As expected, I get a lot of Christian press releases around Christmas and Easter. Most of the material gets circular filed under “been there, done that;” “would love to attend, but I have too many other Christian commitments;” or “Christ died and rose for THIS?” But this year, I got a press release titled “Church, Artists and Sex Workers plan an Experiential Easter Service,” that piqued my curiosity.
Transmission, an underground Manhattan church, is working with sex workers and artists to celebrate Mary Magdalene’s role in the gospel resurrection story, her personal relationship with Jesus, her witness on behalf of the risen Christ, and contemporary sex worker issues. They chose Mary Magdalene because Christ appeared to her before anyone else and entrusted her with the news of his resurrection although the other apostles didn’t believe her (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-10; and John 20:1-18).
While some Christians call Mary Magdalene a prostitute, or say she was the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3-11), a careful reading will reveal these are later interpretations of the text as the institutionalized church marginalized her and concocted stories of her being a prostitute. Rather than give this story a gnostic update, Transmission appears to be going back to the Bible basics to explore, on Easter Sunday, the significant role this allegedly fallen woman played in helping to spread the gospel.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus surrounded himself with those society had rejected as outcasts and undesirables. “In my experience,” says Transmission co-founder Bowie Snodgrass, “listening to sex workers tell their stories can blow the lids off morally-loaded religious debates about sex and economics, revealing deep human truths, lives, complexities, and questions.” What does it mean to have a service that welcomes all but makes an effort to target those whom society has shunned as unclean and undesirable?
Jesus welcomed all into his kingdom, teaching us that we are all equal in God’s eyes, and as such we are equally worthy of being loved. According to Transmission’s Web site, “All are welcome regardless of age, gender, profession, or the number of times they’ve been born.”
The venue for this service is Club Avalon, formerly known as the notorious New York nightclub Limelight. Originally, this gothic revival structure was built as Holy Communion Episcopal Church by William Augustus Muhlenberg, who later instituted a radical ministry to help brothel workers and abandoned mistresses start new lives. He earned a place on the Episcopal calendar of feasts and fasts, the Anglican equivalent of being made a saint. Coincidentally, Easter Sunday happens to fall on his Feast Day. Coincidence? You decide.
Instead of having a clergyperson lead and direct the entire thing, every member of Transmission will play a part in guiding the worship experience. The service will include performance poetry, modern dance, graffiti art, a live band playing Madonna covers, and much, much more. “Rather than directing ritual activity,” says Isaac Everett, “we’re creating an interactive environment which will allow people to connect with the Easter story on their own terms and at their own pace. It’s important to us that everyone who comes has an access point, regardless of who they are.” Collaborators on this venture include members of PONY (Prostitutes Organization of New York), artists from Storahtelling (a Jewish ritual theater company), and local seminarians.
I’ve worshipped with Isaac Everett on and off for several years now and I can attest to the power of his music. This is no free-for-all, anything-goes kind of service, but a service that will be grounded by Isaac’s love of liturgy and the Word, as well as his skill as a music worship leader. I just found out that his work will be distributed by Jonny Baker’s Proost label. I’ve worked with Jonny enough to know that it’s well worth checking out his new resources that fuel faith.
Even though my Easter Sunday tends to be booked solid, something tells me I should carve out a bit of space and check out this service. For those who are in the New York City area, come join me on Sunday, April 8, starting at 6 p.m. in Club Avalon, 47 West 20th Street (at Sixth Avenue). No cover charge, just come as you are. I have no idea what to expect – but then again, neither did Mary Magdalene when she first went to the tomb.