People often ask me how I ended up being a minister– which is a long story, but always begins the same way–I was fascinated by the whole idea of church. I loved that there was a place we went to be inspired to become better people. I was intrigued by the sense that being human is a kind of project that we can work on together. It all started when I was around four or five and last night at the splendid Chicago house party, when it was Amanda Palmer asking the question, that fascination is still where my answer began.
But before I get to that, I have to admit that the night did not begin as I hoped. If you know anything about me, you already know that means we were late. In spite of the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling like it was Christmas morning, and we fretted and timed everything in order to arrive right on time and before Amanda, a number of things (including Chicago traffic) conspired to make us almost an hour late.
Even so, we were greeted by our gracious hosts and given directions about how things would work. People were already spray painting on a giant canvas and filling their plates from an enormous table, and I hurried through the crowd to add our food the the potluck. I was frazzled and rushing; not at all how I wanted to be.
As I was trying to navigate the crowd, I saw Amanda and she looked up and broke into a big smile. I was unprepared to be recognized. I had been carefully managing my expectations and practicing casually telling her my twitter handle and explaining who I was. To be suddenly face-to-face with her and to be known was a complete surprise. I managed to give her a startled look and a freaked out smile and scurry away.
After getting my bearings and taking care of the required details, I worked my way back to the food. As I stepped into the garage (where the feast was laid) there was Amanda. She smiled and said something like, “Hi! I want to sit my ass down next to you and talk.” I sputtered out, “Okay, that would be great,” and added, “Give me a couple of minutes to get through…this…” My words trailed off. How does one name the profoundly strange combination of anxiety and joy that makes your entire vocabulary disappear? Luckily, she seemed to understand.
After we got our food, we found a place to sit in the grass and talk. I told her a little story about the last time we’d met and how I forgot to look at anything but my shoes. That led to a moment of intentional eye contact. And then, amazingly, it wasn’t awkward any more. That’s when she asked me how I became a minister. Or did she ask how I became me?
All I know is that I unwound the strands of my story, laying them out in rows, trying not to leave too many dangling or tangled. Amanda listened and I felt a genuine connection, not to Amanda-Palmer-the-rock-star, but to Amanda-Palmer-the-human-being. For those few minutes not one person interrupted us–not with words or bodies or even with impatient eyes–and I felt like we were inside the fairy circle in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, protected by old magic. (Ocean is the most recent book by Neil Gaiman, who is married to Amanda, and it is a book I already cherish.)
When it was time to move on, I ended up with the task of keeping Amanda’s kimono from harm, which somehow felt important. (It was the very same kimono featured in her recent musical retort to the British tabloid The Daily Mail.) Later, when she needed the kimono for photos, she asked me to hold her phone and take some pictures. That led to me becoming the “official” cell phone photographer, trying to capture candid moments happening before, after, and around each person’s formal picture with Amanda. I had great fun balancing two, three, and sometimes four cell phones, trying to catch the sweet, poignant, and happy moments of connection between Amanda and her fans.
Watching those connections allowed me to notice and observe the spirit of the night, quietly and beautifully shaped and guided by Amanda: a transcendent mix of art, conversation, hugs, tears, and courage. In a recent blog post Amanda wrote about the power of the house parties and the atmosphere of pure connection that pervades them. Last night, fifty strangers chose trust over fear and created something real together. What we created was the very thing that fascinated me as a child and started me dreaming and writing, curating and creating Cabaret Church.
Even now, long past childhood, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the human project I first saw in church. I still long for a community where people support and challenge each other to break free from a culture that wants us to exhaust and anesthetize ourselves with conformity and consumerism. I’m still determined to spend my life trying to create and support spaces where people can grow and become more authentic, courageous, and kind. I saw that happen last night, around and within me.
There’s a lot to be learned from these amazing gatherings that could help make church more relevant, meaningful, and fun. And there are and will always be things we can learn from old spiritual wisdom, tradition and practice. As Amanda told me last night, “We suffer from the separation of church and art.” Maybe it’s time for a reunion.
Special thanks to Andy, Siouxi, Dave, Kate, Amanda and all the other wonderful people who made last night possible.