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Cover story
Passion In The Pews
A holiday tour of Milwaukee's church services


By Chuck Nowlen
Published 12/21/02
Copyright 2002, Shepherd Express/Alternative Publications Inc.

 

 

These are trying times for religion, but who among us hasn’t pleaded privately at some desperate life crossroads either, “What am I doing here?” or, “Please, God, can you give me a break, just this once?”

 

Milwaukee is fertile ground for such thoughts, especially during the holidays. It’s home to 1,253 houses of worship, reflecting 65 different faiths, according to the 2002 Yellow Pages. Some claim there are more bona fide churches here than in any other major city in the nation.

 

So Shepherd Express decided to sample a bit of what’s out there, visiting 10 church services – chosen completely at random – that represent a crude array of Milwaukee’s spiritual possibilities. Obviously, some churches and faiths are not represented, and we promise to make amends with similar annual stories in the future.

 

The plan this year was simple: We arrived unannounced with a backslider’s imperfect open mind, judging not so much a church’s belief system, but rather each service’s ability to touch and inspire – to move an uninitiated stranger. We also were keenly aware that religion is by nature very private and highly subjective, and that even a collection of devout kindred spirits can have particularly good or bad days.

 

The first-person reports that follow, then, include an equally subjective, 5-maximum rating system, but they’re by no means intended as definitive. Other people present might have had very different reactions; another visit might have prompted a very different account.

 

So think of the following dispatches as only one man’s smorgasbord of first impressions – as well as a holiday reminder that no matter who you are or what you believe, God is far from dead in Beer City.

 

 

Sunday, November 24, 11 a.m.

Sure ‘Nuff Baptist Passion

Mercy Memorial Missionary Baptist Church

3223 W. Lloyd St.

BAPTIST

 

Mercy Memorial’s in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood, but the Deep South throbs like a heartbeat inside – this is an old-time African-American Baptist church, after all.

 

And the flock gives its all here. Shoulder to shoulder in the pews – and almost on top of the minister, the elders and the full, red-T-shirted choir up front – the 300 or so bouncing, testifying parishioners ride the roots gospel rhythm for a solid three hours nonstop.

 

“Hallelujah, Jesus!” … “Praise God!” You can tell that even a dollar offering is a sacrifice for some, but there’s no sense of want here whatsoever – the joy is that pervasive.

 

And if you’re never been to a service like this, you’ll see passion you never imagined by the end.

 

The music here is wonderful. The booming choir is led today by an absolutely ecstatic woman whose smile could light up a ghost town. A drums, keyboard, bass and soprano sax combo keeps a steady beat from beginning to end – piano noodles during Rev. Harold Moore’s announcements; thunderous crescendos; long, solo organ strings; and frenetic, double-time floor-shakers that send the faithful through the roof.

 

“He wakes me up each morning/And sends me on my way,” goes one hypnotic hymn, building and building and building for maybe 10 minutes, like many others, until you think the power could actually pop the windows out onto the street. The big finishes leave you breathless. Each hymn is followed by hearty applause.

 

Then comes the healing, where Moore is assisted by a handful of aides and visiting Pastor Joseph Young, who wait for a stream of volunteers to come forward, but eventually make their way around the room on their own.

 

One by one, they place a firm hand on bowing, nodding heads and minister intently for a few moments, sometimes jolting a supplicant with lightning-bolt fervor. Then – wham! – each parishioner sinks shuddering to the floor, caught by another aide posted behind and covered with a blanket if needed. A few start talking in tongues.

 

Wham! … Wham! … Wham! Before long, both aisles are filled with prone, quivering souls, while observers shout and nod their praises. At one point, a shrieking, jabbering, contorting woman – who until then had been only watching – is helped to an anteroom by two female elders.

 

Outsiders, be ready to drop your jaw here, but even skeptics have to admit this much: In an era of lukewarm, consumerist religion, Sunday morning at Mercy Memorial proves conclusively – if nothing else – that a church only needs true believers to transcend.

 

Rating: 4 ½ Crosses.

 

 

Sunday, November 3, 10 a.m.

Witness For The Prosecution

Jehovah’s Witness – Central Congregation

2434 N. 7th St.

JEHOVAH’S WITNESS

 

Thankfully, you won’t get the full-court Jehovah’s Witness press when you walk into this service, which is more of a guided meditation than a liturgy: no robes, no rituals, no music, no head minister and – surprising to me – no crosses or public offerings of any kind.

