealthy landowner James Eddy built it as his personal chapel in 1875, but the first service in the neo-classical building was actually Eddyís funeral in 1891, and it was performed by the first ordained female in Rhode Island, Anna Ganin Spencer. Reverend Stephen Landale tells me that Eddy himself was not "part of any formal religion, though his philosophy was close to the transcendentalists, believing in a God that is close to nature, as well as a God close to Darwin."
The spirit of Eddy seems to live on in the Unitarian Universalist faith, which emphasizes the individualís connection with God. Landale gives me a brief synopsis of Unitarianism: "Itís a liberal, non-credal religious faith with Christian roots. It affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people." As he points out, James Eddyís personal seashell collection adorns the wall outside the sanctuary. Relaxing a bit, Landale gives more of his personal spin on Unitarianism. "The seashell collection doesnít seem out of place to us," he says, looking wistfully at the pale shades of shells from beaches all over the world. "This is spiritual, this is religious. Things donít have to be explicitly religious to be spiritual. It is my belief that we see scripture everywhere ó the word of God in seashells."
As is fairly common with liberal Unitarian Universalists, the Bell Street Chapel has a prominent gay and lesbian contingent, and the congregation last year passed a resolution in support of gay marriage. In 2003, Bell Street passed a resolution opposing the war in Iraq. The decision to pass the earlier resolution was one of the most difficult challenges that Landale has faced as a pastor. "We had to carefully balance the desire and need to seek justice with respecting the views of those in the minority opposition," he says. "We can as a group do something and respect individuals. If the world at large could do this it would be a better place."
Like with most churches, the best way to get involved with the Bell Street Chapel is to attend Sunday services. Landale encourages people to attend the water communion service on September 19 to see what Unitarian Universalism is about. "People bring water from a special place in their lives and add it to a common vase," he says. "They tell where it came from and perform a ritualistic blessing over it. Then the water is used in baby blessings and other rituals. In a sense it is our holy water."
99 Pound Rd., Cumberland, (401) 658-1464
When I walked into the Providence Zen Center, I saw a woman leaving the sprawling grounds after a weeklong retreat. Abbot Chong Hae Sunim asked her if she got what she needed, and the woman, who radiated with the kind of serenity that one might usually see only in northern California, answered softly, "Oh yes, and so much more."
The sight of pagodas in Cumberland is jarring, especially since the Providence Zen Center compound is mere blocks from the strip malls that dot suburban northern Rhode Island. I sat on the roof of the main building of the Zen Center while talking to the abbot. He was repainting the stucco on the building a creamy white and telling me about the importance of ritual in Zen Buddhism. "Zen in general is an investigation into what it is to be a human being," Sunim tells me while his paintbrush glides methodically back and forth against the building. "Itís a way to live compassionately that helps all human beings. Weíre hoping to have a simple practice that helps people to do that."
The Providence Zen Center has a program of mostly meditation, but it also includes chanting, work practice, and yoga-style prostrations. For those interested in hardcore Zen, there are retreats that last anywhere from three days to several months. The retreats involve eight or nine hours of sitting. There is also the option to reside at the Zen Center for those wanting to give themselves completely to Zen practice.
Every Wednesday, the Zen Center offers a free meditation open to the public. Abbot Sunim says that there is only very basic instruction in the Zen Centerís Meditation classes. "Mediation is a do-it-yourself deal," he says. "If people have questions, they can ask the teachers." The abbot says that Buddhism can appeal to people originally born into any religion. "I didnít connect with the religion I was born into," Sunim says, "but meditation is not based on worshipping something ó itís a way to investigate your spirituality."
An investigation of individual spirituality, it seems, is the one thread going through the four aforementioned religious groups. So go sit on a bench in Prospect Park, look at the statute of Roger Williams with arms wide open, and ponder your existence while looking out over a city that has always encouraged the exploration of self.
Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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