When the doors of St. Paul's Cathedral opened a little after 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve, many of those who stumbled in seemed surprised to find themselves in a church.
"Which do you want, church or bathroom?" said church greeter Jimmy Yee, kindly and repeatedly. Those who were seeking the latter were sent to portable toilets across the street.
But by 11:30 p.m., the cathedral across the street from Boston Common was at least half full of celebrants who were there on purpose.
"New Year's is kind of a berserk, secular, let's get drunk and party day, but people are drawn to the opportunity to go deeper," said the Very Rev. Jep Streit, dean of the Cathedral, a congenial guy who looks like a gentle cross between Eric Clapton and Jeff Foxworthy.
"We all represent reflections of the same divine source, and sometimes we need reminders of that," said Katrinka Heyman, a young Baha'i from Somerville who had traveled to the service with friends after a low-key night of Scrabble.
Most arrived in groups or couples, but there were a few lone congregants, too. A young man in a ski sweater curled up on a back pew and fell asleep.
An African sound healer named Gandiva Lorcan kicked off the service with a Tibetan gong and a singing bowl, followed by a Muslim call to prayer; and then Cathedral Music Director and pianist Ed Broms played a slow, soulful version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."
On cue, several spiritual leaders marched slowly down the candle-lit center aisle - a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Baha'i, a Unitarian, a Sufi, a Zoroastrian, and a representative of the World Peace Prayer Society - all of whom spoke or chanted during the service.
"Religion is so often seen as a source of a division in the world, a source of conflict," Streit told the congregation in his opening remarks, thanking us for understanding that it doesn't have to be that way.
As midnight approached, Streit explained that we would be welcoming the new year in silence, with the caveat, "I can promise you it won't be silent outside." (He didn't seem fazed when several congregants tiptoed out of the church to watch the fireworks.)
Sure enough, the doors of the church weren't thick enough to mute the sound of several thousand party horns tooting in tandem on the Common. But the relative silence inside was still sufficient for prayer and reflection. Nobody's cellphone rang. Nobody made out in the pews.
"We have officially transitioned into 2008," said Penny Joy Snider-Light, a Peace Representative from the World Peace Society, breaking the silence. Someone in the back said, "yay," very softly.
Jewish representative M. David Cohen riffed on Gertrude Stein. "A rose is a rose is a rose," he said. "You are in every rose. God is in every rose. God is in you."
Unitarian Universalist Rev. Stephen Kendrick gave props to St. Paul's Cathedral for encouraging an Interfaith community. (The large church hosts a "jumah," communal Muslim prayer, every Friday afternoon.)
"It's very courageous for them to do this, and they need to be thanked," Kendrick said. "We need this ecumenical movement. And the world needs it."
The service concluded with all but a few of the congregants joining the spiritual leaders in the front of the church for a musical ceremony. Everyone liked arms, shuffled in a slow circle, and sang. The Interfaith song interspersed a verse in the Judeo-Christian book of Isaiah: My house shall be a house of prayer for all people with tenets from seven religions. They started with Hindu: "Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Om" (God who at once is truth and power, impersonal and personal! Victory to Thee! Victory, victory to Thee!) And they ended with Sufi: "Toward the One, United with All."
The Rev. Maureen Reddington-Wilde, of the Church of Sacred Earth, offered "a Libation to Harmony and the Muses" (sparkling wine in plastic cups.)
As the congregants filed out, Cohen offered Dancing Deer cookies. This was his first year of First Night Interfaith, and I asked if he felt conflicted.
"As a Jew going into an Episcopal church?" he said. "No. I don't find it contradictory. We're all here with a common goal - that there should be peace."
Muslim Mushtaque Mirza doled out multicolored strings of shiny plastic beads. Each bead was shaped like a tiny peace sign.