finding God in Harlem

driving above ground to the west side from JFK is not a good idea if it is someone's first time in New York, or even for the faint of heart. after crossing the Robert F Kennedy bridge you drop down smack into East Harlem. this is not pretty. imagine every scary scene of dark alleys and dirty streets on tv or in movies and this is it. as we drove west along 125th I held my breathe because my girlfriend Jenn had never been to NYC and her eyes were wide eyed watching through the taxi window the sidewalks we passed. the buildings are empty, or worn down and littered with mounds of trash bags, sleeping homeless people and neighbors arguing about every 20 feet.


I knew we were on our way to a gorgeous brownstone in west Harlem and asked her to just wait. just wait! but as I looked along I was breathing deeply and feeling. I was doing this for the sole purpose of not getting car sick (have you ever ridden in a NYC taxi? yikes) but as I breathed and felt I asked myself what was it that made me feel this way in this part of town? I can honestly say 10 years ago I was uncomfortable along this street because everyone was black. that is gross to admit and write down, but if anything I am a truth teller. it is sad but true.


but this time as I watched the people and streets I realized it was how the place "felt" that was the true source of discomfort. it wouldn't matter what color the people were or if there weren't any people outside at all. it felt desperate. it felt cold. you could physically feel the sadness and despair that climbed the walls of the buildings and filled the minds of the poor hopeless souls walking to work, or home. completely devoid of light and love and truth.


this set the entire tone for my trip as I really tapped into my gut and feelings wherever I was or in whatever I was doing. as we pulled up to the brownstone with its cascading brown steps shadowed by the tree lined street I could see Jenn breathe a little. our apartment on the second floor was bathed in white paint and white linens and glorious sunlight. beautiful paintings scattered throughout and welcoming gestures greeted us as we opened the door. and how did I feel? the apartment was full of love and happiness and enthusiasm. it was relaxing and exciting all at once. it felt like home from the first minute I placed down my luggage.


for the next 9 days, every time I walked to and from the subway in Harlem, grocery shopped, and ate in the restaurants there I watched, and felt and listened to my body. this wasn't easy in the beginning. if I went by looks and appearances and what I'm comfortable with, Harlem was not the place to be. not just because my skin color was so drastically opposite than 99.9% of all the people there, but my culture, my beliefs, my hair style, my hair texture, my clothes, my music preferences my voice volume and accent. but every time I felt a little twinge of strangeness I went to my feelings. I just accepted their clothes, hair, music and lifestyle. I wasn't Annie, a mom to four kids and dance studio owner, I wasn't any of the things that my ego believed I was. I walked the streets as an observer. a watcher. a listener.




of course I got lost and turned around a few times, and each time I asked for help or just observed the other people around me asking (because most likely someone else is lost) everyone was kind. everyone was helpful. smiles were always met with a smile. kind thoughts sent towards someone always brought back more feelings of kindness. I felt like complete acceptance washing over me daily like a river of peace. "is this what God feels?" I asked myself. "is this what really being Christlike truly means?". I literally was walking miles and miles in stranger's shoes every day. when I listened to my heart I could understand everything they did and felt and chose. it was almost an out of body experience. even waiting in line with huge crowds I could breathe in patience and understanding.


I've hesitated writing all of it down because it was an entire experience of just feeling. how do you write and contain feeling? how do you capture an endless moment of knowing God and life and existence?


we are all products in our minds from birth of where we were born and how we were raised. eventually as older children and adults we can start to see our likes and dislikes and use our agency to create a life we desire. a life we crave. a life of happiness. somehow, because I was there on that trip desiring true happiness and peace and proof of God's love for me. I had been struggling mightily with some serious life decisions and this trip was hopefully going to bring me answers. and because I was desiring, and asking and searching for God's love, I was swimming in it. every person I encountered, (even every dog) was blissful. happy. wonderful. little whispers of truth and love were awaiting me in beautiful architecture. in a painting. watching a family take a selfie. listening to piano music medleys in a hotel lobby. in the 9/11 memorial shadows. in a phone call from home.


one morning I returned early from exercising and lay down on a huge rock in Central Park in the shade. I closed my eyes and just felt it all. the trees. the people. the energy. the feelings. it was so potent I felt as though I could bottle it up. I felt so much love for everyone and everything. I felt the vastness of our universe and the capability for endless expansion.


and here is the tricky part, how was I able to have this experience in Harlem, of all places? how could I experience solitude and peace in the city that never sleeps? and trust me, it doesn't. you can get take out bicycled to your door the entire night! (we did and it was fantastic). before the trip I had been working voraciously on one thing. through all my self help books and scripture study and meditation sittings, I had been searching for self love. to see myself as God sees me. to accept all of me, including my flaws, my past self hate and sabotaging behaviors, all of it. the only way to accept all of it was to actually, in the first place, be willing to look at all of it. practice after practice, journal after journal entry. writing. feeling. and then accepting, forgiving and loving. this is not, nor was it for me, an easy practice. but what it has brought me is indescribable beyond words. it is something I don't feel worthy to capture on a blog post.


but it has brought me God's love. the more I accept and love myself, I feel Him with me, near me, and all around me. I can feel His love for everything, every flower , tree, beautiful object of art of architecture or music. I can see Him in a baby's smile, or a grandmother's hug. I can see Him in the hilariously loud waiter who embraced our small town awkwardness and guided us through ordering our meal. I could see Him in the family wheeling their portable bbq with the price tag still on it to the local park from their project home for a son's 6th birthday. I can see Him in the tired subway kiosk worker's face. I can see Him in a dear friend's smile and hug. I can see Him in the Manhattan skyline and under the Brooklyn Bridge. I can see Him everywhere, and in everything and most especially, I can see Him in me.


I know God's love is available to all. If I can find it in myself during a stressful dinnertime at home after a long day of errands and kid drop off and pick up and business woes, or in crosstown traffic with an angry uber driver, or smushed in the middle of a crowd trying to get on a ferry, you my friend, you dear reader, you can find it too.


His love is here for you. His love is always, has always, and will always be here for you. even if you can't see it, or feel it, I promise you this, it is there and it is waiting for you and it is wondrous beyond words.



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