 

Immaculately tailored, like everybody in the congregation, an usher greets me subtly as about 120 parishioners ease into the cushy, theater-style pews. He takes me aside, and when I ask how to address him, he answers, genuinely friendly: “I have no title; none of us do. We’re all just ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’”

 

Selected tenets of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, according to the “Who are we?” bulletin I’m handed at my request: The Bible is literal and historical; mankind now lives in “the time of the end;” blood transfusions “violate God’s laws;” and “Satan is invisible ruler of the world.”

 

Visiting Brother Corey Richards strikes hard at that last one as he haltingly reads a prepared address that takes up an entire 45 minutes – and, forgive me, almost puts me to sleep. Suggestive clothing, “drunkenry,” “misuse of love:” just a few obvious keys to Satan’s workshop.

 

I honestly mean no disrespect – maybe I’m just having a bad day – but I can’t help but yawn here and chuckle a Woody Allen line to myself: “Hey, don’t knock my hobbies.”

 

Sincere faith, but with a closed-society feel and a too-rigid message this morning that falls on deaf, backslider’s ears.

 

Rating: 1 ½ Crosses

 

 

Sunday, October 21, 8 a.m.

A Surprise Ending

All Saints’ Cathedral

818 E. Juneau Ave.

EPISCOPALIAN

 

I’m not exactly ripe for an Episcopalian conversion today. It was a cruel dawn after a late Saturday night. I’m a solitary stranger in a vast, echoing and sparsely attended cathedral. And it’s located in one of the trendiest, yuppie-scum neighborhoods downtown.

 

Plus, I know almost nothing about the Episcopalian faith – only that it’s the American “continuation of the Church of England,” which, according to a pamphlet inside, predates the 7th century and retains some Catholic traditions that dominated Christianity for centuries before that.

 

So I expect vestiges of Henry VIII, the power-mad wife-eliminator, only in post-millennium Milwaukee.

 

Then comes the officiating minister, the Very Rev. George E. Hillman, dean of the city’s Episcopal Diocese. Hillman’s gentle face is Everyman’s, but his voice is cultured Ivy League. And after entering in majestic green robes, he sits in a magnificent Old World chair – seemingly miles from the pews – beneath one of the most elegant altars I’ve ever seen in my life.

 

Uh-oh, I’m thinking, here comes a sermon about The White Man’s Burden or something.

 

But, by the end of the service, I feel surprisingly at home, evidently, like the rest of the flock.

 

Which, I note early on, is anything but high-brow: mostly blue-collar or middle-class; all ages; black and white; many dressed almost Saturday-morning casual.

 

The moment echoes in more ways than one when a young man with a buzz-cut Mohawk – apparently afflicted with a serious muscle disorder – trudges up for communion alone in military trench coat and heavy boots. Across the aisle from me, a stooped-over, older woman makes her way in a worn red scarf and black pants, but also dazzling white sneakers – with bright-red logos on the heels that actually sparkle and glow!

 

And I am caught by Hillman’s sermon, which, like the rest of this early-bird service, impresses without hymns or music, and is based on Christ’s famous reply to the “establishment” ancient Pharisees: “Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; render onto God that which is God’s.” Hillman brings the message right to the streets, his voice drawing power from the church’s burnished echo.

 

“It was like my aged grandmother used to say, ‘I smell a RAT!’” Hillman mugs at one point, now comparing the Pharisees’ power-grabs to “what we still find today, especially when we consider some of the things we see in government.” (The Legislature’s caucus indictments had just been announced the week before.)

 

Hillman repeats Christ’s pronouncement, adding this clincher: “And it all comes down to the same reaction people must have had in Christ’s time: ‘Wait a minute! Do you mean we actually have to THINK about stuff like this? Do you mean that WE are the ones who have to choose?”

 

This quiet, dignified jewel stayed with me for the rest of the day.

 

Rating: 3 ½ Crosses.

 

 

Sunday, October 27, 9 a.m.

Dolan Hits The Airwaves

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist

812 N. Jackson St.

ROMAN CATHOLIC

 

It doesn’t get more modern-Catholic than this: the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s radio-simulcast Sunday morning Mass – said by its new spiritual leader and sometime media star, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.

 

Maybe it’s my own media-dog prejudice, but, for all its heart, this service just seems too staged, too seamless and, well, a little too vanilla for my tastes. Think “The Robe” meets “Leave It to Beaver,” with – forgive me again – just a dash of “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” tossed in.

