The church guys visit every holy place in town
05:00 AM, Dec 23, 2012
Explaining the mission that he and Luke Myer have assigned themselves, Chris Clemens resorts to a quote from the 2000 film Almost Famous. A rock-and-roll movie, with a line ascribed to the late rock critic Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
True, Clemens and Myer use the word “geeks” to describe themselves. Yet their interest in organized religion both its theologies and architecture is shared by thousands in western New York, so awash in religiosity in the late 1800s that it was known as The Burned Over District. That was a warning to would-be evangelicals not to bother pitching their tents here, as the area was already overpopulated by entrenched dogma, start-up religions and dodgy spiritualists.
Clemens and Myer have a simple-sounding aim: to visit every historic religious and spiritual spot in the region. The holy places of Catholics, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Sikhs, Shakers, but also lesser-known and sometimes controversial groups such as Eckankar, the Megiddo Church and Spiritualists who believed that the Fox sisters could speak to the dead. It is geek completism that has led them to visit about three dozen sites since first embarking on the quest in January. Ironically, because of their outsider status, they’ve experienced things at some of these religious sites that even the most ardent members could never expect to.
They share their mission in exhaustive detail in a blog, Chris and Luke Explore the Burned Over District. They are explorers, not experts. “We get corrected all the time,” Clemens says.
After all, they’re not exactly credentialed. “We don’t work in a college atmosphere we’re just two guys,” Clemens says. But their motivation is pure. “Two average, no-name guys exploring out of our own curiosity.”
Two no-name guys with closely shaved heads, 33 years old: same age that theologians generally ascribe to Jesus at the time of his death. Clemens and Myer have known each other for 15 years, moving among the same circle of friends, yet for the first 14 years of their relationship were aware of only one thing in common: They did not like each other.
If fact, each thought the other was a jerk. Some of that was rooted in guy stuff. Myer accuses Clemens of trying to move in on one of his ex-girlfriends. “Which didn’t happen,” Clemens quickly retorts. They laugh about it now.
But it was Clemens’ emotionally difficult breakup with a girlfriend a year ago that bridged the rift, as their mutual friends pulled Clemens from his funk. “We became more adult,” Clemens says.
At first glance, there’s little in common. Clemens, born and raised in Rochester and a Webster High School grad, is 5-feet, 5-inches tall and wears the serious demeanor of a national operations manager. Which he is, for the National Braille Association, based in Brighton. The fact that he does not read Braille is of no importance: He is precise, and a planner. Myer was born in Rochester and raised in Brockport, where he works as a drug and alcohol therapist. Now living in Rochester, he is 6-feet, 2-inches tall, with the rubber face of a born comic. He’s married with a child. More excitable than Clemens, more inclined to wing it. An enthusiastic hiker, Myer has backpacked through Europe. “I didn’t understand a damn thing they were saying,” he says of a trek through Russia. But he knew he liked the idea of simply being there. “I like to visit places like the Biggest Pile of Yarn,” he says. “Any dumb thing along the highway.”
Indeed, a radar for “quirky nuances of dumbness,” as Myer calls it, is one common trait shared by the two. Another characteristic that gets more to the point of their religious quest of the past year: Both are compulsive list makers.
“In junior high, I had a notebook where I listed every book that I read,” Clemens says. “I was reading books so fast, I didn’t catch everything I was reading it just to get it on the list.” That mania continued into adulthood. He made lists of historic churches and bridges in Monroe County, while Myer was compiling a list of all the statues in Rochester.
But there was one big problem with those lists. They were assembled by Clemens and Myer from other people’s lists posted on the Internet.
They needed their own quest.
Which was, as it turned out, all around them. “I would drive past St. Michael’s that’s a beautiful place,” Myer says of the church on North Clinton, with its towering copper statue of St. Michael, winged arc angel and field commander of The Army of God, wielding a spear and stomping on a serpent that represents Satan. “I finally decided, why don’t I quit talking about it and go in there?… And then we created a list of all the places we wanted to see.”
A pilgrimage to religious sites is a curious choice for Myer. He is one of the “Nones,” the fastest-growing religious affiliation in the country. “My parents were Catholic hippies,” he says. “They said, ‘We’re not raising him on that crap.’ My dad was kind of a left-leaning socialist.” In Clemens, Myer found a like-minded, uncommitted fellow explorer. “I was raised Catholic,” Clemens says, “but it never really worked for me.”
