Religion Off the Cuff

By Christopher D. Cantwell and Catherine Abbott

Kenwood Boulevard runs through the heart of Milwaukee’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Though the street now forms the southern boundary of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s main campus, Kenwood’s wide birth and landscaped dividers are reflective of the boulevard’s earlier life as a thoroughfare through the one of the city’s most fashionable residential districts. Also indicative of the neighborhood’s history are the stories of the places of worship that line the street. Walking west from Lake Michigan where Kenwood terminates, one passes a Christian Science Reading Room that now houses the Chinese Christian Church of Milwaukee; the former home of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun that now belongs to the University’s Peck School of Arts; the gothic home of Kenwood Methodist Episcopal Church, where Wisconsin’s first ordained Native American woman preaches; and the former home of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church that now houses the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s University Center. And all in just three blocks.

The remarkable diversity of this stretch of Milwaukee was the inspiration for a new project run out the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s history department called Gathering Places: Religion and Community in Milwaukee. Under the directorship of faculty member Christopher D. Cantwell, the project has teams of graduate students partner with places of worship across Milwaukee to document their history. Throughout the Spring 2018 semester, students consulted public records, conducted research in denominational archives, scoured old sanctuaries for materials, and interviewed current and former members of a congregation in an attempt to reconstruct a place of worship’s history and ongoing activities. All of this material will then be published online on a map-based interface in order to build a living archive of Milwaukee’s religious diversity.

In addition to exploring the history of Milwaukee’s churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, however, Gathering Places will also now document the sounds of the city’s religious life as a pilot site partner with the American Religious Sounds Project. Our partnership with the ARSP has been incredibly beneficial. The ARSP’s focus on religion’s sonic dimensions has not only changed the kinds of material our project takes in, but has also complicated our conception of what, exactly, religion is. Catherine Abbott recently encountered this phenomenon as one of Gathering Places’ student researchers. Charged with writing the history of Plymouth Church, a progressive United Church of Christ congregation, Abbott and her research partner initially expected that documenting the community’s commitment to social justice would be easily accessed through the printed word and the church’s material culture. Like many liberal, mainline congregations, Plymouth’s sign prominently displays an LGBTQ flag and its sermons and bulletins are replete with announcements about opportunities for social activism like a rally in support of undocumented immigrants and refugees.


The sanctuary of Plymouth Church UCC, Milwaukee. Photograph by Jordan Heller.


Members of Plymouth Church UCC, Milwaukee prepare banners for an upcoming rally in support of refugees. Photograph by Jordan Heller.

But a field recording collected on April 29, 2018 complicated our perhaps stereotypical understanding of progressive religion. Like many congregations, Plymouth publishes its sermons on its websites. But in an interesting twist, Plymouth’s pastor Andrew Warner also publishes the texts of his sermons online. If someone were to study Plymouth solely based on the texts of these sermons, they would be able to construct an entirely predictable portrait of a mainline congregation that is committed to liberal politics. The April 29 sermon on the ways we perceive the person of Jesus, for example, makes an explicit reference to supporting refugees in America. But in our recording of the service what came across as the sermon’s highlight was an off-the-cuff remark made at the beginning of the service. While illustrating how Christians tend to romanticize Jesus’s love through hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden,” Pastor Warner paused after reading the line “And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known” and remarked, “Actually, I’ve known men arrested for that in the park.” The congregation laughed at the line, and then the minister continued. The rest of the sermon focused on how an expansive conception of Christ’s love should compel Christians to identify with those in need. As we suspected, standard mainline, liberal Protestant fare.


Pastor Andrew Warner preaching. Photograph by Jordan Heller.


But in processing our recording in the days and weeks after the service, we kept coming back to this moment of laughter. It became clear to us that this spontaneous moment also had as much meaning as the broader message of the sermon itself. It revealed both the congregation’s familiarity with the hymn as well as the its understanding of the practice of “cruising” for sexual encounters in public parks, which gay man often did in times when knowledge of their sexuality brought discrimination. It also made clear that the community found the pastor’s remark to be humorous and not shocking or sacrilegious. Why the community found the joke to be humorous is a matter in need of greater scrutiny. Does it signal the community’s belief that they had grown beyond a supposedly retrograde religious sensuality? Or is it a demonstration of the congregation’s diversity or cultural sophistication? The answers of such questions hopefully will emerge when we put this laughter in conversation with other sources from the church’s history. But it is important to note that none of this information would be available to scholars studying only the sermon’s printed version. Nor would even an official recording of pastor Warner’s sermon have picked up this information as the minister’s microphone would have lost the sounds of the crowd. But by listening to the audience listening to a sermon, our field recording revealed a great deal about the culture of that community.

We at the Gathering Places team are grateful to be partnering with the American Religious Sounds Project. The ARSP’s call to take sound seriously, to ask what religion in America sounds like, has already transformed how we study religion in Milwaukee. We hope it promotes an even greater commitment to listen to the sounds around us.