 

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like there isn’t passion here. Nobody beats the Catholic Church when it comes to ecclesiastic fanfare, after all. And, with rich organ strains playing nicely off the marble-and-stained-glass décor, this cathedral makes you feel, I don’t know, CLEAN from the moment you walk in the door.

 

Not that it’s ivory tower, either. For all of Dolan’s celebrity and presence, he comes off very much as one of us. Expect two down-home endearments when he greets you at the end in full robes: He will hail any youngsters nearby with the playfulness of a favorite uncle; you’ll also get an Irish handshake that just might bounce you out of your shoes.

 

Still, even as an interloper, I can’t help but feel like a movie extra at this one. Before the service begins, an obviously refined tenor runs the congregation through a this-is-how-you-sing-it exercise for the upcoming Eucharistic Prayer hymn. (Sorry, but I just couldn’t get the picture of an Ed McMahon audience warm-up out of my head.)

 

True: This service is radio-broadcast, and, at church, stagecraft can be a good thing. I just felt like a true classic might have lost something here as a result.

 

Rating: 2 ½ Crosses.

 

 

Sunday, November 10, 10 a.m.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Milwaukee Mindfulness Practice Center

2126 E. Locust St.

BUDDHIST

 

Chonnnnnng … A bell calls the group to meditation. They sit quietly now in a large rectangle on the earth-toned, carpeted floor.

 

Incense perfumes the air, and all 15 or so are dressed in loose-fitting clothes – some in yoga attire, others in blue jeans or sweat pants. Most sit cross-legged, but all are in stocking feet on flat cushions. One or two leave warm cups of tea before them on the floor.

 

Deep in meditation now, all eyes are closed to the pure white walls, the plants around the perimeter, the translucent-gray Asian screens here and there, and the tiny black statue of Buddha, which rests at the front of the group under a burnt-orange sign that announces, “Peace begins with a gentle smile.”

 

Chonnnnnng … Another bell rings after 20 minutes of meditation, and now the group rises and stretches.

 

At the sound of a third bell, they gently turn left en masse, and for the next 10 minutes, they pace lightly at a snail’s pace – maybe one step every three seconds – until they’ve circled the room twice, completely  silent, and are now seated at their starting spots.

 

Chonnnnnng … Another bell, and I decide to join in the meditation as I sit on a chair near the entrance – the group seemed so tightly knit when I arrived that I balked at staking out a spot among them.

 

I close my eyes and start repeating my verbal-cue mantra – I once dabbled in transcendental meditation long ago. And soon I am entranced, thinking deeply about nothing in particular, only the words I’m repeating over and over in my head.

 

Random thoughts and images; sometimes a relaxing, complete void: They all pass before me and waft gently away, like clouds on the perfect Indian Summer morning this is.

 

Chonnnnnng … By the time the last bell rings 20 minutes later, ending this minimalist service, I am relaxed, lighter than air and uncharacteristically even-tempered. And I notice another sign near the entrance that lists “The 12 Symptoms of Inner Peace” – among them: loss of interest in judging oneself; loss of interest in judging others; loss of ability to worry; and an increased tendency to let things happen, rather than make them happen.”

 

Despite the New Age, herbs-and-tofu feel of this one, I don’t so much drive home afterward; I FLOAT.

 

Rating: 5 Buddhas 

 

 

Friday, November 29, 7 p.m.

‘Baruch Atah Adinai’ From A Living Room

The Olive Tree Messianic Congregation

Oak Creek/South Milwaukee

MESSIANIC JEWISH

 

This is a messianic Jewish service, drawn from the ancient, seminal time when the roots of Judaism and Christianity converged, as if drawing nourishment to the same tree – or at least that’s what I’m told here. Hence, the parish’s name and the motto in its phone-book ad: “Where Yeshua (Jesus) is exalted and Jewishness is upheld.”

 

Call before you show up, though. Rabbi Yaakov Schmadl’s circle is tiny and especially devout; and this Friday-night worship service is in his simple South Milwaukee living room. You’ll miss the house if you aren’t looking for it – all that distinguish it from the rest of the homes nearby are the discreet blue holiday doorway lights that whisper, “Happy Hanukah.”

 

“Call me Jim – I’m Rabbi Jim,” the avuncular Schmadl reassures a stranger on this, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday. Between Schmadl’s couch and his entertainment center – which is adorned with scores of rabbinical knick-knacks – sit a dozen close friends and longtime parishioners, scattered among folded chairs set neatly on the carpet in rows. The sweet smell of freshly baked bread hovers in the air.

