When I arrive at the Methodist church, I am ten minutes early and greeted at the door by an elderly gentlemen in a brown corduroy blazer, his full head of white hair neatly coiffed. He welcomes me politely and hands me the day’s program, which is surprisingly brief compared to the others I have received over the course of these weeks, one 8.5 x 11 piece of paper folded in half. From the outside, this church looks like a ski chalet circa 1970, the kind where the roof reaches all the way to the ground, but inside it’s more of a cavernous barn-like space with a raised altar/stage at one end. As expected, decorations are minimal—a couple of chunky wooden candelabras on either side of the room, a big shiny silver cross hanging against a row of golden organ pipes, some plants on a ledge at the back of the altar, a funny little bowl-on-a-pedestal contraption to one side that I’m guessing is the baptismal font. Two big fans turn slowly where the ceiling reaches its most dramatic height; they’re huge like airplane propellers. Mesmerized by the long steel blades, I keep glancing upward, which I’m sure makes me seem extra pious.
A choir of about 10 strong wearing ordinary clothes, no robes, is practicing as I take a seat in a row of chairs near the back. Since starting this journey, I’ve become something of a chorus connoisseur. Personally, I am a terrible singer, musically ungifted in all ways, but I have now heard enough combinations of voices and variations in instrumental accompaniment to feel entitled to place the results somewhere on a scale from cacophony to beautifully agreeable. This one is on the good-sounding side, with only a keyboard, but several voices that soar like doves and help the more ordinary ones reach greater heights.
They are singing the day’s hymns as people file in and take seats. Two raised flat screens on either side of the altar show an image of a painting of Jesus in what appears to be a post-crucifixion moment of reflection. The cross is on the ground and he’s sitting, hunched, on top of it, naked except for a strategically-draped loin cloth. His back is a mess of ripped flesh, a full moon (or a halo?) backlights his head, gently illuminating his somber profile and the iconic twist of thorny brambles crowning him. Torture and Humiliation: Man of Sorrows, the bold heading reads. Okay then, I think, the time has arrived to face the grim aspects of this Jesus thing. So far on this journey, I have heard many times that Jesus is “our savior,” that “he died for us”—yadda, yadda…all the usual phrases one has heard even when firmly rooted in the secular environs of this largely Christian country—but the facts of how this actually all went down have been glossed over. His appearances are no more significant than the brief mentions given to God or the Holy Spirit; so far, Jesus has been an interchangeable component of the Holy Trinity. In truth, I knew almost none of the crucifixion details and perhaps it would stay that way. Is it too ugly a thing for any church to want to look at anymore?