Sunday, January 29, 2012

Secret City Sabbath: Part I

Every other month or so, on the last Sunday of the month (except when it's not), I attend the The Secret City at the legendary Dixon Place.  I can only describe it as Art Church, for art is what is worshiped there, also community, inspiration, and connection.  The monthly service is structured almost exactly like Episcopal or Catholic liturgy--(an assessment based on my albeit minimal experience) opening worshipfully with music, with the audience participating  in a peripheral, secondary way.  ("We're Connected!" was the refrain we sang, and is the refrain we always sing.  How great it is to be reminded of that.)

There is then a "Welcome" and an introduction--with SC founder, artist/performer Chris Wells functioning as the bold and big-hearted singing ersatz priest.  Every month, Chris introduces the theme around which the rest of the service will be built, and this month the theme was "Wonder" (Earlier, when we filed in, the Secret City Band's prelude music was--what else?--songs by the wondrous Stevie Wonder.)

At the Secret City, the traditional Christian "passing of the peace" is called "Mingle" and people really do mingle. I'm always a little shy during this part, but wandered around like I had some sort of purpose, and introduced myself to exactly two people. After that there's "The Breath of Life"--a short silent meditation. The Cultural Calendar is read, and then a succession of artists take the floor.

The "service proper" always opens with "Look At This."  At today's service, local artist Park McGinty presented his abstract sculptural pieces made mostly of shiny synthetic bits that he culls from Ebay and then handcuts, arranges and affixes, "dancing them into a greater beauty," Park says.  I found myself really moved by his words and work--ambitious and laborious pieces, all the more amazing, given the fact he works with only one arm. Park said that the object of his art is to "get inside his viewers' pleasure center and do to them what the music of Wagner" does to him.

 Next comes "Taste This"--the sacrament or communion--called "Food Offering" at The Secret City. Someone prepares this offering according to the theme every month. Today--for wonder--we were all given a little packet of pop rocks. The ritual is that all in attendance takes the food into their mouths at the same time, so that the experience of taste is communally and consciously shared and reflected upon.  (How often do we take "taste" for granted, after all?)   I loved my packet of pop rocks, which I hadn't experienced since 1975, and it took me back to riding my banana seat bike sans helmet up to the nearest 7-11 in Phoenix and spending it on crummy candy and I remembered how free I felt, and how exciting that was.

After the sacrament is "Watch This" and this month we watched tap dancer Annie Peacenik with her nonagenarian mentor Harold Cromer, who tapped a little in ordinary street shoes, played some impromptu ragtime on the available piano, and regaled us with tales of performing on the rough and tumble streets of Hells Kitchen and then on Broadway with Bert Lahr and Ethyl Merman. Here is the young Harold Cromer in 1936.

Once Harold was coaxed off the stage there was "The Reading," this month, we heard Mary Oliver's poem "When Death Comes," with the theme-appropriate line "all my life I was a bride married to amazement."

Part II, tomorrow. Join me next month at The Secret City. "Beauty" is February's theme.  Photos from today below!

Chris Wells, founder of The Secret City

Wells implores the audience to join him in the opening hymn:  "We're Connected"

Artist Park McGinty

Chris Wells delivers the homily at the pulpit.

Hoofers Harold Cromer and Annie Peacenik (for real)

The sacrament always supports the theme.
Dig the tights of SC parishioner, Ayun Halliday of the East Village Inky


  1. i would go just to hang out with ayun halladay. this sounds marvelous. in mo sac mtg's defense, i did get to hear my bish talk about what he likes about the new translation of war and peace over the pulpit. not art church, but still.

    1. also, do they have pastoral counseling, casserole sign-ups, etc.? i gotta come visit you on a last sunday, woman.

    2. none of those, but they are looking for volunteers for their valentine's day fundraiser at judson church!

    3. you realize how unusually rad your bishop is, i hope.