 

Schmadl blows a worship call from the shofar, a long ram’s horn, and his wife Kathy lights the Shabbat candles to begin the service. Soon, after staid Old Testament readings, comes a charming 15- or 20-minute song session, where Kathy steals the show – zapping the CD player with a remote control, then bouncing her choral leadership of a succession of “Fiddler On The Roof”-type hymns with a solitary tambourine.

 

She is just so happy, so peppy and so inspired – you can only smile at the strange, makeshift atmosphere, which is clearly a tonic to everyone here.

 

Rabbi Jim, too, is an endearing spirit. Before launching into a cerebral sermon on the Hanukah story and the difference between knowledge and wisdom, he winks to the front row and blushes. “The challah bread tasted a little doughy tonight, didn’t it?” Now he winces. “I should apologize. I pulled it out of the oven before it was done.”

 

This one, too, is an unexpected jewel: part tradition; part reverence; part down-home holiday gathering – and to my decidedly outsider’s point of view, anyway, a good introduction for the curious, but uninitiated.

 

Rating: 5 Stars of David.

 

 

Sunday, November 10, 9 a.m.

Catholic As They Wanna Be

Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church

5202 W. Lisbon Ave.

ROMAN CATHOLIC (LATIN MASS)

 

For some reason, a lot of cop cars find me on my way to Our Lady of the Rosary. One tails me on Juneau Avenue headed west for about eight blocks; another follows me a long while at North and 26th; and I see two more cruising West Lisbon before I veer over and get a parking spot right at the church’s front door.

 

OK, call it happenstance. Still, a police presence seems somehow appropriate for a traditional Tridentine Mass – said in Latin as a vestige of the bygone Catholic monolith. This church remains steadfast in its commitment to that stark, unyielding past.

 

“Judica me, Deus” – “Give judgment for me, Oh God,” a grandfatherly Fr. Bernard Colussy murmurs near the start of the Mass, later striding down the center aisle with two altar boys to sprinkle the congregation with holy water – which, for the record, does not sizzle when it touches an outsider’s skin.

 

“Et discerne causum meam, de genta non sancta” – “and decide my cause against an unholy people.”

 

The crowd of 70 or so here is an older one – average age, maybe 60. All ladies’ heads are covered. The dress is formal, but also simple and plain.

 

And you can FEEL somehow, that this is a throwback Catholic church. It’s tiny and somewhat jury-rigged, crafted out of a second-floor space that looks like it might once have been a small dance hall.

 

The room’s rich, stained-wood beams and bowed ceiling inspire piety, as do the ornate crucifixion statues all around the white walls and the Biblical figures that flank the altar – obscured from the back by a pair of bulky ceiling heaters. A faint musty smell only adds to the atmosphere.

 

And, by the end, I do feel something – but I think only distant reverence for the Mass’s history and austerity, and the genuine devotion in the pews.

 

Rating: 2 ½ Crosses.

 

 

Wednesday, November 20, 6:30 p.m.

My Old Wisconsin Home

Mount Olive Lutheran Church

5327 W. Washington Ave.

LUTHERAN

 

Indulge me here, please. This is the faith I was raised under, and while the affable but tepid service might leave some visitors empty, to me, it’s a polka down memory lane.

 

Winter confirmation classes. Being an altar boy. One Easter Sunday, I lit the candles as usual but – God knows why; call it simple teenaged boneheadedness – I clean forgot to put them out before I left. The pastor singed my ears for it when I ran into him the following Wednesday.

 

Anyway, I never went back.

 

Thirty years later, though, I remember other great stuff at Mount Olive, where the 50 or so Wednesday-night faithful are dominated by youngsters about 13 and under: the Apostles Creed (“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heave and Earth …”), The Lord’s Prayer, the benediction (“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious onto you …”) and all the other liturgical magic that both bored me and inspired me as a kid.

 

The magic doesn’t quite return this night, though – despite Rev. John Struve, whose portly, only-in-Milwaukee charm clearly touches the rest of his flock.

 

Rating: 3 Crosses.

 

 

Tuesday, November 19, 6:30 p.m.

Praise The Lord And Pass The Syncopation!

Christian Faith Fellowship Church

8605 W. Good Hope Rd.

PENTECOSTAL

 

Say what you want about the Pentecostal faith, this service will sweep you off your feet. Unbridled, joyous and irresistibly infectious, it lifts the 600 in the pews into a rocking, praise-Jesus party from the start – you can feel the excitement in the parking lot!

 

And, hey, how can you NOT smile at a high-school-sized, 5,000-member church that doesn’t even post its name out front. All you’ll find there is a gaudy neon sign that almost seems to buzz its message: “SINNERS ARE WELCOME HERE.”

