Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Sunday service: review

Most tourists in New York looking for a good gospel service will make their way to Harlem on the Sabbath, but those based downtown like me are probably better off checking out the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church just over the bridge. I went along one Sunday to check it all out.

From the get-go you know this isn’t traditional church (but then, you wouldn’t be there if it was, would you?). The theatre is huge, comparable to any Broadway venue, and hanging over the stage is a screen advertising the lunch specials in the Church’s cafe and urging attendees to check out the official Twitter page. Yep, we’re not in the World Revival Church of Kansas City anymore.

Upon arrival, I was seated in the third row, far closer than I wanted to be. With each service running at about two hours, I had originally intended to watch for about half an hour, catch a few tunes, and then make a quiet exit through a side door.

But there is a single seat available near the front, and I am being ushered towards it before I can think about the consequences. When I sit down, I realise there will be no quiet exits from this position and I prepare to hunker down for the long haul. I’m also a little disappointed (but not surprised) to find that photography is not permitted during the service.

The choir begins to file in about 15 minutes before we start, and it is almost a stock image of ‘diversity’: Asian, white, black, brown, young, old, some fashionably-dressed and some dressed for church. But, when they sing, the Choir becomes uniform in their zeal.

Things kick off with a few tunes led by one singer with a microphone, backed up by the Choir, the band, and the crowd (lyrics are posted on the overhead screen). For non-believers, it can be uncomfortable to be surrounded by such unembarrassed passion, as everyone around you sways, sings, claps, raises their arms to the roof and utters loud affirmations, while those actually holding the microphones really let rip with praise for the Almighty (“OOOOHHHHH HALLELUJAH!”). You can feel like a bit of an imposter amongst it all, particularly if you’re just three rows from the front, the epicentre of the proudly faithful, as it were.

I’m initially unsure of whether to clap/sing/sway along in tribute to a God I don’t believe in, but after a while I feel comfortable tapping my foot in time with the music and silently observing proceedings.

But it’s hard to be an impassive observer through the entire service. Attendees are frequently asked to hold hands, to hug one another. First-time visitors are urged to stand up during one point in the sermon, though there enough in the crowd that I don’t feel self-conscious raising myself above the throng. At the sermon’s conclusion, everyone is asked to say to five people around them “I’m gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay”, and no sooner have I risen from my seats that I am clasped into the embrace of my neighbour with this vow earnestly spoken into my ear.

Even during portions of the show when the audience is seated, some parishioners stand up and raise their hands towards the stage. One such woman in front of me did this repeatedly, but obviously this is not an environment where “down in front” is an appropriate response.

After the opening few songs, the audience is asked to sit and the choir begins their performance. And that’s when things get good.

Like all choirs, they are better live. No recording ever manages to do justice to the smack-you-in-the-face power of hundreds of people singing in front of you, and YouTube clips don’t come close, though this is gives you an idea:

The highlight is a rendition of What a Mighty God We Serve that I could have happily listened to well past its ten-minute running time. The soloist who begins the piece has a suitably astonishing vocal range, and when the choir joins in the piece reaches new heights. Whenever you think they have reached their crescendo, they find another level.

It is truly awe-inspiring, being struck with the force of it. When in full song, the choir can almost inspire that feeling that Christians talk about, staring into the face of God dumbstruck with an indescribably uplifting feeling. It is, in the truest sense of the word, glorious.

The choir only sings on its own for about half an hour and then quietly shuffles out again. The one-hour sermon which follows is surprisingly engaging, all things considered. Pastor Jim Cymbala apparently doesn’t tend towards the “fire and brimstone” approach, but is more of a grandfatherly counsellor.

There are inconsistencies, of course. Early on in his address, Cymbala decries sermons which mostly involve people giving their opinions rather than focusing on the Bible. Later, however, politics rear their head when he talks about how the “anti-Christian New York City government” doesn’t allow Church events in public spaces, but readily agrees to staging rap shows “which demean women” as “strengthening cultural roots”.

The victim mentality gets a solid airing too. Cymbala talks about how “it’s hard to be a Christian, everyone is against you, you can be anything but a Christian.” However, he uses this to move the discussion into losing one’s faith, which is one of the main focal points of the sermon. Cymbala urges those who are doubting their faith to make their way towards the stage and encourages them not to give up on God. I am surprised that roughly a hundred people do indeed rise from their seats to stand at the front of the stage, with Cymbala pointing to each of them in turn telling them “you’re going to be okay”.

