BY PRISCILLA ALABI
In a presidential campaign that has left 80 percent of voters feeling “disgusted,” one Downtown church tried to heal the partisan divide with a series of services focusing on childhood pictures of the two candidates, in the hope of moderating the “disgust mechanism” they trigger in parishioners.
Trinity Grace Church Tribeca hosted a series of “Election Vespers” services in September and October which invited parishioners meditate on pictures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as adults, and then as children.
“I wanted to regulate the disgust mechanism that happens in our political discourse through a meditation on the sacredness of even our enemy,” said Michael Rudzena, lead pastor of the church.
Rudzena was inspired by the techniques of “disgust psychology” in which patients are shown pictures of themselves to trigger the disgust and self-judgement they may feel, and then shown pictures of themselves as children, innocent and unblemished, to provoke empathy and a more compassionate view of who they are.
By applying the technique to the candidates polarizing his congregation, the pastor hoped that he could help bridge the partisan divide.
“I am repulsed by Donald Trump as a person,” said one parishioner, who wished to remain anonymous for the sake of church unity, “but I also know there are many brothers and sisters here who feel the opposite.”
Rudzena said the idea for the Election Vespers also drew from the ancient Catholic practice known as “visio divina” — or “sacred seeing” — in which contemplating sacred images is used to enhance spiritual openness and awareness.
“The thinking behind it was, there is nothing more sacred, if we believe humans are made in the image of God, than to look at the human face as a sacred and divine thing,” Rudzena said. “So to look on two faces that we know will trigger disgust, it would force people to reflect upon what is happening in their hearts and souls.”
An average of 20 people attended each of the Election Vespers sessions, out of 400 regular members of the church, and Rudzena said he received mostly positive feedback from those who were present.
“They said that they hadn’t really had space to sit and connect dots between the election and following Christ,” he said.
Rayvey George, a parishioner and registered Republican who attended the first Election Vesper service with her husband and three children, said she loved it.
“It was the best way to show that the candidates are both flawed human beings,” said George.
But Rudzena said he did receive some criticism from parishioners who said the Election Vespers series was too political.
“Some feel church should not be a place for politics at all,” he said.
As a tax-exempt church, Trinity Grace does not endorse either candidate, Rudzena stressed, but he said the most important thing is that people leave the service with the tools to help them live from a place of compassion.
“I put up pictures of Clinton and Trump as children because we bring all of our loaded stuff to those two faces as grown human beings, but when we look at a 5-year old, there is an innocence that we connect with,” he said. “We start to humanize each of them because they both have stories, and they started from somewhere.”