 

Inside, a 50-voice choir and seven-chair band utterly overwhelm the senses for the first 25 minutes. “Get your praise on; dance with me:” Hymn lyrics are projected from two large screens, one on either side of the pulpit. Crane-operated TV cameras scan the rapt, dancing crowd. And the music – the deep bass backbeat, the soaring, searing high notes, the throngs of powerful voices: It all surges like a sustained elevator rush, even as traffic-cop ushers herd a crush of eager late-comers to empty seats.

 

Sixty-somethings dressed to the nines; young parents with bottle-sucking tots on their laps; dapper singles; beaming teens: The electricity is palpable! At one point, I actually have to swallow a lump in my throat – I’m that blown away, and I’m barely inside the door.

 

I’m seated upfront-center next to a woman named Vivian, who smiles at me like a long-lost relative as she claps to the music, occasionally waving a hand upward. “We’re so glad you could join us tonight,” she sways, shaking my hand – but it’s hard to hear her over the music. Now she’s back with the spirit: “Amen!” And, later, many times, “Thank you, Jesus!”

 

Make no mistake about it, husband-and-wife pastors Darrell and Pamela Hines OWN this congregation – Darrell goes solo with a headset microphone tonight, while Pamela demurs in the wings.

 

Impeccable in a dark green suit and designer tie, Hines is calm and understated as he introduces tonight’s theme, “It takes just as much faith to follow as it does to lead,” illustrated by the story of Moses parting the Red Sea.

 

By the time his 45-munute sermon is over, Hines’ suit coat is off; sweat beads form on his forehead; and now he writhes and shouts his message with full, hard-working zeal, pacing the stage and aisles like a tiger.

 

“You people aren’t hearing me,” he scoffs at one point, pausing for effect. (“Yes, pastor,” nods Vivian.) “I SAID IT TAKES! … JUST AS MUCH FAITH TO FOLLOW! … AS IT DOES TO LEAD!!!” He stops again and glares, a stern, beloved leader. His eyes – once playful and mild – now glow like hot red coals.

 

Hines could be selling laundry soap; these folks would find the spirit in it. And while the service doesn’t exactly capture my soul, it sure takes it for one unforgettable ride.

 

Rating: 4 Crosses (But only to give the Hineses room to work on Sunday morning, when the full-house atmosphere must be incredible.)

 

 

Wednesday, December 4, 7:30 p.m.

The Crescent Moon Is Rising

Islamic Society of Milwaukee

4707 S. 13th St.

ISLAMIC

 

The dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan ends tomorrow, and this service – the fifth prayer of the day for Milwaukee Muslims – expects special devotion.

 

“ALLLL-aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhuuu … Akbar!”

 

Sheik Amer Amin’s elongated chant – proclaiming “God is Great” – calls the 200 or so worshippers to prayer in the high-ceilinged, carpeted room. Dressed in everything from skull caps and gallebeas (ankle-length dress shirts) to Packers jackets and blue jeans, they all stand barefoot or in stocking feet in wall-to-wall rows. Some raise open palms upward near their ears with closed eyes. Others pray almost inaudibly to themselves while rocking slightly.

 

A taut, chanted command, and now everybody bends forward at the waist for several seconds until another command prompts them to their knees, braced with their palms on the floor.

 

Another chant brings the worshippers to their feet, and the ritual is repeated – as it will be several times during the hour-long service.

 

At one point, Amin steps to a microphone, where he notes that local Muslims have been keeping a keen ear to their counterparts all over the globe recently, marking the progress of the moon.

 

Ramadan officially ends the moment the new crescent moon is visible – here, it was around 9 p.m. December 5. Meanwhile, this exact ritual is being held at exactly the same local time for millions of Muslims worldwide – Islam accounts for about 20% of the Earth’s population. Those facts alone inspire awe.

 

“This is a very religious time for us – I would compare it roughly to the Christian holy time of Lent,” Brother Mushir Hassan, a Brookfield physician, explains to a baffled stranger after the service as smiling handshakes are exchanged all around. The standard greeting: “A salaam a laikum” – “Peace to you.” The reply: “Walaikum salaam” – “And to you, peace.”

 

An outsider might feel clueless at this one, but if you give it a chance, someone here is sure to take you under his or her wing. And the service – particularly the mesmerizing sound of Amin’s lilting, echoing chants – will linger for hours after you leave.

 

Rating: 4 ½ crescent moons.

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