Over the years, I’ve played and sung at a wide variety of liturgies; but one of the most unusual comes up once a year at the NEA Annual Meeting.
The National Education Association, an organization of public educators, is the largest labor union in America, with about 3.1 million members. Every year its leadership gathers over the Independence Day holiday for the seven-day NEA Annual Meeting, which culminates with the four-day Representative Assembly. (The NEA RA is the largest business meeting in the world, assembling 9,000-10,000 voting delegates in the same room. Imagine the Republican and Democratic party conventions combined, add about 10% more people, and then realize that in this body anyone can go to a microphone and speak!)
So why is there a delegate Mass at this gathering of public educators? For the answer, you have to look at the schedule.
Some trade and professional meetings have developed a reputation for hijinks. I would never suggest that there’s no fun at NEA’s Annual Meeting, but the hours are long: state caucuses start at 7:00 AM, and RA sessions typically start at 10:00 AM and continue pretty much straight through past 6:00 PM. Because of the costs involved, the schedule unfolds without breaks: the proceedings continue through the July 4 holiday and Sundays. This year Sunday, July 6, was the fourth day of the RA and a day of business as usual.
So delegates of faith have a choice: on their sabbath, they can go to a church, temple, or mosque and miss part of the business that their colleagues have sent them to conduct; they can skip religious observances altogether; or they can conduct their own, which is what many of the Christian delegates do.
When I arrived at my first Annual Meeting (Minneapolis, 1995), I was elated to see that the Minneapolis Convention Center was very close to the Basilica of Our Lady; then I learned that the basilica was under construction and closed for services at that time. But soon I noticed signs mentioning a “Mass for Catholic delegates.” When Sunday rolled around, I found myself in the company of a few hundred delegates, all worshiping enthusiastically. As a stranger away from home, I found it very moving to find a congregation to worship with.
The woman who had organized that Mass is Ellen Logue. At the time, she was a retired delegate from California. I contacted her and offered my services as a musician for that congregation. She gratefully accepted, and I have been playing and singing for the delegate Masses ever since.
To foster the continuation of this practice, Ellen was assisted by not only deep faith but also good, practical organizational skills. When she arranged conference rooms for the Masses she made sure to arrange them for the other Christians attending as well, so that the delegate religious services aren’t just a Catholic thing. She used her extensive connections in the Catholic Church, especially within the Dominican order, to recruit priests to preside at the Masses. And she encouraged all delegate worshipers to come together for the purpose of worship only, and to resist any attempts to use these faith gatherings to promote positions on the sometimes-sensitive issues that come before the Representative Assemblies.
Ellen continues to be a source of help, support, and advice. And since she stopped attending RAs a few years ago, quite a number of delegates have stepped forward to continue the leadership she started. We have ministers of the Eucharist, Word, hospitality, and music. And we have organizers who make sure that NEA reserves rooms so that all this can happen.
So once again this year, on Saturday, July 5, over 300 delegates gathered for Mass in an assembly room at the Washington Convention Center. It was an odd sort of church: the microphones had been turned off, and the worshipers stood or sat behind tables still set up from a meeting a few hours earlier. I don’t recall any candles, and worshipers passed conference bags for donations. But inside that room as in Catholic churches all over the world, it was the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and that’s what we celebrated with our celebrant, Dominican Father Albert Paretsky.
It wasn’t just like Mass back home: some had to catch shuttle buses for their hotels, so as we sang the closing hymn the procession out included many of the faithful. It was quick, but it was reverent, joyful, and musical: the beauty and significance of the Mass is greater than our human limitations. As with Mass back home, some of the worshipers stayed around for a while. (Some new friends from Pennsylvania even helped carry my keyboard and other supplies on the DC Metro!) Many commented on the beauty and meaningfulness of this shared worship experience, and I’m guessing we’ll look forward to meeting together again for Eucharist next year in San Diego.