Aria for the Bounty outside my window after Sharon Olds

Reflection Through Poetry

Aria for the Bounty outside my window
after Sharon Olds

Kate Cammell | kac2261@columbia.edu

Pleasant Ave, East Harlem / Photo by Kate Cammell

I’d never noticed that there
are twelve of them on my block, trees
with branches like varicose veins, twisted
toward sky. Their nakedness
casting soft linear shadows
on the sidewalk. When
had their leaves fallen? I’d been
so damn busy in Autumn. I
can’t even remember
what color they turned. Perhaps
orange, but I couldn’t name
the hue. Maybe a shade like
campfire or papaya innards? But
now, I suppose, I’ll have time
to watch buds appear and to make
up for not knowing
which railings birds prefer
for perching on the wrought
iron fence across the street. I
can wake up and sit
in the light of my bay window
and notice the man wearing
a corduroy jacket buttoned
halfway up, his beret tilted
slightly—it’s important
to look crisp in a crisis
I think, letting ourselves pretend
in whatever way we
can to have control, sometimes
we need that. This morning
I made coffee and drank it
out of a pale pink Ikea
mug, then I did something
unbecoming of the New
Yorker I’d convinced
myself I am, I waved to people
rolling their metal carts
down the street, having just
pillaged shelves of the Harlem
Costco one block down. I
stood inches from
the glass, to be closer
to them and so I could
taste my own breath
bouncing back at me, a reminder
that I am alive. Every so often
a car honks their horn
at the nearby intersection and I’ll let
myself believe that they’re saying
hello to me. Saying we see you
by the window and we
are in this together. I’ve
started smiling back
at the face someone carved
in wet cement, now frozen
forever on the sidewalk below
my window. Yesterday, a
man strolled by after a successful
supply run, his cart bursting
with Bounty paper towel
packaged in groups of six, nestled
in plastic covering, ready
to provide—mental manna
for indefinite isolation. The man rested
his hand atop the package, perhaps
for stability but I saw
what I wanted. And
that was a gentle touch. Like
a measure reserved for loved
ones, and it was comforting
to think of being touched
as I looked out at a street
where people were speed-walking
to the safety of a home, their
Bounty in tow


Jacuzzi Baptisms

Jacuzzi Baptisms

Kate Cammell | kac2261@columbia.edu

 

With the whirlpool setting off, the pastor enters a hot tub set up in the center of the church stage. One-by-one members, dressed in cotton tee shirts and athletic shorts, enter the tub for their baptism. Music swells from the praise band as the pastor guides each person through the process of dipping under water. With each dunk, the congregation erupts in applause.

This is the playbook of the monthly baptism services I grew up attending at Ada Bible, a nondenominational megachurch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Home to over 8,000 congregants, the church has four campuses scattered throughout the 200,000-person city. Each has been shuttered indefinitely as COVID-19 spreads across the nation.

These baptism services, slightly camp but moving, were always my favorites to attend. Kyle Pierpont, the Campus Pastor of the church’s Cascade Campus, often conducts the rite. He affirmed my sentiment as we talked the other day by phone saying, “yeah, people love them.”

Pierpont is a tattooed fourth-generation pastor with a grown-out brown beard and hair pulled into a bun that gives him an uncanny likeness to the Western iconography of Jesus. He’s in charge of pastoral care for the church and noted that it’s been difficult to uplift the community during this pandemic. Congregants are losing their jobs, loved ones are dying in isolation and everyone seems scared.

When Ada Bible closed its doors and went fully virtual on March 13, church leaders were hoping to reopen by Easter. Since then, the State of Michigan has enacted an executive order directing residents to stay at home through April 13, the state’s public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year and the federal government has extended their social distancing recommendations through April 30. As of my writing this on Thursday April 2, cases in the state have risen past 9,000 and President Donald Trump is in the midst of public spat with Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that’s delaying medical aid to the region.

Returning to normalcy anytime soon is looking increasingly unlikely.

Ada Bible leadership is attuned to this. They’re preparing for a virtual Easter service. The church has been offering online sermons for over a decade, so adjusting to the technology and the congregation’s embrace of virtual pastoring were no problem. But still, there’s a void.

Pierpont said that he didn’t realize how much community took place in the liminal spaces of the physical building. Suddenly gone are things like saying hellos in the hallways, grabbing coffee in the atrium or striking up a conversation with the person who passes you the Half and Half. Gone also are the people who sit side-by-side as they cheer on those submerging in water on stage.

Those moments are now on hold indefinitely.


The author in 2001, wearing a special dress for Easter Sunday service while showing off chocolate from the Easter bunny.

The author's baptism in 1997 before her family moved to Michigan. Ada Bible reserves baptism for older years when people can choose it for themselves.

