Ritual Variety

O utside, the wind throws silver drops of rain against the window panes and combs the fir trees. Inside, all is still except for one voice rising to the vaulted ceiling:

This being human is a guest house,
Every morning a new arrival…

Just as the words of this opening song suggest, every morning here at Marquand Chapel is new, and you never know who might show up or what might happen. That’s the way the students and faculty at Yale Divinity School, the Institute of Sacred Music, Berkeley Divinity School and Andover Newton Seminary—who share the chapel—prefer it.

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On this particular morning, guest leader Paul Vasile—of Music that Makes Community, a New York City-based nonprofit—is leading the congregation of about 40 people in a paperless worship service: no bulletins or programs to give the order of service, no music to follow. This is a more eco-friendly approach, says Maggi Dawn, associate dean of the chapel, but it also “gets people to look up.” Rather than looking down and following written instructions as individuals, she says, “When you get your head up, you worship as a group.”

Vasile begins with the “guest house” metaphor in an a cappella call-and-response piece repeated over and over, line by line. The congregation follows him in singing each line, and eventually they’re on their feet, their voices singing boldly in unison.

There are familiar elements of Christian worship here: announcements, a scripture reading, a sermon, prayers, communion. But there are also more call-and-response songs led by Vasile, taught on the spot and picked up by the congregation. A man with a bass voice in the back offers up a droning note, others join in with the melody, and the music builds to a crescendo of clapping hands and stomping feet.

If you visit Marquand Chapel, as you’re welcome to do, you may hear none of this. You may come into the chapel to view an art installation or participate in a service conducted entirely in gospel music. You may come to be part of bilingual worship in Spanish and English or a poetry reading. On Mardi Gras, the chapel was reconfigured to look like a cafe for a “feast before the fast.”

The variety doesn’t just keep worship fresh, Dawn says. It also gives students, most of whom will one day be music ministers or clergy, a broader view of church in all its many incarnations. “This is a brilliant opportunity, first of all, for them to find out how other people do it,” she says. “Here they can discover that the possibilities of worship go way broader than they ever imagined.”

Despite this multiplicity, “There’s a kind of flavor to it that always feels like Marquand,” Dawn says, “in that we’ve kind of carved our own groove.” The idea is to bring in elements of different traditions, but not in any organized rotation. “We just bring all of the voices together and let them blend together in a unique thing that’s just us,” she says.

The chapel’s configuration is part of what makes this possible. Instead of fixed pews, sturdy wooden chairs can be set in any pattern, as can small tables, a lectern and other furniture. The space is bright and open, broken only by a series of white Corinthian columns. Tall, clear windows flood the room with daylight, even on a rainy day, and a blond wood floor reflects the shine. “I think what happens when you’re able to configure a space differently each day is that you shift where the power and the focus seems to be,” Dawn says. “Being able to reconfigure [it] means that we don’t feel like a theater, where everybody’s facing forward and one bit feels like the platform.” It gets people involved, she says. “They’re not watching, they’re in it.”

There’s another important way in which Marquand Chapel’s services are unlike those of local churches: They’re held on weekdays, when school is in session, at 10:30 a.m. Everyone at the divinity schools and the institute is encouraged, Dawn says, to go out into the community and find a church for Sundays.

Fittingly, on this morning, Vasile sends the congregation out into the day with one more rousing call-and-response anthem:

It’s not enough to offer thoughts and prayers,
It’s not enough to say that we care.
It’s not enough to hope that things will change.
We’ve got to pray with our feet, pray with our feet, pray with our feet,
And get out, out on the street.

Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School
Sterling Divinity Quadrangle – 409 Prospect St, New Haven (map)
(203) 432-5180
www.ism.yale.edu/about/marquand-chapel

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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