A low, grounded Buddhist chant to unleash compassion and a long, melodious reading of verses from the Koran were very unlikely to have been heard at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green when that gorgeous Gothic building was erected back in 1816.’
Sunday night those sounds — along with prayers to Allah, Adonai, Jesus the Risen Lord, and Siva — filled up the sanctuary, along with 200 parishioners and admirers and 13 clergy members from a wide range of New Haven faiths and denomination.
The interfaith service of religious tolerance, diversity, and hope was held to commemorate the 200th birthday of Trinity Church on that location. It was the kick-off to a year-long celebration of Trinity, which is being called “the triumph of tolerance.”
The activities include lectures, concerts, alumni get-togethers, and choral music presentations, for which the church is particularly known locally and around the world.
Tolerance is not a cliched phrase in Trinity’s history, but the theme of its own emergence on the Green. The Puritan or Congregational fathers of New Haven forbade any church but their own denomination on the Green until the mid-18th century. Trinity’s first modest building was south of Chapel Street, near where T-Mobile is now. That’s why Church Street is called Church Street.
As speaker after speaker made clear, after the War of 1812, Connecticut remained the last state where religion’s power over local government still held sway. The building of the distinguished church on the Green — a different denomination, formerly viewed as evil, devilish, and “pope-ish,” finally on par with Center Church — was both an act and a symbol that broke the last vestige of theocracy in the young republic.
Openness to the other was at the heart of the Buddhist chant, using the Korean words kwan, seum, bosal that Paul Bloom used to kick off the ceremonies.
“If you hear clearly, without filters and preconditions, if you hear the suffering of the world without filters, there’ll be no doubt your response is compassion,” he said as he struck a gourd, and the thematic chord for the evening.
Bloom is the senior dharma teacher at the New Haven Zen Center. Following him were prayers, remarks, and thumbnail sermons on openness and diversity by civic and religious figures including Mayor Toni Harp and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal; Temple Mishkan Israel’s Rabbi Herb Brockman; Imam Omer Bajwa, the coordinator of Muslim life at Yale; and Rev. Bonita Grubbs, the executive director of Christian Community Action.
One of the most quietly moving moments of the evening was created when the Turkish Cultural Center of West Haven’s Dr. Ayse Kubra Coskun chanted Arabic verses from the “Jawshan al-Kabir,” the prayer that contains a thousand names for God.
She said the verses had moved her as a child, and she read them with the power of quiet remembrance that reverberated across the pews and high up to Trinity’s vaulted ceiling. (Click on the above video to hear some of it.)
While the music was soaring and the sentiments unarguably noble, Rev. Ian Oliver, the senior associate chaplain for Protestant life at Yale, brought the assembly back to earth with this observation: “The true test comes when you get in power.”
He said the profound “contempt” in which old-line Puritan Congregationalists held Church of England-leaning American Episcopalians for generations back in the early 19th century was mitigated and disappeared not because of new laws and new buildings.
The more compelling reason: The two religious persuasions also became neighbors, and values of neighborliness enabled them to overlook religious practices that each may have continued to find “weird” in the other.
Click here for a complete list of Trinity’s celebratory concerts, and other activities throughout the coming year.