U2 lyrics turn congregations into crowds

Mary Ezenwa DIV ’10 did not know what to expect when she walked through the doors of St. George’s Episcopal Church in York Harbor, Maine last year.

After a brief sermon, the congregation fell silent. Suddenly, the liturgist turned on a CD recording, and worshipers rose from the pews to dance. Children laughed and adults sang along at the top of their lungs. A rainbow-colored banner waved in the air above the crowd.

U2’s music replaces traditional hymnals as the music of choice at New Haven’s Trinity Episcopal Church last Sunday.
Jeff White
U2’s music replaces traditional hymnals as the music of choice at New Haven’s Trinity Episcopal Church last Sunday.

Ezenwa said she truly felt the love washing over her from the congregation.

But this was no traditional service, and the music did not consist of traditional hymns. The CD was playing music by Irish supergroup U2.

Last Sunday New Haven’s Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green hosted a similar Eucharist — or U2charist — featuring a live U2 tribute band, a few weeks after the Divinity School held its own U2charist on Sept. 28. At Trinity, an enthusiastic audience from all over Connecticut, including church leaders and Divinity School students, stood up and danced to the beat of U2 favorites such as “Beautiful Day” and “Gloria.”

Both recent U2charist services mark an effort to establish an open relationship between Yalies and members of the surrounding community, organizers and participants said. U2charist enthusiasts across the country emphasize the service’s ability to draw reluctant churchgoers into the fold while raising money for poverty alleviation in developing countries and fostering a sense of unity and purpose among young Christians.

‘It felt like every person was welcome.’

A U2charist is an Episcopalian worship service that uses U2 songs to instill a message of compassion and hope within a traditional liturgy. The service aims to encourage attendees to work toward the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, which promote worldwide development. U2’s lead singer Bono co-founded the ONE Campaign, which embraces the MDGs in its efforts to eliminate poverty,

During U2charist services, a recording or group of instrumentalists plays U2 songs, and the liturgist presents a slide show of images that capture the devastation of world poverty, starvation and disease, the Rev. Christian Scharen, a professor and associate director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, said. Scharen is the author of “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.”

The first U2charist was held at an Episcopal church in Baltimore, Md. in 2004. But the phenomenon did not catch on until the Rev. Paige Blair of St. George’s in York Harbor, Maine, performed a U2charist service in 2005.

To encourage other parishes to hold their own U2charists, Blair created a master panlist that sent e-mails to over 500 national and international churches, including New Haven’s Trinity Church, said Lorrie Whittaker, parish administrator of St. George’s.

Ezenwa said her principal reason for joining the U2charist movement was its emphasis on collective action to eradicate poverty worldwide.

Before enrolling in the Divinity School, Ezenwa lived in Maine, where she became a member of Blair’s church. She said her first U2charist service, which she attended at St. George’s, was colorful and engaging enough that she has since participated in three more.

“The room was filled with the voices of children, as well as young adults and elderly individuals,” she said. “It felt like every person was welcome.”

The U2charist movement especially appeals to those who are college-aged or young and who are invigorated by the blaring rock music, Whittaker said.

“Students leave their home life and their childhood, but they are still not a part of the adult world,” she said. “They are in the middle looking for something, searching. This church service … is still about God, and they can relate it to something else: music. Everyone can relate to music, can’t they?”

‘Bored to the teeth.’

The St. George’s service differed from most other U2charist services because it featured a U2 tribute band, named 2U, instead of a volunteer group of instrumentalists.

In an effort to advance the Millennium Development Goals, service organizers held an offering for Episcopal Relief and Development, a group that promotes health education, prevention and treatment.

Before the event, Joseph Cumia, a Catholic and the ad hoc manager of 2U, said he wanted to make the U2charist more exciting than many of the church services he attended as a child.

“I sat in many Sunday mornings bored to the teeth about what was going on,” he said. “The music is something that can be used in the same way entertainment is used to gain attention.”

Cumia said the Trinity Church event will be significantly different from U2’s normal shows. Songs at other venues are performed at a high volume, but at the service the message and lyrics should not be drowned out by the instrumentation, he said.

