I will soon walk through the doors of St. Marks United Methodist Church one last time. I first entered that hallowed space on the edge of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter in the spring of 2006; it was sixth months after Hurricane Katrina had wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and St. Marks was in a state of disrepair.
No. St. Mark’s was in a state of renewal – it’s historic, perpetual mode.
That Sunday morning, I was a visitor; a tourist on my first trip to New Orleans, there at the urging of my boss, who thought that I should spend the weekend of my extended business trip to Louisiana getting a first-hand look at what hurricane recovery looked like.
The trip to New Orleans changed my life. So did St. Marks.
I had arrived in town the previous Friday afternoon, and checked into a hotel on the edge of the French Quarter; it was a place best described at that moment as ‘creepy’. It was an older building (not by any stretch one of the oldest, but it had seen a few years) and the entire first floor had been gutted down to the studs as part of its post-Katrina revelation. Stark, and empty, but that isn’t what made it strange. The second story of the hotel had been untouched by floodwaters, so they were open for business.
Floodwaters not an issue, but my room appeared to have been untouched by time.
The dark, wide-grained, walnut paneling, large, clunky, light fixtures and olive-green carpeting dated the room to sometime in the late 1960’s. The old desk phone by the bed – while not as dated – was of only less ancient vintage, adorned with myriad instructions and extensions for various hotel services. The creep factor quickly gave way to kitsch, especially considering I was staying in a hotel in a part of a city that was older than the country itself.
It fit me.
As a writer and history buff, this entire sidebar trip was one of great anticipation and opportunity – and I used my time to simply stroll, observe, and record. I spent Friday night and Saturday traversing every street in the Quarter, stopping periodically to drink chicory coffee, and write. Or to stop, eat and listen to some jazz, and write.
I filled a brand new, five-by-seven-inch spiral notebook I had brought with me.
My first visit was twelve years ago.
That Sunday morning found me at a small breakfast spot I had stumbled across the day before. the night before, I had checked the old hotel directory binder in my room for a local church I could attend – figuring that most any nearby church would have ample amounts of history and quirk to suit my rather eclectic faith tastes.
It was a quick thumb through, as I discovered St. Mark’s UMC was just two blocks from my hotel and had services at ten o’clock – ample time for early-riser me to hit the streets, see some sights, and get some breakfast. Plus, it was a Methodist church, and I was a Methodist churchgoer back home in Minnesota.
And we shared a name.
After breakfast, I went back to my hotel, packed up my stuff and loaded it in my rental car, before making the short stroll to church. It was a muggy morning, and the Quarter had an air about it; a whiff of old mixed with new. There was the typical ‘old’ smell – earthy, damp – mixed with new: freshly cut wood, new plaster, and cement -all held together with the mortal of lemon disinfectant, a special treat laid down that morning by street sweepers washing away a night of revelry.
I arrived at the church and took in the look of the place. It was old, dating to the early 1920’s, but on the exterior, it didn’t seem that Katrina had done much damage. Above the door was an old, hand-painted sign, reading ‘ST. MARK’s the METHODIST CHURCH OF THE VIEUX CARRÉ ’ – Vieux Carré the French for ‘Old Square’.
The sign and the sentiment are still there.
Once inside, I immediately got the sense that this place was not typical, and that it was not going to be business as usual. Scaffolding along the sides of the church showed where stained glass windows, wall plaster, and the ceiling were all getting some badly needed repair. The corners of the sanctuary had piles of materials and tools, and there was a definite vibe of renewal.
Same for the folks in the pews.
People milled about, some with cups of coffee in hand, a few were engaged in conversation, many sat silently, by themselves, and some were even sleeping in the pews. A number of those in attendance looked to be homeless – because they were; all of their worldly belongings with them in backpacks, suitcases, boxes. Scattered here are there were a different set of folks; more neatly dressed, seemingly more middle class. Racially, I was surprised to pretty even split, black and white. I have lived and worked in the inner city; my first thought was that I had stumbled into some sort of homeless shelter.
But that idea was quickly overshadowed by a humbling realization; if these folks were disenfranchised from their communities or families, they certainly were not in this place, on this Sunday morning. The conviviality was palpable, unforced. This was an interesting place.
Piano music was playing and people were starting to find their spots.
As I accepted a bulletin from an usher and began to look for a seat, a petite, blonde woman walked up to me, excitedly welcoming me, then warmly clasping my hand and shaking it. In a southern drawl as thick as cane syrup, she thanked me for being there, before excusing herself and answering a question of the ushers had about something.
Her name was Anita Dinwiddie, and she was the pastor.