Yet they are spiritual. “He thinks I am,” Clemens says of Myer. “I do stop and think: Can I find higher meaning in things? I think I can.” And Myer has read a few of the world’s religious texts the Christian Bible, The Qur’an of Islam, The Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism. And there’s that sprawling tattoo of Gandhi on his left arm, celebrating “the spiritualism of this man who fought to change the world.”
Their personal expedition of discovery was launched on the first Saturday in January. “We naively thought we could walk into the First Asbury United Methodist Church,” Myer says. “It was locked. We’re, like, ‘Why is this church closed?’ We went to the Greek Orthodox Church next door. The doors are locked. We decided we’re going to have to start calling people first.”
This straightforward strategy worked at the first site visited by Clemens and Myer, Hindu Temple of Rochester. There, a couple that had recently returned from India shared holy water which they drank with their hands and the doughy sweet laddu, blessed by a priest from the holy temple of Tirupati. “The priest there,” Clemens says, “told us later, ‘There are Hindus who would kill to do what you just experienced.’ “
They had a similar experience at The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, Niagara County. “They took us back to their private chapel and gave us a blessing, and we had dinner with the priests and nuns,” Myer says. “Someone told us, ‘A million people visit that shrine, and not a single one of them got to go into the private area where they live.’ “
They take note of their surroundings as much as the theology, including a top-to-bottom tour of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, just down the street from both the George Eastman House and the Eastman Theatre. Peering through the ceiling of the church’s 1,200-seat auditorium, the architectural details seemed familiar. “George Eastman was in there,” Myer says. “I didn’t realize that church pre-dated the Eastman Theatre. Evidently Eastman was in there and said, ‘This ceiling is incredible! Make mine like that!’ “
“We’ve learned about architecture and church pipe organs,” Myer says. “We are experts in Tiffany glass.”
Some aspects of their quest are reduced to chasing archaeological ghosts. “The Shakers had a site in Sodus,” Myer says. “Gone.”
“There’s a barn left,” Clemens adds.
Other relics stand fast as their surroundings waver. With an unblinking eye, Clemens and Myer describe in their blog the old Polish Hudson Avenue neighborhood of St. Stanislaus Kostka, with its 46 stained-glass windows: “The current residents don’t seem to be as proud in their homemaking.”
When first approaching these sites, Clemens and Myer are frequently asked if they’re interested in joining. “We say, ‘No, not really, we just want to see your church,’ ” Clemens says. Their curiosity is “cautious and conscientious.” Visiting the Sikhs of Gurdwara of Rochester, “We didn’t know anything about them,” Myer says. “Things like the bottoms of your feet cannot face the holy book.”
The grace of their hosts impresses Clemens and Myer. “They make us a part of the whole thing,” Myer says.
“We’re not just tourists,” Clemens adds.
Yet these opportunities are viewed through a healthy but certainly not antagonistic investigative lens. “There’s an incredible amount of history that’s shrouded from the public,” Clemens says. “With a lot of religions, they tell you, ‘Here’s all you need to know.’ “
So they are curious yet cautious about Eckankar, which calls itself the “Religion of the Light and Sound of God.” The church, which has space across from Pittsford Plaza, is frequently criticized as a fraudulent cult with roots in the occult. And Clemens and Myer are curious yet cautious about the Megiddo Church, that collection of white clapboard houses and vegetable gardens on Thurston Road, whose members’ belief in celibacy is challenged by the fact that Megiddos have lived there since 1904.
But outsider religions may have a defender in Myer, who recalls when the federal government came to Waco, Texas, in 1993 to bring an end to the Branch Davidian church and its leader, David Koresh, “who I watched murdered on the TV,” Myer says. “They lit his house on fire on TV and ran it over with a tank. And somehow there’s a difference. I don’t see it. “Why is Catholicism seen as so normal,” Myer wonders, “but Scientology is considered by many people to be a cult?”
And when does a cult move into the mainstream? “Civil rights, the women’s rights movement, encompassed western New York in the mid-1800s,” Clemens says. “Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, the Fox sisters. Mary Baker Eddy. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was not just a building on East Avenue. It represented a movement from around the world.”
“We’ve connected with other people,” he adds. “History, facts and stories. You can’t really get any of those things without human connection.”
He turns to Myer: “That’s one of the things I’ve seen you grow most in the past year. Connecting with people. Maybe becoming a dad had something to do with it, too. “We’re sorta like two little kids. Luke and I tend to get lost. That’s how we find stuff.”