Church ‘travel writer’ coming to Mamaroneck on Sunday

Suzanne Strempek Shea was raised Catholic, but had stopped going to church by the time Pope John Paul II died.

She watched the incredible funeral procession and was caught up “in the fervency of the mourners.” Why were they so moved?

So she decided to go back to church — but to Protestant churches, which she had always wondered about. What went on there? Every Sunday for a year, Shea visited a different church.

7224.jpgThe result is her new book: Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith (Beacon Press).

Shea will visit Mamaroneck United Methodist Church this Sunday (June 29) at noon to read from her book and sign copies.

“There are so many ways people worship in this country, just within the realm of Christianity, and I knew only one way,” she told me. “The way I was raised, if you went to any other kind of church, the roof would fall in on you.”

I’m still not quite sure why the death of John Paul II — and the incredible reaction to it — inspired Shea to visit Protestants and not reacquaint herself with Catholicism. But her journey was bound to be a fascinating one, regardless.

She started off with a Baptist Easter service in Harlem and just kept going: a cowboy church in Colorado; visits with Shakers and Quakers; Joel Osteen and Rick Warren’s megachurches; Jimmy Carter’s church in Plains, Ga.; the San Francisco African Orthodox church that worships to the music of John Coltrane; Barack Obama’s Chicago church; and on and on.

She even found out that people speak in tongues right in her town in western Massachusetts.

Shea found a passionate faith — particularly in evangelical churches — that she hadn’t found in her own Catholic Church.

“Evangelicals spend their entire morning and afternoon there,” she said. “They bring bottled water, books for the children, and spend the day. This is their Sabbath. There is a real mysticism, people caught up in the healing component in some churches. It’s like a performance, in a way. People are getting so emotional…”

In many parts of the country, church is where people go for community, Shea told me.

suzanne-strempek-shea.jpg“Some people I spoke to at Rick Warren’s church said ‘I moved to the area, saw people driving over and wanted to meet people,’ ” she said.

What did Joel Osteen preach about when Shea was in Houston? Diet tips.

“There was no mention of God,” she told me. “It’s reaching out to what people need and aren’t getting in their communities.”

Shea doesn’t sound too eager to re-embrace Catholicism: “There is so much that, I wish, would make Catholicism a lot more vibrant — including a lot more people, including God a lot more, even.”

Mamaroneck UMC is at 546 E. Boston Post Road.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.