Spirit in the Sky: Riding the Express Elevator to Jesus, 40 Stories Above Ground Zero
Matt Chaban March 30, 2011, 3:34 a.m.
The River is probably the only church where one of the ministers used to write the Heard on the Street column for The Wall Street Journal and now uses his iPad to deliver messages directly from God to parishioners. It is also likely the only church, at least in New York, where a penitent’s ears pop upon entering.
The River has held services on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center since the fall of 2009. The church rents the space on Sundays from the New York Academy of Sciences. There are double helixes of DNA on the carpet and a shrine to Charles Darwin near the entrance. The views stretch from Jersey City to J.F.K., and to ground zero right below, with all its fervor, religious and otherwise.
“When we came here, the view, it just allowed us to have fellowship even more,” said Amos, who has been attending the River for three years with his wife and was wearing red chinos, a cardigan and a bow tie. “As New Yorkers, we rarely take the time to look up–we always look down or we look straight ahead. Being here helps us look up, it helps bring us closer together and bring us closer to God.”
Besides, the skyscraper space is cheaper than the church’s old digs in a bank building on Broad Street. Many of the parishioners appreciate the apparent irony of their nave in the sky, and to the academy they are just another rent check. “Pepsico, Pfizer, various alumni organizations, an Irish entrepreneurship group and the Israeli Consulate are among the many external groups, like the River, that rent our space for their own events with no connection to NYAS,” the academy’s director of public outreach wrote in an email.
The River was founded by Charles Park, an economics Ph.D. from M.I.T. who launched a similar church in Cambridge, Mass., before setting up shop in Greenwich Village. While that Boston parish, called the Vineyard, grew to more than 1,000 members in five years, Mr. Park has only reached a few hundreed here in the same span. Still, he says he sees even greater potential in New York, in no small part because God told him, afer he denied it repeatedly, that his duty was to preach at ground zero.
“There’s more to life, and I think New Yorkers instinctively feel that,” Mr. Park told The Observer over lunch at Petite Abeille on West Broadway, where he ordered the tuna salad sandwich and a Palm beer between services two Sundays ago.. “Why do people come to New York? I think they want more out of life than could happen in their hometown. I think they want to experience something bigger, more refreshing, a bigger dimension of life. That is what this city is about. It is a city of dreams.” A city where an out-of-town pastor could hope to win converts with Zizmor-style subway ads, too.
A mix of tent revival and corporate boardroom, with a healthy dose of pop culture, Mr. Park’s sermons move easily between St. Matthew, Bono and Schopenhauer. A band on the light side of indie rock opens and closes things, though there are no Bibles or hymnals–just a PowerPoint presentation, which then gets posted at TheRiver.org. The flock is drawn from across the city, particularly Wall Street, with attire ranging from the frumpy (baggy striped sweaters, khakis) to the fashionable (4-inch snakeskin stilettos, pageboy caps).
Call it the Gotham Gospel.
“I hated going to church growing up,” Collin, a recent N.Y.U. grad who now volunteers as the River’s youth coordinator, said. Dressed in a hoodie over a flannel shirt and jeans, Collin was cutting doughnuts in half to go with jugs of Dunkin Donuts coffee and cartons of Minute Maid for after services. “I had an agnostic mom and a lapsed Catholic dad, and we basically went out of this sense of guilt. Here, the sermons are tailored to life in the city.”
In many ways, the church reflects its founder. Mr. Park emigrated from South Korea as a teenager, got into Stanford and then M.I.T. and made more than $40 million on the stock market. “I was living the American dream, I had everything, and yet I was still miserable,” he said. That led him to attend church in Boston before founding his own.
Mr. Park sees much the same anguish in his fellow New Yorkers. His favorite parable is the one told by the comedian Louis C.K. on The Late Show with Conan O’Brien two years ago, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.”
“If everyone thought, ‘My job is to bring fullness of life to those around me,'” Mr. Park said, “New York would be a much better place.”