09 December 2009

St. Augustine Church

First, a quick apology. I visited St. Augustine on Sunday, but I didn’t get the opportunity to post a write-up until today because I was working on an essay all night Sunday night, and I needed to sleep last night. Also, this was such an incredible experience that I didn’t want to rush through it with a quick post.

But first, a quick digression. I left my dorm around 11:45 to get to St. Augustine’s for 12:30 Mass. I took the Orange Line Metro to Metro Center, hoping to transfer to the Red Line for one stop, to Gallery Place/Chinatown, and then transfer again to the Green/Yellow Line to get to U St./Cardozo. (For those not familiar with the area, here’s a map: http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm) When I got to Metro Center, however, I saw that the next Red Line train was arriving in sixteen minutes. It was 12:00. That would be cutting things awful close, because I still had to ride to Gallery Place, make another transfer to the Green/Yellow, ride to U St., and then walk two blocks to the church. So I made a pretty sneaky move. I left the Metro Center station, and walked five blocks to Gallery Place/Chinatown. I beat the Red Line train there by eight minutes, and I made it to Church with time to spare. I paid an extra $1.35, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid the “walk of shame” into a Church that you’ve never been to before. Sorry if this was a boring story. Coming from an L.A. perspective, I guess it’s the equivalent of taking the 210 freeway instead of the 5 and beating the rush hour traffic.

I was interested in St. Augustine because it describes itself as the “Mother Church of Black Catholics,” and is located in a traditionally African-American neighborhood, around U Street. I was very curious as to what this church would be like. It’s certainly not a stretch to say that there aren’t a lot of black Catholics, according to statistics, only 4% of American Catholics are black. According to their website, the 12:30 Mass featured a gospel choir, with both traditional and African-American hymns. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this be a totally different service than I was used to? Or would it be just like the other D.C. Masses that I had attended?

The answer was a little bit of both. On the surface, the church looked just like many of the other churches in D.C. There were two large towers in the front, an organ, a colonnade leading up to the altar, and rows and rows of wooden pews. On two of the frontmost columns were purple banners with the messages “THE ULTIMATE GIFT/HOPE” and “THE ULTIMATE GIFT/PEACE.” Mass was very well-attended, and the crowd was lively before Mass. I got the feeling that the Church was used to visitors; before the Mass started, the choir director told everyone not to take pictures during the service.

The first interesting thing I noticed was the presentation of the second candle of Advent. A woman wearing no shoes carried the candle rigidly out in front of her and brought it down the aisle. She seemed almost like a ballerina, with careful foot movements and a balanced posture.
Oh, did I mention the Gospel choir? This was something that I had typically associated with a number of Protestant churches, but certainly not Catholics. Watching two dozen singers, both black and white, singing with such tremendous spirit and enthusiasm for their faith was refreshing and entertaining. They were accompanied by a full band, including drums, guitars, and saxophones. There was one band member who was playing a different instrument every time I looked at him: first alto saxophone, then soprano saxophone and then the flute.

I’ve often heard it said that an academic takes a simple idea and makes it complicated, but a communicator takes something complicated and makes it simple. The priest at St. Augustine was definitely a communicator. Father Patrick’s homily was down-to-earth, and easy to understand. He had a great connection with his audience. Whenever he made a good point, the congregation would respond with a chorus of Hmm-mm’s or Amens. This was another tradition that I have never seen in a Roman Catholic Mass. Father Patrick delivered a poignant message, that we pray to God because we have hope that he can lead us through our troubles. He described people in the Old Testament as oppressed, and that while the Bible mentions “big names” like Tiberius Caesar and Herod, the people come to John the Baptist for salvation because he speaks for God. It was because people had hope that God would deliver them from oppression. There is always suffering, he said, but God gives us hope, just like John the Baptist did. During advent, we light candles in the face of darkness. I thought it was very interesting when he pointed out that there are a lot of lights up this time of year, but we can’t appreciate them during the day. We can only appreciate the hope that God gives us when we realize that we face great struggles and suffering.

Father Patrick had a lot of great messages in his sermon, which I won’t take the time to post on here. It was a very long homily. I didn’t time it, but I’d guess that it was probably 30-45 minutes- much longer than the 15 minute homilies that I’m used to.

During the collection, a man on acoustic guitar took the lead in singing a hymn, with the choir backing him up. Towards the end of the song, he started a chorus of “There’s no God like Jehovah” that got everyone up on their feet. The choir was clapping and swaying side to side, and the congregation joined along. There was a lot of energy in that crowd. I don’t like to use the word amazing, but it was amazing.

The sign of peace gave me an indication of what an tight-knit community this Church was. People were walking around, hugging their friends, family members, and acquaintances. Some folks were just walking up and down the aisles, hugging and shaking hands with anyone in their path. I thought it was really sweet. The choir sang a beautiful song towards the end of the Mass telling us that “there is hope for the world,” and the priest jokingly admonished them for summing his entire homily up in one hymn.

St. Augustine has a lot of visitors, and they do a good job of making them feel welcome. At the end of the Mass, Father Patrick asked first-time visitors to stand up. The altar servers brought microphones to those who stood, and we announced where we were from. “Hi, I’m Michael Salgarolo, from George Washington University, originally from Los Angeles, California.” Some of the other visitors were from France and Brazil.

Mass at St. Augustine was inspiring. I was amazed that they were able to take many of the traditions of black Protestant churches and fuse them into the Roman Catholic Mass. What was even more inspiring, and what should other Catholic Churches should take to heart, was the tremendous, indescribable sense of energy and community. They have developed a community based on love and faith, and their unique Mass is a source of pride and comfort. When the two people behind me encouraged me to adopt St. Augustine as my new parish, I explained my mission to them. “Well,” one man said, “go to another church in the morning, but come to 12:30 Mass here.” I don’t know if I’ll have the time for that, but I’ll certainly keep them on my mind.

Feel free to comment, I'd love to hear what you have to say.