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An Ed's Eye View: Reflections on First Days at Saint Hilda's (Ed Watson, SHH '13)

The First Few Days

I didn’t sleep the night before I went to America, which, combined with my complete inability to sleep on plane, meant that by the time I arrived at 343 Elm Street, New Haven, I’d been awake for forty hours. Most of my memories of the journey are thus fairly hazy. Saying goodbye to my parents was emotional in that strange way that long term partings always are when it becomes apparent that everything else will carry on at normal pace. The only notable features of the departure lounge were a 30 Year Old Glenfarclas for £90 and the presence of the Fulham Badgers, a football team for children with Downs Syndrome, apparently on their way to Hong Kong with coaching staff and parents in tow. The flight was uneventful, though I am indebted to the man sitting next to me for lending me his pen in order to fill in the various border patrol and customs forms (I couldn’t find mine: it was in my pocket). Two hours in a queue at JFK Airport, and I was officially on American soil.

The reason I’m here is to take part in one of the Episcopal Service Corps programmes, specifically St Hilda’s House in New Haven, which I’ve recently been told is known on the circuit (yes: there’s a circuit) as Anglo-Catholic boot camp, in part due to the extremely high nature of the service, in part due to the intensity of the work. The purpose of the programme is two-fold: firstly, to provide much needed volunteers to help the various community initiatives aimed at serving those who, for whatever reason, do not have the means to provide for themselves. Secondly, it is geared towards helping Hildans (for that is the collective term) explore a vocation. The website also says that it hopes to help train up at least a couple of future church leaders. Canterbury, here I come.

Getting from JFK to New Haven took just over five hours. First up was the thirty minute wait for an “express” bus from the airport to Grand Central Station: if there’s anything which makes you appreciate the underground, it’s sitting outside in thirty degree heat waiting for a bus that looks like it was old in the 80s. The traffic in New York puts London to shame. There appears to be a different attitude towards driving as well: this was the only bus I’ve been on which turned off a motorway onto a junction in order to move in front of five cars in an especially congested area. Other drivers were similarly resourceful and ruthless. I find the idea of trying to get ahead in a traffic jam confusing, and I’m sure there’s a profound metaphor explicating certain facets of the American Dream in there somewhere. The buildings are huge, to the extent that there’s just no point looking up. Grand Central itself is teeming and pristine, right up until you get the the platform, when you’re greeted with the heated stench of tar and petrol. Once on the train, it’s about an hour and three quarters to New Haven, which bodes well for future weekend trips to the Big Apple. Over the four hours, I made small talk with a retired Irish television producer on holiday, a group of middle aged chemists who manipulated the polymers in paint in order to create a thicker coat for a living, and another retiree who gave me a business card I couldn’t make head nor tail of (apparently even some retirees have business cards).

I felt a certain amount of trepidation as I approached Christ Church, New Haven, and not just because of the taxi driver chatting on her phone whilst failing to drive in a conventionally straight line. This is home for a year, a home I’m sharing with not just ten Americans, but ten American Christians, and I’ve seen enough Louis Theroux documentaries to know that things could get messy. Fortunately, the people couldn’t be nicer (and I’m not just saying that because they might be reading this). I won’t go into detail, public blogs hardly being the place to lay out character evaluations of your housemates, but suffice to say that Fred Phelps Jr is nowhere to be seen. The house meanwhile is practically a mansion, with more sofas that even I can do slo-mo jumps onto.It’s been busy.

Helping out at Chapel on the GreenOn day one we helped out at Loaves and Fishes, which on this particular occasion provided food, clothing, and doctors to about 200 people. We were also given a tour of New Haven by C and J. J is mid-thirties going on fifty, and has been homeless since he was sixteen. He knows the streets and bemoans the fact that the younger generation of street criminals don’t have an honour code like the old timers. Though he had difficulty maintaining a consistent line of thought, he provided a snapshot of city life which is unlikely to appear in any official tour guides. The only observation I’ll make here is the probably very obvious one that indigence sits within opulence in New Haven, not next to it. One homeless camp J showed us (after first checking there was no-one there) was a minute’s walk from the Yale Library. It consisted of a folded mattress.

We spent the afternoon making lunches for Chapel on the Green, to be held the next day. Chapel on the Green is an outdoor service for those who might not want to set foot in a church, and who would certainly be turned away from Winchester Cathedral anyway. In the twenty minutes before the service starts a core of five or so men provide percussive music by hitting worn out drums and bins. We Hildans divided our time between handing out song sheets, conversing with the congregation and trying out hand at the drumming (I still have no sense of rhythm). The service was a Eucharist with grape juice, as many regulars express a wish to drink no alcohol. The reading was taken from Mark’s Gospel and delivered by A.J., leader for the drum group.

I’ve heard very few readings which really get the heart of the gospel as he did, even if he did struggle with a few of the longer words. The translation helped: the NRSV doesn’t have Jesus saying that Isaiah ‘hit the nail on the head’ when it comes to the Pharisees, or saying that they ditched God’s command for passing fads. After the service there is more drumming, and everyone present queues up for lunch. One man queuing appeared to be living a relatively clean life: though he only had one arm, his shirt was ironed and clean and his trousers appeared to be pressed. Beneath it, his remaining arm was withered and the hole in his cuff revealed a gangrenous looking sore. I could probably trot out various clichés about the inherent dignity of those present despite their situation, but I have a feeling it would say more about the values I would want to impose upon them to make sense of their situation. I have no idea about the truth of the people at the service. Their experience is utterly alien to me: to try and describe my impression of it in my terms seems insulting. In any case, I had to take a quiet moment after carrying a table away to collect myself. I wasn’t about the burst into tears, but I had to sit a stare into space for a short while.

The final event of the day was Compline. To backtrack a bit, before Chapel on the Green we attended a High Mass at Christ Church, following an order of service reassuringly similar to the Oriel Eucharist. Overall, I reckon the Pope might have felt the need to tone things down a little, but that was no bad thing.

Compline was completely different. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything like it. It takes place at 9pm, and is only lit by candles. There’s no order of service, no spoken words. The light is such that you can only see the silhouettes of the congregation. The service consists of half an hour of sung liturgy, sung by a five person choir. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a quantifiable religious experience. Once it had finished a few of us were standing at one of the doors to church, thanking people for coming. The impact of the service was such that the noise of the traffic seemed muted, as if the sound was hailing from another dimension. Our other roles consisted of lighting the candles (a specialty of mine) and standing back in awe as one of the priests swung a thurible about in a way that suggests he could easily develop a new martial art out of Anglican paraphernalia. We all smelt of incense as we went out to the bar afterwards.

More of Ed's reflections and experiences may be found on his blog!

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