> From school basements to mega-churches, amid congregations numbering less than ten to more than 10,000, novelist and cancer survivor Suzanne Strempek Shea offers a chronicle of her one-year journey to 50 different Protestant churches in over 30 states. In search of “the right place for her heart and soul,” Shea opens herself to the places of worship where, she was told by her Catholic instructors as a child, if she entered, the ceiling would fall in and she would go to hell.
The idea for this pilgrimage began in 2005 in the wake of the death of Pope John Paul II, when she was impressed by the passion of his mourners. The scandals which have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years had shaken Shea’s faith in the institution to its core. In an effort to “understand what makes for devotion to a religious community,” which she had lost, Shea decided to sample a few of the more than 2,500 Protestant denominations in operation today. Fortunately for clarity’s sake, Shea did not sample the major non-Christian (i.e. Judaism and Islam) religions.
If the book has a weakness, it relates to the larger project it chronicles. One visit to a church can only impart a small glimpse of what it is and what it means to a community. To her credit, though, Shea approaches each church with an open heart, a serious mind, and a transparent devotion to finding the truth of her faith. Kudos to Shea, since I definitely would have had trouble keeping an open mind at some of these places. I won’t name names, but the churches she visited in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and another right here in Rhode Island spring to mind.
There were a few I’d really like to see, especially the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where former president Jimmy Carter regularly appears and leads Sunday school classes. Another was Barack Obama’s church (Trinity United Methodist Church of Christ in Chicago), which Shea visited and wrote about before Pastor Jeremiah Wright began making headlines with his comments.
One of the last churches Shea visited was particularly fascinating. Jay Bakker (son of Jim and Tammy Faye of PTL fame) runs the Revolution Church in Brooklyn New York. “Religion Kills” is the theme of the place, claiming that religion is a “false perception of holiness that focuses on law and kills the true message of Christ.” That message, as they interpret it, is essentially Shea’s conclusion at the end of her journey—which is, “God loves you, no matter what.”