“Fire makes you a little crazy,” the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis said. “It keeps on burning.”
She should know. Dec. 5 is the one-year anniversary of the six-alarm fire that gutted Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s East Village, where she serves as senior minister.
At the time, all programs were virtual because of the pandemic, so there was no loss of life. But the loss of the historic building — the home of New York’s Liberty Bell (which is safe and temporarily housed at the New-York Historical Society) was a blow. Dr. Lewis is part of a campaign to rebuild the sanctuary of the inclusive and socially active church by 2025.
Dr. Lewis, 62, lives in the East Village with her husband, the Rev. John Janka, a retired clergyman in the United Methodist Church. Although they are empty nesters, they maintain an open-door policy with their son, Joel Janka; their daughter-in-law, Gabrielle Deveaux; and their grandchildren, Ophelia, 3, and Octavius, 21 months.
STILL COOKING At 7:30, I wake up thinking, this is going to be an amazing day. While I’m brushing my teeth, John makes the coffee. I’m a terrible coffee maker. I don’t know what the recipe is. When the coffee is ready, we sit in our two red swivel chairs that face north, toward the Chrysler Building. We catch up: What did you dream about? How did you sleep? John says, Do you have a sermon? No matter how much I’ve worked on it during the week, he knows me well enough to know I keep cooking it until the last minute. I want it to feel as present-tense as possible.
NO NOTES At about 8:30 I hop in the shower. In the shower I’m rehearsing my sermon. Not loud-loud, but loud. I’m really turning the phrases over, thinking about the key thing, the poetic piece. I’m also memorizing. I don’t want to be looking at my notes on Sunday. If I have a piece of paper between me and everyone else, that’s not the best way to be with the spirit. It’s good for my soul to prepare. It’s joyful.
MEDITATION The dreadlocks come down out of the shower, and I spend some time in the mirror. It’s difficult to talk while putting your lipstick and mascara on, so I go inside myself and really use that time in an almost meditative way. While I’m moisturizing my face and rubbing my muscles I’m thinking of the diversity of the people in the congregation and what they need to hear.
NO ONE IS LEFT OUT I might think of Miss Geraldine, who’s an 80-year-old Black lady, or of Dominic, who’s 13 and white, or of Edna, who’s Latinx, and her wife, Heidi. Or I might see Daryl, who’s a queer Black man. I visualize them so I can think to myself, no one is left out. No one is left behind. This sermon needs to be fierce enough that if I’m talking about queer justice, I’m bringing the straight people with me. If I’m talking about the race problem, it can’t be just about Black people. To hit my mark and get the love out there, I need to weave everybody in.
SOLIDARITY I don’t eat. There’s no food until church is over. That way, I’m in solidarity with people who have to skip meals. Also, the emptiness makes me feel focused. It’s a spiritual discipline, in a way.
JOY PLACE Church starts at 11:45. My sermon starts at 12. I love to preach, so when I’m in the pulpit I’m in my joy place. I get a little, teeny butterfly when I say the first few words, but then I feel like I’m on a wind, or a breath. I’m in the zone. I feel enveloped in grace. And the interaction with the people is so much better than preaching from a square on a computer. I make eye contact. I can see you nod. I can see you cry.
BREAD-BREAKING After church I’m totally spent. I get to say I’m done, and I might walk a little bit with a colleague or have lunch at one of two restaurants I’ve been going to. Both have outdoor seating. One is the French restaurant Boucherie in Union Square, and the other is the Italian restaurant Isabelle’s Osteria. Sunday is my work day, but it’s also my Sabbath day. To have that worship experience and then that bread-breaking experience is wonderful. If John’s with me we walk home holding hands. We’ve been married 16 years. Holding hands is our jam.
SWEATS, SCREEN When I get home, I can’t wait to lock the door, kick my shoes in the air and put on socks and sweatpants. I’ll come out to the living room and watch something like a “black-ish” rerun. It takes my brain to a transitional space. John’s at one end of the couch and I’m at the other. We’ll fall asleep.
REVIVING NANA Then it’s 5:30 and we’ll think about dinner. I have learned how to make baked chicken so crispy it’s like fried. We’ll do that if we’re by ourselves. If the grandbabies are here it’s different. They’re jumping and dancing and running around. I’ll tell them I’m so tired I have to fall asleep on the floor. Then they come sit on my stomach and say, “Nana! Wake up!”
HEADS TOGETHER After dinner could be a time of reading. We read a lot of stuff about race and culture, like Dante Stewart or James Baldwin. Or we might zone out and watch movies until I totally fall asleep. But I am a firm believer in getting the makeup off my face, and John knows it, so he’ll wake me up so I can wash my face and brush my teeth. The last thing I like to do is look at pictures or videos of Ophelia and Octavius their parents have sent us. John and I share a phone with our heads together and look at it till it’s lights out, about 10:30ish.
Sunday Routine readers can follow Dr. Lewis on Twitter or Instagram @RevJacquiLewis.