Deed Above Creed
The color of the leaves in Central Park are a gradient of green to bright orange. The rolling clouds soften the mood, and the wind adds an extra chill to the 52-degree weather on a Sunday morning in October.
On the edge of the park on the West Side lies a stone building, which former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg called a “rare example of the Austrian form of Art Nouveau architecture” for the building’s centennial anniversary in 2010.
Walk in, take the elevator to the fourth floor, turn left and go down the hall. The sound of a piano coming from the ceremonial hall lightly fills the hall with its music, bringing back the feelings of church.
The ceremonial hall is filled with people and the song becomes familiar. It’s “I Will Survive,” a song made famous by Gloria Gaynor in 1978.
It’s the “unofficial anthem” of the LGBTQ community because of “the content of the song and the powerful message,” said the musician David Gracia when he was explaining why he chose the song to start the meeting.
In the previous week, special musical guest Bonita Oliver selected the songs “Woodstock” and “Cool For the Day.” She explained that all of the problems in the world are due to lack of recognition of how we’re all connected and the impact of our decisions. While Oliver considered the songs to be spiritual, she noted that they are not religious songs.
“These songs shine a light on the interconnectedness of us all,” Oliver said. “They are spiritual in our connectedness to animals and earth.”
This congregation where music is not spiritual is known as the Ethical Cultural Society of New York, “a humanist community dedicated to ethical relationships, social justice, environmental stewardship, and education,” according to their mission.
This place wants to change the world through social justice.
Is it a religion?
“For those who view religion as a set of values to which people are committed and in terms of which they find a faith to live by, Ethical Culture is considered a religion,” their website says.
But not all of the members consider the Ethical Culture Society to be a religion. Judy Natkins is one of them. She’s not officially a member, but soon plans to be. She was weary of the church feeling that came from the organization.
“The more I’ve come, the more I’ve accepted it,” Natkins admitted, while adding that the meetings give structure to her Sundays.
Susan Needles, who welcomes newcomers with her walker and is about a foot shorter than Natkins, said that the Ethical Cultural Society provides “comforts and services that you would get from church.”
The “Sunday Meeting,” not called a service, goes like this.
It starts with three songs that fit a theme. Then a presider introduces the topic of that meeting, takes a concept in the news, and shares how he or she plans to live ethically. The presider also encourages any guests to share their attendance on social media before powering off their cell phones. Then the congregation stands to sing a community song.
After that, the presider asks people to go talk to someone in the room about living ethically. For example, “What does it mean to be an ally?”
This interaction time is reminiscent of greetings commonly found during a Baptist or non-denominational Christian church service. However, the questions focus on how to make the most of this life, not the next.
Then, a speaker or guest comes up to give a lecture, engage in an interview or conversation, sometimes with a powerpoint presentation on living ethically or how to make the world a better place for the rest of the meeting.
One week the lecture was titled “The Kids are Alright: Supporting LGBTQ Students, Friends, and Families” which was given by Jared Fox, the first LGBTQ Community Liaison for the NYC Department of Education. It was about his experience of being attacked outside a gay bar by some kids in Cleveland. He also shared his experience working with the youth and teaching them about LGBTQ issues.
“Faith can be used as a weapon against the LGBTQ community,” Fox said.
Just like a Catholic Church, people walk up the center aisle with a woven reed basket and pass it off to the front as members put the spare dollars in their wallets into the basket, row by row. The collection is for a “non-profit that fits our values,” Steven Sterling, one of the presiders said.
The community stands again and sings another community song.
After the meeting, members are encouraged to go the cafeteria on the sixth floor for community lunch.
“It feels very processional. It brings me back,” Fox said when starting out his lecture. “It’s like ethics church, but I don’t feel shamed.”
This “ethics church” is founded upon humanistic philosophy, first and foremost centered around humans.
“Once you get past the format of the church, there’s no connection,” Natkins said. “We are people who believe in man, not in a deity.”
In 1876, the Ethical Cultural Society was founded by Dr. Felix Adler. He wanted it to be a place to “work toward the advancement of social justice for all.” This was to be done through education and action. While he used theological language, referencing the meeting place as holy ground, he was motivated by using ethics as the basis for improving society.
So what does it mean to be ethical?
Members are encouraged to participate in “activism, community service, and financial support,” the society’s website stated.
“We have a deep belief in humanity with ethics at the core,” Dr. Anne Klaeysen, one of the leaders, said. “We should channel our passion and anger for social justice in a place of learning and action.”
On the back of the brochure handed out before the service, the top of the page says “Deed Above Creed.”
David, an older member of the congregation who sat in the back and comes to the meetings whenever he is in town, explained that while most of the members of the society are atheists, they still believe in becoming the best versions of themselves.
“Most people here believe that if you act in a good way, you’ll be a happy person,” he said.
Needles explained over lunch some of the deeds that people can participate in through the society. There is a shelter for women, “televisitation” for children who want to see their incarcerated families at the prison on Rikers Island more comfortably through a teleconference call, and activism in protest movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” held at Zuccotti Park in Downtown Manhattan.
When asked what causes the society chooses to support, Needles said that they were “very newsworthy topics, very liberal,” such as climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re never aligned with Trump,” she chuckled and shook her head.
Alongside action, the society also seeks to promote the education and voices of children. Klaeysen explained that they have a responsibility to listen and be present.
“We’re in a battle for the soul of our country,” Klaeysen said. “We have to make the world the best place possible for our children.”
One morning, the children were excused to head to the “Young and Mighty March” in Sunnyside, Queens.
“Though children don’t get to vote, their voices should be heard.” Klaeysen said.
The Society places a high value on the opinions and treatment of children. Klaeysen explained that she was raised Catholic before joining the Ethical and Cultural Society. When she had children, she brought them to the society. She hoped they would grow more than she had in the Catholic Church.
“My children were heard when they were growing up at the society,” Klaeysen said.
The society is a place for liberal social justice activists to meet “like-minded people” and a place to feel safe.
“We grew comfortable for the past eight years,” Sterling said, encouraging the congregation to speak out against the unethical actions in the world.
“It provides a community I belong to.” Needles said. “It provides me a place to express my beliefs.”
Klaeysen explained that the society provides a community where everyone has an opinion that matters.
“This community is democratic because democracy is at the sacred ground where we all come together and put ethics at the center of it,” Klaeysen said.
Giving to others and helping the world provides happiness for members like Naskins and Needles.
“I feel more alive being here,” Needles added.
Step out of the building connected to the Ethical Cultural School, see Central Park again. The weather is changing, the world is changing, and life is finite.
“One could say we are good people,” Needles said before thanking everyone around her, picking up her plate to throw away, grabbing her walker, and heading out of the cafeteria door to live an ethical life.