Bayou Diaries Finding Holiness Beyond Houston’s Scores of Sacred Spaces
We’d made a connection across tables, generations, tongues, our own tiny blip of transcendence. Holiness in the noodle bar.
This is Bayou Diaries, a column by Bryan Washington on his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
For the longest time, my family attended this Baptist spot on the North Side. Church was a two-day affair. An event. Both of my folks had grown up in religious homes, in Jamaica and Florida respectively, so once they’d made it to Texas the reality of extended church services graced me. We were up around seven, and in the car thirty minutes later. After a ninety-minute drive siphoning out of the suburbs, we arrived to black face upon black face upon black face with no coda. Tatted black folks and black folks in outrageous feather net hats and black folks in blue tuxedos and black folks in gold chains. Sunday mornings in Alief were tiny assemblies of the diaspora. The lines to enter the church stretched through the doors and into oblivion. All of my clothes were too tight back then, I just kept getting wider and wider, and by the time we entered the building I’d thank God and also every living thing in the vicinity for the gift of air conditioning.
The service itself was two hours. Sometimes we’d hit three. We’d sit and we’d stand and we’d sit and we’d stand. I’d blink myself awake, eyeing the hunched shoulders in front of us. Before the organ cued us out, whoever was preaching that morning called upon the audience for deliverance: Were we willing to be saved? To accept the Word into our hearts? And the audience, old and young, short and tall, would laugh and laugh—because of course we were willing. As if we’d shown up for anything else.
I don’t think it’s even possible to talk about Houston without running up on our respect for religion. The city is home to loads of holy spaces, for a plethora of faiths. From the synagogue flanking the Galleria, to the mosques sprinkled west of I-610, the holy spaces pull a significant turn-out seven days a week. Right now, someone in Houston is knee-deep in praise.
But the money-makers, so to speak, are the Protestant megachurches: Houston alone has thirty-seven of the 207 in Texas. The names of its pastors are as familiar to locals as taquerias and Astros pitchers. The lottery draw is Lakewood. It is the most highly attended church service in America fifty-two weeks a year. Over 43,000 people make their way down the Southwest Freeway a week, even after Lakewood initially locked the doors to their chapel during the storm . And if you aren’t about fighting your way through traffic, you can stream the entire service online. Or you can catch it on a local cable affiliate. Or you can bump the pastor, Joel Osteen, over satellite radio. The roads parallel and adjacent to his megachurch are patrolled on Sundays. You’ve got officers flagging pedestrians both ways, waving these bigass pickup trucks into the garage. And then there’s the church’s interior itself, which is more akin to a music festival in magnitude. The fact that anyone assembles that many people for anything is mystical in itself.
The last time I passed through Lakewood, I was wildly hungover. A crush of mine played guitar in the band. He’d promised me chilaquiles afterward. So I caught a ride into town, a little groggily, slogging through three stories of stands, and when the choir emerged, the church fell into a roar, and whatever dreariness I’d been holding was gone. There was yelling. The building shook. Real tears fell beside me. There was clapping, and the raising of hands, and the occasional nod from my neighbors, as if to affirm that, yes, we were here, this was happening.
Insofar as I still attended church at all, the congregations were mostly black. This one was not. But there were certainly black folks in the mass. And while the Southern Baptist Church is often distilled in the popular imagination to shouting, stomping, and sweat, Lakewood conjured a similar emotiveness, flattening it out, diluting that rawness for the crowd. When Osteen made his way to the stage, our seats tremorred. He rose his hands and the audience hushed. He rose them again and they cheered.
Holy, holy, holy.
If you want to make money in Houston, you go into oil and gas. If you want to own property, you pick up a stethoscope. But if you’re trying to accumulate wealth and build your own tiny little empire, then what you should do is find a space for rent and start yourself a church.
I should probably note that I’m not religious. But I believe in holy spaces. Or at least the notion that holiness can seep into mundanity. One time I was in Saint Catherine for a family reunion, stuffed in this cabin church service along the mountains, and the pastor dwelled over the Word for so long that everyone’s stomachs started rumbling in unison. Our own improvised praise song. Even when we began to audibly grumble, the man just kept doing his thing. Another time, I was in Tokyo for Coming of Age Day, milling around the Meiji Shrine flanking Shibuya Station, and I’d joined some families bowing their heads by a fountain beside me when a little girl burped so loudly that the woman behind us swore.
That is, for me, where most of my credence lays: in the blips of illumination through daily life. In spaces that have stood for as long as there have been people. Spaces that will stand well after you and I are gone.
For a while, my ex was extracting himself from the orbit of his family’s traditions. They were, by his admission, progressive Presbyterians. Even that proved to be too much. So he’d gripe about them on Fridays, which eventually seeped into Saturday nights, but come Sunday morning, he’d rouse himself from the mattress to rendezvous with his folks at the Korean church uptown. Not that it was my business. It was understood that this was something he was working through. Until, one day, apropos of nothing, he asked if I wanted to tag along.
