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Sabbath at Citylights

A couple weeks ago I skipped town to go play in New York City. A number of things drew me away from my quiet home in Toledo, Ohio: A dear friend from India was coming to Manhattan for the premiere of a documentary about her work in one of Kolkata’s sex districts. Another friend, from college, just had a baby. Both were good reasons to make the ten hour drive to the east coast.
But I also had a third motivation lurking quietly in my heart. Last month the Ohio Conference brought in Samir Selmanovic for its sixth annual Conference on Innovation, and what he said there moved me profoundly. I purchased and read his new book, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian. Samir’s writing was more relevant to me personally than almost anything else I have read by an Adventist author, and I very much hoped for a meeting with him during my visit to New York.
Samir graciously consented to an afternoon spent dodging city traffic with me in search of a quiet place to talk about his Faith House Manhattan venture—something I will write more about in the next print edition of Spectrum. What is most fresh on my mind now is the Sabbath I spent with Citylights, the Adventist church community Samir coordinates each week.
Founded by an Adventist couple, postmodern urban missionaries Bob and Lynette Darken, Citylights was conceived as an outreach ministry while Samir was pastoring New York City’s Church of the Advent Hope six years ago. About thirty people were crammed into the side room of a large brick Quaker complex near Union Square when I arrived at 10:45. Children milled about as we set up chairs and spread the Sabbath candles. Writing this, my choice of the word “we” over “they” seems significant—I felt immediately at home in the warmth of the Citylights community, and it seemed only natural to pitch in with everyone else busily turning the rented room into holy space.
Over a cream cheese and scallion bagel I got acquainted with Carmen Rusu, a friendly Romanian lady who has started a bookstore and community center in Hoboken, New Jersey. Members of Citylights volunteer there sometimes on Sabbath afternoons. Other members explained to me that Citylights is something of a home for New York’s disenchanted Adventists, and with that apology in mind I began to subconsciously anticipate a church service splattered with critical comments and self-therapy.
But Citylights not only surprised me, it delighted me. Church had no bells and whistles—no art, no wall décor was in that make-shift room, and no pipe organ or fancy praise band. But the members sang. They sang “Heart of Worship” and they sang Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World.” These were among the most enchanted and enchanting Adventists I’d ever worshiped with. The content of their prayers and conversation reflected a rich appreciation for both the complexity of life in New York and their own Adventist roots. Though brilliant, discussion was experiential—not dry and mono-cerebral. These were engaged, intelligent people loving their God and one another in a city that is often harsh and unforgiving. They thought of themselves more as Christians than Adventists, but they insisted that Christianity itself is Adventist. I found out that one of their previous coordinators was a Roman Catholic young woman while their current worship leader, who was sick that day, is a Lutheran.
Episcopalian Bowie Snodgrass (director of Faith House Manhattan) was our speaker for the morning. She led us through an exploration of Phylis Tickle’s landmark book The Great Emergence in which Tickle suggests that “Every five hundred years, the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale…” Bowie helped us articulate what in our Christian experience we would like to keep as we enter the current “rummage sale period,” what we would like to let go off, and what we dream of reawakening from past eras of the faith.
Perhaps the clearest expression of community enchantment came immediately after Bowie’s discussion, in the form of a baby dedication. The arms of the gathered circled wide around a dear couple who had already experienced the pain of two previous miscarriages. As Samir recalled the long journey leading up to the birth of their third child, I could sense deep personal engagement coming from those seated in the room. Indeed, even my first-time visiting friend, who is studying diplomacy in South Orange, had tears in his eyes. The dedication climaxed with the creation of a time capsule. Member after member came forward with gifts and poems they had lovingly crafted for the occasion.
In closing, parents and friends together whispered a lasting message into the child’s ear: “You are God’s beloved son.” I could be wrong, but I have a hunch that the boy dedicated last Sabbath will grow up well within the nurturing arms of these “disenchanted” Adventists.
Thank you Samir, and thank you Citylights!

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