Headbanging Is a Kind of Prayer

despair sanctuary old first reformed church brooklyn
Headbanging Is a Kind of PrayerRonnie Gilmore

In the past year, I have become too familiar with despair and grief. I’ve lost four friends in their 30s and 40s in the last six months, a shock each time, and the immediate reaction is customary: sending a card and my well-wishes, and attending the funeral when possible. Yet funerals and goodbyes have not calmed what is a storm of feelings around losing friends to cancer and suicide; they’re losses that will stick with me. They’re losses I feel despair over, and for that reason, the opportunity to attend something called “Despair Sanctuary”—billed as a “doom metal vigil for all who are weary”—felt like a possible way through a period calloused with cruelty and unfairness, when I have relied on too much screen time to get through my days.

Now to be clear, I am not a metalhead. My choice of music tends toward sad Australian singer-songwriters like Julia Jacklin, with a side of Chappell Roan. Could metal, a genre I have generally rejected as too masculine and abrasive, be a source of comfort? For Courtney Long, senior editor and digital communications lead at #blkgrlswurld zine, listening to metal can be a centering experience. “Some people are able to meditate and sit there quietly, but others—we have to scream, and it’s the same result, right?” she says. “When I’m at a live concert and the music is front and center, it’s so loud, you can feel it through your heartbeat, and you can feel it through your bones. … After a metal show I look sleepy.”

A night of good sleep sounded appealing, so off I went to Despair Sanctuary. As the sun was going down in Brooklyn one Saturday in May, I arrived at Old First Reformed Church, a progressive house of worship whose historic, Gothic Revival–style masterpiece of a building dates back to the 1800s. Inside, four amps like gloomy eyes were piled up around the wooden glow of the central altar. The music was turned up to 11, and while we hadn’t gotten to the heavy metal yet, the harp solo of Alice Coltrane’s “Radhe-Shyam” echoed in my ribs, as ethereal as it sounded, the vibrations filling my body. I grabbed my free earplugs from the welcome table and settled down in a pew, surrounded by a crowd made up of many identities: Women of all ages, some wielding yoga mats. Metalhead men with flowing locks. And an older woman who appeared to be asleep, head nodding, despite everything.

the band chthonic rites
Chthonic Rites playing at Despair SanctuaryRonnie Gilmore

It can be easy to fall into despair. What is despair but a rage at the way things are, when there is so much possibility in the world? People are lonely. People are worried about their health, finances, and the state of the world. The news reports on wars, and social media sites share urgent first-person videos of dying children next to your friend’s trip to Lake Como.

With all this discord, it can feel impossible to work with despair, to be in a place where that emotion doesn’t swallow you up. On top of all of that, technology makes it easy to blunt the impact of these big, hard feelings. “We have such a focus on positive thinking and manifesting that the idea of inexplicable, terrible things that could just happen [is] alien to us. There isn’t a secular cultural vocabulary for dealing with problems of evil or grief or those problems that aren’t solved with positive thinking,” says Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.

Jack Holloway, an elder at Old First and the 31-year-old creator of Despair Sanctuary, stepped behind a lectern to introduce the event. Natty in a collared black button-down and black pants, he preached: “How do we trust the system when each day reveals more of its evils? … At the root of despair is a refusal to accept things the way that they are.” He finished with, “This place can bear the weight of your burdens …. No one needs you to be optimistic right now.”

“No one needs you to be optimistic right now” was a sentence I needed to hear. I’m the primary caretaker of a three-and-a-half-year-old, so optimism—and looking forward—has been my daily stock in trade. As one of those people who laughs to keep from crying, I often feel like a stubborn optimism is the one thing that keeps me here, present on the earth. But hearing that I could just marinate in sadness? Think about the way the world has been cruel and random and unfair? That it was time just to despair over problems like climate change and war and cancer and world-shaking events that keep striking every time I have a big birthday looming? I felt a strong sense of relief, one I didn’t need to chase away with my phone.

a group of people sitting in front of a screen
A projection at Despair SanctuaryRonnie Gilmore

The idea for Despair Sanctuary came to Holloway during one of the most mundane tasks possible: doing his taxes. It was a year when he and his wife, having done contract work reported on 1099s, discovered they owed thousands of dollars—an awful surprise. At that moment, he tells me, “the wall of misery that sunk in weighed so heavy on me. I was in deep despair over it.” A lifetime metalhead, Holloway put on the band Bongripper’s 2014 album Miserable, falling down into the music—and a light went on: “When I get depressed, I listen to metal music. I thought, Man, there ought to be a place where you can just go and feel this, where this is what we’re feeling for the hour.”

Despair Sanctuary is not all listening to songs like “I Believe Because It Is Impossible,” by sludge-metal band Thou, though—the kind of song that pins you to the ground with loud, squealing vibrations from the guitar, reverberating through your guts and rippling through your feet. The blunt-force metal is part of it; the insistence and heaviness of the sound can be a part of despair and maybe even catharsis. But the event is also a synthesis of Holloway’s interests: metal (he is the author of a book, Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath), social justice, liberation theology, and being present in the world. The sky-high stained-glass windows of Old First held the dusky light, and underneath were plaques that named the enslaved people housed in the 19th century by the congregants who donated the windows—a recent discovery by the church’s Remembrance and Racial Justice Working Group, which Holloway participated in, and which inspired him to preached sermons on “owning up to our history.” He even started a band for Despair Sanctuary: heavy drone rockers Chthonic Rites.

