Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Tale of Two Churches (Part One of Two)

I remember the first time my husband and I set foot in that church. "The people here seem nice," he said. And he was right. All but a few welcomed us as if they themselves were the pastor, as if each one had some personal stake in our staying. The refreshments set up between services were "themed" to coincide with the holiday and an upcoming Music department event; they included sandwiches and fresh Panera bagels (oh my!). The spread was abundant and presented on colorful plastic plates with matching cups standing at attention around the beverage station. Most of the folks were dressed in their best pressed; orderly children were adorned with ties and tights, curls and bows, and what-have-you. You could sense that even outside the walls of this establishment these people were upstanding citizens, visible and vital members of their community and its local organizations, professionals: business owners, doctors, and so forth. The cars in the lot were washed and well maintained; sure some were sporty or top-of-the-line, but most were sensible with many displaying hybrid stickers. The building and its grounds were neat and more than adequate for all they hoped to do there. It's grand space accommodated meetings and activities for young and old alike: movie nights, fundraisers, dinners and games. The church was alive with weddings, booked solidly with funerals; its spire was lit through the night -- a beacon to those searching for warmth in a cold, dark world. The building was a formidable, historical and conspicuous body placed right in the center of that tiny town. Here we had reached home in safety and comfort.

Upon coming to that second little church, however, a new feeling overtook us completely. It's cramped little space on the corner of a back alley in the city almost caused us to determine right then and there that our first visit would be our last. The aging but brightly painted interior betrayed its story: this building had changed hands more than once, being rehabbed and repurposed to accommodate -- far from perfectly -- the needs of the present church. The alluring smell of coffee drew us to the hall where folks were gathered, eating a graciously offered but rudimentary breakfast from the cheapest of paper plates. "Please help yourself to one serving of each of the following items," the pastor announced; "Let's make sure everyone gets enough first." With that he approached, beaming and welcoming us warmly. He drew our attention to the line for food where he introduced us to a few of the hungry waiting there; they seemed friendly enough. Gazing around the room, we noticed that others consumed their meal as though it was to be their last, and did not even look up from their plates; those who did, eyed us suspiciously. Many of these people appeared poor, perhaps even homeless. Children in frayed jeans and threadbare sweatshirts ran around tables and no one chastised them. Some it seemed, had simply walked into the church on their own, hungry for physical sustenance and starving for light in a dark and lonely city. As we entered the sanctuary, there was no bespectacled or stately church Elder to greet us, but a young man in worn clothing who held "bulletins" in a withered hand. He smiled shyly and handed us the hand-written photocopy: a single sheet on which was written names of those requesting prayer -- a lengthy list -- and the reminders for an upcoming prayer meeting and two weekly Bible studies. No bake sales or mothers' groups; no Deacons meetings or transportation committee announcements. Here we had reached a place of some sort of discomfort, with people and a style of worship different from any we'd ever experienced.

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