In many ways it helps turn it all into an experience which traverses the full gamut of religious belief: from the joy of faith to the despair of doubt. It’s not enough to bring me into the fold, that would require another few hours listening to the Choir, but it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours on a Sunday. Perhaps after a particularly sinful Saturday.

Information about the Choir and session times can be found on the Church website.

A guide to New York City airports

New York airports handled a total of over 104 million passengers last year, which is why it’s a good thing these were spread over three separate airports: JFK, Newark and La Guardia.

New York City can be trying even without the added stresses of travel, so here I present a quick guide to each of these airports, their strengths and weaknesses, so you can plan your travel acordingly. You can thank me by buying me a beer in the airport lounge later.

La Guardia Airport

La Guardia ranked as the worst airport in the US for customer satisfaction and equal last for on-time arrivals in a 2009 survey. This has certainly been my experience.

I have used La Guardia a number of times and have never once left or arrived on time, with inclement weather, technical malfunctions and general apathy all playing their part in making the experience of using the airport pretty grim.

La Guardia feels very much like an airport that long surpassed its maximum capacity. Because it’s the smallest, it also means it’s a crappy place to spend a long delay: the food court is limited and (of course) overpriced and you can forget about finding a few empty seats on which to stretch out and cool your heels.

It is, however, the easiest and cheapest airport to get to from Manhattan, and offers the greatest array of regional flights (flights longer than 1500 miles are prohibited). I can imagine that when it’s working as it should it’s a very convenient little hop over from Manhattan and into the air.

While there is no subway stop at La Guardia, the M60 bus runs straight from upper Manhattan to the terminal, and there are other buses to the airport running from Queens. Make sure you have your MTA card.

Carmel Limousines also offers town cars from Manhattan to La Guardia from $33 (without gratuity), making it one of the best options for early morning or late travel. You’re looking at a similar price for a taxi.

Newark Liberty International Airport

My personal favourite of the three, it feels like a happy medium between JFK and La Guardia’s sizes: big enough to have spacious, well-stocked terminals, but not too busy.

Newark is a hub for Continental/United, meaning that there are plenty of domestic and international connections, and a number of European carriers operate out of the airport.

Oh, and you can 30 minutes of free WiFi in the terminal.

The AirTrain provides direct service to Manhattan’s Penn Station, but the $12.50 price-tag (plus whatever you’ll have to pay from Penn Station) usually means that it is cheaper (if not quicker) to get a shuttle bus directly to your destination. I once took a Go Airlink NYC bus to Manhattan for $17. It took about 45 minutes to leave the airport, but the price was right.

JFK International Airport

The busiest of the three and probably the least easily-accessible with public transport. As you can see from the instructions on the MTA website, it’s a trip in itself just getting there. The city mandates a flat rate $45 fare between JFK and Manhattan, excluding tips and tolls.

At over 90 airlines and eight terminals, JFK can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. But being the busiest international gateway in the country, it’s what you’re most likely to use if you’re flying to/from another country.

As a result, the security also feels like the strictest of the three. However, it is the biggest airport in New York City (with the greatest diversity of foreigners filing through its gates), so it’s understandable that security is taken seriously at JFK.

Happy travels.

Cliche tourist things to do in New York City and are they worth it? Pt. 1

New York is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, but are the sights that built this reputation really worth the effort? Over the last few years I’ve done them all, and seeing as I have an abiding interest in making sure people don’t waste their time, I thought I’d help you out. You can thank me later.

Note: this advice is written for the visiting tourist rather than the long-term expat. If you’re here for a while, you should do all of these once.

Rockefeller Plaza

This might be one of the few outdoor activities that’s best done in winter. The Plaza looks great in ice rink mode:In summer, it just looks like a food court:

That said, the Prometheus statue is more impressive in real life and it’s not like you have to pay for it.

Worth it? Yes. It’s iconic, and because it’s in midtown it’s probably not taking you too far out of your way anyway. 10 minutes will do it, though.

Staten Island Ferry

You do get some nice views of the Manhattan skyline for about five minutes, but do you really have anything to do in Staten Island? Unless you’re interested in getting some Italian, most people usually end up just getting back on the return ferry.

