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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


April 11 2003


Alternatives to Church

Studies show that people who go to church live longer. It's not just having a delusion that there's a divine being or the positive effects of communion wine on the circulatory system that produces this result, experts say. It's a product of having a regular social outlet and interaction with others as an elderly person (though perhaps the benefits begin accruing at a younger age.)

For those of us who do not have a religious or spiritual belief or practice, what alternative social activity, can we engage in that will result in similar benefits for us?

One alternative I strongly favor is attendance at open mike events. The one I go to most often is K'vetsh, a monthly spoken word event which takes place at Sadie's Flying Elephant, a divey bar with blackboard paint and chalk on the walls. It's hosted by Tara Jepsen and Lynn Breedlove -- Lynn is better known as the lead singer of dyke punk rock band Tribe 8, and Tara has been known to collaborate on tongue-in-cheek comic performances with Beth Lisick.

I show up almost every month. Sometimes when I get there early, there's little evidence that the event is going to happen. There might be a crowd of sports fanatics watching the game on TV, some people playing pool on the table in the front room, someone sitting in a chair on the platform where usually the performers stand. But as the time draws near, the K'vetsh crowd starts showing up. Someone puts out a page for people to sign up for the open mike. People start moving the furniture off the stage. Someone talks to the pool players to let them know not to start another game. Someone puts out a hat for donations, which will later be distributed among the featured performers.

Lynn and Tara host the event together, trading hilarious banter as they get around to introducing the readers. Generally they start out with people from the open mike list, and then have one feature, then some more open mikers, then the second of two featured performers, and finally finish up with more open mike performers.

Among the regulars is Lynn's mother, who grew up in Germany during World War II. Often the content of what she reads reflects her memories of life during and after wartime. Once she even read a piece about getting into an internet chat with modern German youths, and being shocked to find that they were neo-fascists. Sometimes things come out of Lynn's mouth that most people would never say in front of their mothers, but I guess Lynn's mom has heard it all before.

The rules of this open mike are that each person can read only one piece, and that it be no longer than five minutes. Sometimes a reader who hasn't been there will start out by saying "my first piece" or shuffle through to another piece after reading, and Tara will politely but firmly reiterate the rules about just one piece. In giving the introduction, she reminds readers not to "punish people with spoken word." In other words, it's best to leave people wanting more, not less.

What are the disadvantages of this sort of alternative to church? Lack of stability, for one. Who knows how long this particular gathering will exist. Spoken word events come to an end -- the venue closes, the host moves away or gets burned out. For instance, after Jennifer Joseph had been running the weekly Poetry Above Paradise for thirteen years (!), the venue closed. It left the regulars feeling a void.

San Francisco is lacking some of the stable writing places that exist in cities like Seattle -- where there's the Richard Hugo house, which has regular readings, writing groups, a library, and so on -- and Minneapolis, which has long-lasting institutions like The Loft and the Playwrights Lab. There is the poetry center at SF State, and Small Press Traffic is now associated with the Arts and Crafts College. But where are the non-academic-associated nonprofit writing places? Will 826 Valencia (San Francisco's youth writing workshop slash pirate supply store), for instance, become a long-term institution?

There are other models, some of which are more church-like. I have heard that in Boston there's some sort of a secular anarchist church where people go. Who knows what they do -- maybe they even sing old IWW hymns or something. I hope it's exciting, that it is interactive, and that everyone gets a chance to speak and not just listen to one person preach political sermons. There are also secular free-thinker churches in places like Texas.

The Radical Faeries around these parts have a weekly coffee get-together on Sunday mornings. They've got the nonprofit status; they have land up north that's their "sanctuary." Sanctuary can refer to a church's inner sanctum or to a refuge from the world. I've known a couple of examples of Radical Faeries forming care circles to take care of the needs of aging or sick members of the community, an alternative family structure. These days I see old radicals on the scene treated in various ways. Some people get respect and people listen to their readings and writings, and they're treated with affection. Others, more curmudgeonly, are rejected tacitly or are overtly kicked out of alternative institutions. Some people have a small circle of devotees who look after their needs and help them in wrapping up their life's work. Am I going to be around that long, or is the world going to collapse in war, disease, and economic disintegration?

Going to K'vetsh is my form of church. It happens on a Sunday, I see people I have a social relationship with, I hear announcements of other events like an old-fashioned church bulletin, and I get a chance to express myself when it comes to my turn on the mike. It helps me retain my sense of stability, and reminds me that there are people in the world sympathetic to my viewpoint that I can talk to and who will listen and respond. They don't always respond well to everything I say, but by and large we're in tune. There's no God there, but then, there's not really any God in church either.