But Whittaker said lowering the volume may detract from the song.

“You can’t have rock and roll music and have it at a low volume,” she said. “It doesn’t work.”

‘People didn’t want it to end.’

The U2charist is not confined to churches with a looser style of worship — even at the centuries-old Divinity School, the raucous format of the U2charist has caught on.

Several blocks from Trinity, before the service on the Green was even in its planning stages, Scharen had already begun efforts to initiate Divinity students into the U2charist craze.

Scharen and other Divinity School administrators organized a U2charist service at Marquand Chapel in late September. Titled “Cross the Great Chasm,” the service was officiated by Scharen and featured a group of Divinity School student instrumentalists.

Scharen said he wanted to ensure the music at the service kept the audience involved and eager for more.

“I didn’t want it to be cheesy,” he said. “If we were going to do a service, I wanted it to have integrity.”

For the closing hymn, the student musicians performed U2’s Grammy Award-winning “Walk On.” The performance was a welcome change from the seriousness of reading the Books of Amos, Psalms and Luke, Scharen said.

“When they played [“Walk On”] in concert, they ended with a series of hallelujahs,” Scharen said. “When we played it as the closing song, people kept singing to the hallelujahs. They just kept on singing. There was this sense that people didn’t want it to end.”

According to Scharen’s blog “faithasawayoflife,” he held an offering during the service — which is unusual at the Divinity School — and raised over $1,200 for the Global Fund, an international relief organization that fights AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. U2charist services usually feature offerings that raise money for similar awareness groups, service attendee Mary Emily Duba DIV ’09 said.

In addition to the students in attendance, Duha said the room was “very packed” with a diverse crowd of people from across New Haven.

“It made me feel hopeful — for the Church, since this room was full of pastors and young pastors about to go into the world [who have learned] not to forget that their work is to care for the poor,” Duha said. “And for me, because I think in our consumerist middle-class society of America, it’s very easy for Christians to forget to care for others.”

‘What can the lead singer of U2 tell us about Christianity? A lot.’

At Sunday’s U2charist, long-standing divisions between Yale and New Haven broke down to the tune of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Ezenwa, who did not attend the Divinity School service because she was not aware it was being held until afterward, was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

People were already walking into St. George’s as Ezenwa arrived Sunday evening.

“I’m excited right now,” she said as an usher led her to a seat. “I just feel it’s going to explode soon — in terms of the spirit.”

The middle two aisles were filled a few minutes after Ezenwa sat down. Soon afterward, a youth group from Monroe Congregational Church — a United Church of Christ parish in Monroe, Conn. — spilled over in to the pews on the second floor.

Don Parker-Burgard, one of the group’s advisors, said he brought the children to the service to show them a different style of worship.

“I thought it would be a good experience for them — not only in a worship service with U2 music but also being in a Episcopal worship service.”

In his sermon, Dyer told the congregation he thinks Christian churches can learn from U2’s activism.

“Tonight, we not only have the help of Jesus, but Bono as well,” he said in the sermon. “But what can the lead singer of U2 tell us about Christianity? A lot.”

As the music blared, church attendees bobbed their heads and clapped their hands. Some mouthed the words of the songs as the band played. Others belted. One young woman danced wildly and shouted. An elderly woman, eyes closed, swung her hips side to side.

Ezenwa clapped her hands and moved to the beat, fully engaged. When 2U played the U2 song “One,” she held her hands in the air and swayed back and forth.

As 2U finished its set with “Beautiful Day,” the children in the balcony clapped steadily to the beat while the ministers left the stage.

When the song ended, booming applause erupted from the crowd.

The turnout for the U2charist was much larger than that of a regular Sunday service, Dyer said. He said he was happy to see Yale students in the crowd.

“It’s great to see Yale come down to New Haven to see it,” he said. “They’re always, always welcome.”

The Rev. Dee Anne Dodd of Zion Episcopal Church in North Branford said she thought the service was moving.

“I thought it was really joyful and spirit-filled, and it was beautiful seeing people dancing during communion,” she said.

Ezenwa left the church smiling.

“You just feel someday everything will change,” she said. “I want more U2charist.”

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