An artist, minister, dog walker, pet sitter, and the creative director of Morbid Instinct, a film and music collective, Holloway identifies as a Christian, and his theology concerns “life here on earth and what it means for the here and now,” a stark difference from the faith he grew up in. He was raised Evangelical, even attending Virginia’s Regent University (best known through its association with the late religious broadcaster and political candidate Pat Robertson) as an undergraduate—an experience that made him “a radical, a leftist,” thanks to reading the work of German philosopher Walter Benjamin and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which led him to the master’s program at Columbia’s notably liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York.

He describes his experience with Evangelical culture as “detached from the world.” “A lot of what I’m doing is in response to growing up where it was like, ‘You are not supposed to engage with the world. You are supposed to be apart from the world,’ ” he says. Holloway references James Baldwin at length—“maybe it’s impossible to live without maintaining that hope, but it is difficult to see what one sees”—and talks about how, late in his life, Baldwin wrote that he was a “despairing witness.” Holloway says he could relate to that idea of witnessing in the form of despair, and the focus it could bring.

a note card on an altar
A prompt on the altarRonnie Gilmore

But at Despair Sanctuary, focus wasn’t necessary. It was a night to be present. To feel feelings. Songs by bands like Boris and Sunn O))) played, a projector displayed quotes from thinkers like Baldwin, participants read poetry by writers like Ocean Vuong as well as original work, and you could do yoga on the floor, lie back in the pews, journal, or do nothing at all. I saw people engaged in all these options.

Holloway asked the attendees to write down on cards our responses to a lament: “Oh burden-bearing spirit, what do you carry that was not there before?” My card was covered in scrawls in cranberry ink. I had too much to say. I felt the music viscerally. It reminded me of a conversation with Brandon Stosuy, co-founder and editor in chief of the Creative Independent and author of Sad Happens: A Celebration of Tears. “Metal is extremely emotional,” he told me. After one show Stosuy put on, a folk-artist friend who’d attended told him she was used to shows where people nod their heads politely but aren’t really letting go, unlike that one. “She was blown away by how into it people were, and how people were reacting so heavily to the music,” he said. “It can be aggressive, but it can also be thoughtful. It can open up a lot of sadness …. Music can often be the easiest way to tap into emotion.”

Old First’s Reverend Cheri Kroon read a set of verses from the Book of Jeremiah that began with “My anguish! My anguish!” and ended with “all the birds of the air had fled.”

Kroon, a longtime Park Slope resident, has been the leader at Old First for the past year and a half. “The very first Protestant denomination is the Reformed Church, which is what this church is—one of the smaller Protestant denominations, smaller than Methodists and Episcopalians,” she explains to me later. “We are an open and affirming church, a big part of our identity. Everyone is open. We ordain and marry same-sex couples, we ordain gay ministers. We are a progressive Reformed church.” She chuckles, reminiscing about when Holloway brought the idea for Despair Sanctuary her way. It wasn’t a natural fit—“I have a master’s degree in opera,” she says, along with a degree from Union Theological—and at first she thought she and Holloway were fully on the same wavelength, seeing the event as a platform for the church to act as a sanctuary: Bring your feelings here, and they can be held. But Kroon initially believed that should lead to hope or transformation; she had to adjust to what Holloway was telling her: “Let’s suspend that hope. Let’s not put that on anybody. And I agreed with him. I thought, Yeah, this moment in our world needs that.”

a person standing at an altar
A participant at Despair SanctuaryRonnie Gilmore

Despair Sanctuary has been a place for the pastor to meet people where they’re at, in their despair and sadness. “I am not the target audience for this, but I believe that I am one of the right people to lead it,” Kroon says. “Because I was a minister through Covid and that forever changed me. I stood with families outside of nursing home windows while they waved to their mothers and grandmothers for the last time. I stood in the parking lot behind Costco, asking them if they would just allow me to stand and pray amidst 26 refrigerator trucks that were full of bodies that hadn’t been claimed yet.”

At the first Despair Sanctuary, only one woman showed up initially. Alone in the church with Holloway and Kroon, she asked, “Am I the only depressed person in Park Slope?”

But for Kroon, the real proof that Despair Sanctuary is working, and speaking to people where they’re at, is that this woman attended the most recent event as well. Kroon notes that the woman’s countenance was the same, but that now she was surrounded by people. “She knows other people feel like she does,” the pastor says. “And hopefully she will not feel alone. That’s a powerful message for people.”

Like that woman, I was surrounded by people that night. I knew that my despair was not singular, that I was not alone in feeling like a chord out of tune.

And at the end of the night, after Chthonic Rites had played and Holloway had said his goodbyes, there was one more task to be completed. We were told to rip up our index cards and deposit them in a compost bucket. The burdens our spirits were carrying would end up as compost, helping vegetables grow in the church’s garden. It may have been a goth vision on Holloway’s part, eating our struggles, but there was also a little bit of symbolism that felt right: that all this darkness and despair, a clear-eyed response to being human right now, could turn into energy, something that could feed people someday.

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