Pierpont has been thinking more lately about the meaning of baptism. Water washing away worldly sin, the act reminding those who partake that God invites them to an afterlife in heaven. On Easter he’s hoping to baptize people over Zoom. The recorded rite would then be featured during the church’s service. He thinks it’s a small way to remind people of the hope God offers even in difficult times.

While sitting at his kitchen table in front of the banana plant his wife got from Costco, Pierpont hopes to recite a blessing over Zoom as congregants dunk themselves in a body of water at their home, preferably a hot tub. Bathtubs could work too, though he confessed, “I don’t know I feel a little weird about the bathtub thing.”

Though I’m not particularly religious anymore, there’s something comforting during this time about returning to the church where I grew up, now by live stream in my East Harlem apartment. I’m stuck between needing to find meaning in this moment and wondering if I can. But I’m discovering, perhaps in an effort to etch some semblance of normalcy, moments of peace in reconnecting with a familiar community from afar.

One that I’d lost touch with until this pandemic.

Returning to church, I’m remembering that feeling of communion I had sitting at those hot tub baptisms of my youth. Cheering in chaotic unison for people as they cry and stumble off-stage smiling produces a connection that’s difficult to describe.

It’s easy for me to imagine the absurdity of it all to an outside eye—God being present in a hot tub on the pulpit of a warehouse-style church nestled in Midwestern woods. Now maybe even a clawfoot bathtub at someone’s home.

But in these moments of baptism, my church celebrates the idea that the people around us might find release and respite from the mortal world, a place where disease is real and no water can easily wash it away. As we watch the baptisms this Easter, there’s newfound hope that we might feel ourselves uplifted, too.

And, perhaps some congregants, like me, will find a much needed and special kind of levity that only comes from thinking about Jesus administering divine rescue via a Jacuzzi.


The Invitation

The Invitation

Kate Cammell | kac2261@columbia.edu

Robert Harding/GettyImages

With her right hand placed over her heart and her left palm opened towards the balcony, Angela Lockett-Colas invited everyone in the church to join in the communion service. The stage lights above her shifted from ice blue to light pink and the eight-member praise band began to play a soft rock melody. 

Forefront is an interdenominational church with roots in the Evangelical movement. It’s tucked along a Borem-Hill side street at 509 Atlantic Avenue. During a Sunday morning service, Lockett-Colas, Forefront’s creative director, told the congregation, “Communion is something we do because of the gift we have in Jesus Christ.” As the beat picked up tempo, she reminded the nearly 150 gathered people of the ways that Jesus suffered. “You might feel [persecuted] like that too but you’re loved. You’re loved,” she said.

As Lockett-Colas ushered congregants into the ritual, there was a fullness to her tone that felt assuring, like a mother comforting her children. She beamed as she summoned “anyone” to receive God’s love and to affirm their commitment to Him. 

People stood below her on either side of the stage with wooden bowls of bread and large mason jars of red wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. In the Protestant expression of Christianity, communion is a ritual where believers dip bread in wine, and as they eat the mixture they’re asked to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice. 

After Lockett-Cola spoke, members were initially slow to take communion. It was early, so people puttered, like the city buses that had ushered some there that morning. In the last row of the chapel, Georgina Orin followed her friend Grace Dowd into the aisle. Orin’s polka dotted dress sashayed on the wooden floor as she moved in time to the music. Orin, a Californian who once lived in New York, attends Forefront whenever she’s in town.  

For Orin, communion is about taking a moment to think about herself in relation to the world around her. Despite the music and the whirl of the lights, there’s a stillness that believers talk about inside themselves. “I think communion is a way to remind you to nourish yourself and that you’re a part of something bigger,” she said.

After reaching the front of the line and dipping the bread in wine, Orin and Dowd made their way back down the aisle. Back at their seats, Orin rested her head on Dowd’s shoulder as they listened to the praise band. People around them raised their hands in the air and bounced on their heels, feeling the music and waiting for everyone to partake in the weekly rite.

Just in case anyone missed Lockett-Colas’s invitation, it was underscored by bold white letters on a large screen at the front of the chapel. “Communion,” the sign announced. Below that it read: “All are welcome at God’s table.” And for Forefront’s members who, like Dowd, identify as queer, seeing “all” written onscreen was key. It’s why many choose to take communion here.

Forefront became an LGBTQ-affirming church in 2014, a controversial move for an Evangelical congregation. The choice was met with loss of both members and funding, but the church stood by its choice. It’s website proudly reads, “We seek community that is inclusive of ALL people.” 

Though communion is an individual practice, it’s undertaken—as its name implies—as a community. At Forefront that includes “Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, Believers and agnostics, Women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and Those of all classes and abilities.” It’s a church where juxtapositions are encouraged to rub shoulders.

This is reflected in the communion service as well—old tradition meets new meaning, and, for those who partake of it, a fortification with the warmth of red wine and dance on a chilly February morning in New York City.