Also, if you’re using this ferry to get some shots of the Statue of Liberty, you’ll need a good camera lens, otherwise your pictures will end up looking like this:

Worth it? Probably not, you can get skyline views elsewhere. Definitely not if you’re also doing the Statue of Liberty and/or Ellis Island.

Times Square

You already know you won’t be having it to yourself, but do you really know just how packed Times Square gets? Every square inch of space is packed with tourists and panhandlers. You probably won’t mind if it’s your first time visiting and you wanna stop for pictures every 10 metres anyway, but after a while you get a bit over it.

If it is your first time, try visiting at night, when the lights have more of an impact. It’s still impressive during the day, but not the same:

Worth it? Yes. Crowds aside, it’s still spectacular. Try squeezing in a Broadway show too.

Wall St

What, really, are you coming here to do? The US Stock Exchange that you can’t go inside anymore? To get a picture of a Wall St street-sign? Punch a federal bail-out recipient in the face?

The ‘Bull’ statue is decent, but be prepared to share it:

Oh, and if you think you’re the first person to think of a hilarious picture with the bull’s testicles:

Worth it? Not really. It’s a business district. Unless you’re into watching a bunch of suits on their cell phones, don’t bother.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t seem all that special when you consider Manhattan’s other similarly handsome bridges, with Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and Queensboro Bridge on the east side alone.

But a walk across the the Brooklyn Bridge is a worthy activity. You get some great views of Manhattan and can finish it off with a stroll around DUMBO (District Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), one of Brooklyn’s nicest neighbourhoods:

Just make sure you stay in the pedestrian lane, unless you want to get yelled out by an irate cyclist.

Worth it? Definitely.

Museum of Natural History

This Museum’s glory is also its crux: it is massive.

Like the British Museum, there’s almost too much going on, and you could lose a whole day trying to see it all.

It has great exhibitions on a regular basis that are worth the extra coin, but maybe save it for a wet weather day.

Worth it? If you have the time, absolutely.

SPiN New York: review

Don’t let the contrived lower case ‘i’ fool you, this place isn’t an epic tool-fest.

If there really is a ping pong revival going on in this country, Spin (I refuse to bow to their irregular capitalization) is merely the first of many “ping pong social clubs” that will spring up across the USA, but for now you’ll have to make do with locations in Milwaukee, St Petersburg, and yes, New York City.

Located just a block from the Flatiron, Spin NYC is a sports club-cum-nightclub. The entrance is guarded by a bouncer, but then it’s downstairs to your old family rumpus room, if your old family rumpus room had about twenty ping pong tables, a bar, and about 50 strangers running around in there.

For afficionados, the tables and paddles play true. For those who didn’t have a table growing up and were barred from using the neighbours’ after one too many errant footballs through their windows, it’s still a fun night. Each table is supplied with a bucket full of balls, with errant balls being scooped up by net-wielding staff members, so you don’t spend half your night chasing after those little orange orbs.

In a most unexpected celebrity twist, Spin is partially owned by Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, who suddenly seems a lot cooler now, you must admit. My playing partners on the night I visited Spin informed me that Suse (as I’m sure she’d like me to call her) and ex Tim Robbins had been at the bar the week before watching a tournament, idly chilling with the punters.

While Suse and Timmy weren’t in attendance for my debut, professional ping pong player Wally Green was spotted taking on opponents with a cell phone, something he apparently does on a regular basis.

If, as suggested here, ping pong is the “new billiards”, Spin might be just the place where you want to brush up on your skills.

What’s the damage?

Starting at about $7 for a beer, with a decent range of domestic and imported options.

Table hire comes in at around $40, so you’re better off splitting the cost with a party of a few people. Let’s face it, ping pong is more fun that way anyway.

Where?

48 East 23rd Street, near Madison Square Park.

What’s a good time to go?

We visited on a Thursday night, which wasn’t too crowded, though you’ll still have to wait for a table. Make sure you put your name down for a table as soon as you get there. If you have to wait for a while, who cares? It’s still a bar.

Alternatively, if you just feel like having a few drinks and taking in the spectacle, you might want to visit during a tournament, including the monthly ‘Ping Pong with the Models’ tournament. Because…models.