When I said I didn’t have dressy clothes, he told me that didn’t matter. When I said I hadn’t been to church in ages, he said this was the time to start. When I said it’d be at least a little bit strange, wouldn’t it, bringing your literally shunned boyfriend to your literal family’s literal congregation, my ex told me he wasn’t an idiot, of course he understood, but here he was making a genuine effort. And also he’d pay for breakfast.
We were greeted with smiles in that pursing your lips sort of way, but my presence made as much sense as anything else in this city. So someone passed me a service flyer. This old lady squeezed my shoulder. After the service, my ex’s folks motioned us over to their circle, and he tried to hustle us out but that same old woman grabbed my elbow.
Later on, driving back into town, my ex asked me how I felt about the whole thing. I said I didn’t any feel different. He told me that wasn’t the point. That night, we got piss-drunk and thrown out of an ice-house. Afterward, we kicked a solemn Modelo can across the road. At some point, we pointed at the moon, which was basically full. My ex threw up in the road. I decided I couldn’t walk anymore, so we sat down to smoke. When my lighter wouldn’t work, he touched cigarette with mine. Our cheeks grazed. There was a flame. It felt as holy as anything else.
More than a handful of my friends have found themselves called to religious work throughout the city. But few think of themselves as “religious.” One friend works the cameras in one of the larger Nigerian churches downtown. She’d started in newspapers, then worked producing copy for waiting room magazines. Now she handles the church’s video monitors, a job that has taken her all over the country. Another buddy coordinates the choir for this Methodist joint in Pearland, a gig he picked up after deciding that touring with his band and consuming all of the drugs paled in comparison to a steady check. He shows kids how to set up block chords. He conducts their guitars alongside a high school band director. Both of these friends have, independent of one another, described their circumstances as a sort of deliverance.
A few weeks back, I met another friend who’s active in missionary work for lunch. Before she relocated abroad, she sang for multiple church choirs. She volunteered locally. She is, I think, thoughtfulness incarnate, and whenever I want to flip a table at the post office or lunge towards an adjacent motorist on I-10, thinking of her composure steadies me. She identifies as Christian, and is serious about it. She was in town for a minute and craving a bowl of phở , so we spent an hour in marathon traffic headed towards the Bellaire. But of course the bowls were worth it.
We were happy to see each other. We talked about ourselves, how we were doing. I told her, the same way I always tell her, that her mindfulness had opened me up to spirituality in general, and she told me that, at her current juncture, she wasn’t even sure if she was a Christian anymore. When I asked why that was, she said she was still figuring it out. We decided that there are many different ways of being of holy.
At the table next to us, a Vietnamese family asked about the size of our bowls. It immediately became obvious we didn’t speak each other’s languages. But by lifting our respective bowls, and shouting “Small!” and “Too big!” we circled the fluid region between mistranslation and comprehension. At one point, an older man at the table pointed at my friend and her bowl. He pointed at me and my bowl. We nodded. He nodded. Everyone laughed. We’d made a connection across tables, generations, tongues, our own tiny blip of transcendence. Holiness in the noodle bar.
Nowadays, the apartment I live in is surrounded by churches. I do not know how this happened. There’s a Lutheran building directly across from the complex, and a Methodist church up the road, and a little further away you’ve got Cristo El Rey Iglesia Católica . Most Sundays, when I’m riding my bike or taking a walk or whatever, I’ll catch the attendees milling around. They’ll wave. I’ll wave. We’ll go on with our lives.
The last time I went to church was to volunteer during Harvey. This obviously wasn’t something I’d planned on. For a couple of days, the water was too high to go anywhere. But there was a local church in walking distance, and they’d opened their doors for volunteers, so I wandered from my parents’ place to the tiny little brickstone a few blocks away. By then, the rain had mostly reduced itself to an on and off drizzle. A handful of us stood outside. We all sort of lowered our heads. And there wasn’t any reason for us to be outside as opposed to inside, but we stayed until the first person went in, and then we all filtered in like disciples, drawn forward by a string of our own private, interconnected trajectories.
I’ve been baptized twice. I didn’t think much of it either time. The first one happened in this muddy lake in Florida, and the next time I was dunked by this boy in downtown Houston. It’s probably crude to equate those two moments directly with this one in the midst of the storm, but if our journeys in faith are anything, they are indirect, converging at unseemly intervals. Winding our paths toward the same caustic inevitable. So we stand in the pews. We sit on the concrete. We take a moment in the rain.
Now, whenever I pass by that church, I’ll peek through the window and see that nobody’s standing around. No mementos. No flowers. No reminders of that moment. But every few weeks, someone props up a little flower in a water bottle. Sometimes I’ll find that it’s been replaced with more flowers. If they’ve fallen over and I see it, I’ll stop to prop them up. But, usually, someone’s already beat me to it, and that assurance is a blessing in itself: a holy patch of concrete, our steeple in the grass.
Bryan Washington will teach a 6-week Online Fiction Workshop for Catapult starting on July 3rd.