What followed was as uplifting a service as I have attended, and the quirks I anticipated were everywhere. Among the most moving was the greeting and the call to come up to the altar, and ‘grab a flower’. Just in front of the polished wood altar railing was a small table and scattered across it were a variety of fresh-cut flowers – daisies and carnations. Without hesitation, and with piano music playing, the majority of the congregants got up from their seats, walked to the front of the church, grabbed a flower, and then went to the altar to kneel in prayer, placing the flower on the altar in front of them.
At least, some folks laid their flowers down. Many people held on to their daisy as they prayed – some clutching the stem intently, others twirling them around absentmindedly, as they prayed, got up, and headed back to their seat, giving the next person in line their chance.
It was a fascinating and profoundly moving five minutes – always is. I had never seen anything like it before or since.
Anita later explained that the tradition pre-dated her tenure by many years, and that the premise was simple; those who felt they had nothing to bring in terms of an offering would always have something – a simple flower – they could bring to the altar.
This simple, small piece of the Sunday morning experience at St. Mark’s is one of my favorite things about the place – and one of the things I will miss the most. And though confession isn’t necessarily a Methodist thing (in a formal sense) I have one to make: as many times as, I have seen and participated in the flower ritual, I am often getting more from watching how others – especially first-time visitors – are moved by the sight of watching people pick up their flowers, and how they handle them.
Hey, I’ve been there.
The rest of the service was standard issue, traditional Methodist; classic hymns, prayer requests, joys and concerns, sermon. Though very little is done without some special flair or twist. The music on any given Sunday, was provided by some wonderful musicians of varying ilk. Often, the soloist or vocalist you were listening to from the pew would have been performing on some nearby French Quarter stage twelve-hours before.
What might have been your cover charge on Saturday night is an offering plate drop-in Sunday morning.
At the conclusion of my first Sunday there, I was startled to see that not many people were all that anxious to scoot out the door. In fact, many were coming from the back of the church to the front.
Because it was time for the weekly meal.
Each week – then and now – the church serves a meal to the homeless immediately following the service; they have it down to a well-oiled routine, and the carts are rolling out while the pastor is at the back of the church saying goodbye to those who are leaving. each week, the meal is prepared, and then served by, groups from different churches – local, regional, and otherwise.
It is an impressive and impactful undertaking.
Along with their homeless ministry, St, Marks also has a strong, long-standing bond with the LGBTQ community. Back in 1973, an arsonist set fire to a well-known gay bar in the Quarter, and thirty-two people died. Some of the victims went unidentified, and bodies were not claimed by families. St. Mark’s was the only church that would allow memorial services and funerals for the victims; this church is not new to the ideas of diversity and social justice. In the 1960s, during the turmoil of desegregation, the pastor of St. Marks held integrated services, and sent his children to help integrate a local school.
Service to all and inclusion have deep roots here.
Obviously, that first, not-at-all random (thanks, G-d) visit to St. Mark’s was not my last. Two years later, my family and I moved to New Orleans to help with the post-Katrina rebuild, and I became a semi-regular St. Mark’s attendee. The place – and the people – have made an extraordinary impact on me. Some of the deepest, most meaningful friendships I have made in my time in New Orleans began at St, Mark’s; some of the most meaningful and delightful discussions on faith I have ever been involved with came during St. Mark’s ‘disorganized religion’ sessions – for years held weekly, on Tuesday nights, at a local bar.
Pastor Dinwiddie, now retired and living in Texas, is now simply my friend, Anita.
My friends Brett, Jerry, Karl, Ed, Michael, Reita, Noble, and Corey (who took over for the retired Anita) – all welcomed me with warmth, and good humor, strong counsel.
It is a long list of things to be grateful for in my connections with St. Mark’s UMC; twelve years is the longest stretch I have ever spent with a single congregation. I have seen a lot of people come and go, heard wonderful sermons and fabulous music. I have signed many of the sympathy cards the church puts in with the guest register, then sends to victims of violence around the community.
I have learned a lot – about myself, about others, about life. St. Mark’s is a cool place, and one that I will deeply miss.
Every Sunday service at St. Mark’s closes with a group sing; first run through with accompaniment, the second done a Capella, as everyone looks around the congregation and makes eye contact with someone else – bringing an entirely different perspective to the lyrics we sing; rinse-and-repeat. Incredibly cleansing:
Shalom to you now, shalom my friend!
May G-d’s full mercy, bless you my friend!
In all your living, and through your loving,
Christ be your shalom,
Christ be your shalom.
Backatcha, my St. Mark’s friends. Backatcha always.
Today is my last visit to St. Mark’s. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel as at home in a church.
And I am very okay with that.