The Amazing Grace of a Smile My Story

| 29 Jun 2015 | 02:12

Never so needed perhaps are songs and smiles that bring people together – and might bring more people to church as Catholic churches fight to keep from merger or closure. Lagging attendance, you know, is a problem for Protestants, too. But I hoped the horrific racial-hate-based massacre of nine South Carolina church members attending a prayer meeting would have spiked attendance at New York churches where racial prejudice has long been denounced.

But I fear one Upper East Side Protestant church’s “unspiked” attendance was typical.

As for songs we need, surely President Obama’s sudden singing of “Amazing Grace” was a most memorable and hopefully emulatable part of his moving eulogy for slain State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Amazed, but joyfully so, the congregation soon joined in. While this column is most concerned with overcoming terrible race-based and all violent crime, and an ever more violent culture, its immediate concern is saving city churches. And attendance might spike with a whole lot more congregational singing of preferably familiar hymns and in manageable keys please.

I’ve long suggested and especially now, with so many churches at risk, that 15 or so minutes before the service, a trio or quartet should do a little concert outside the church entrance. Of course, the singers would be smiling at passers by, some of whom might just decide to take in the service. And they might come back if they were greeted with smiles, especially by those sharing their pew.

Too often, I’ve been in churches where, except for passing the peace, there was no acknowledging of a visitor, or even greetings between regular members. Too many unsmiling faces, just like the ones we unfortunately see on the street (or don’t see, with heads bent over iPhones.)

But to stay with the smiles, we some could take lessons from just two people who work at St. Stephen of Hungary Church: Carolyn Ann Devaney, who works in the church office, and Guillermo Vanagas, who works as maintenance engineer at this now-endangered church on E. 82nd St. Ah, Devaney even noted the Smile word embroidered on my shirt pocket. Her smile truly does light up the room, and she couldn’t be more welcoming to those (many non members) who come to the church rectory for various helpful non-church activities.

Vanagas also smiles, and like Devaney, wants to know how you really are, and not only those he helps on to the church’s blessed automatic lift. Both worry about the church’s possible merger with St. Monica’s which, incidentally, has many steps, no lift. air conditioning or kitchen, and few accessible meeting rooms.

But I suspect what faith groups need most, especially as city neighborhoods are being pushed out, is to become that “village it takes,” where members really share one another’s burdens, before taking on those of the community at large.

Here’s to everyone smiling, everywhere, and especially at kids/young people, who seem to do less smiling than other age groups. Not much smiling in cyberspce. Even that can be overcome - if enough of us try.