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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Church Hopping

When I was younger, there was only one church. It was called The Catholic Church. Period.

From time to time I drove past other churches, with rich exotic names like "Presbyterian", "Baptist", "Episcopalian", and "Lutheran".

I often wondered what went on inside them. The Baptists, I figured, had rather a large swimming pool which served as a centerpiece of their worship services...attended by a lifeguard dressed in animal skins, who was constantly munching on trail mix, and who had a problem buckling some People's sandal straps.

But Presbyterian sounded ominous. I mean, it had a "y" in the middle of the name. Doesn't that sound vaguely threatening to you?

One day, greatly daring, I ventured inside the local church of the Presbyterians. I parked at the edge of the lot, and tried to inconspicuously blend in with the Presbyters moving toward the entrance. Not easy, as I was wearing shorts and sandals (but with no buckle; I wasn't taking chances). Everyone else worse suits and ties (the men, I mean...the women wore modest dark dresses).

They looked at me. I looked back. A large male Presbyter moved to block my path.

"Hi," he said.

"Uh, hi." I was ready to slip out of my sandals and make a dash for it.

"Haven't seen you here before."

Did I look like I was up to no good? A spy for the papists? What would be my fate? I suddenly wished I'd chosen a Baptist church for my adventure. At least I knew how to swim.

I swallowed, and felt my Adam's Apple try to bury itself under my tongue. "I thought I'd stop by, and, you know, go to church."

He nodded. A large young man came up behind him. "You'll sit with us." It was an order. A steely-looking woman slipped behind me, and took my arm.

"We're glad to have you here," she said. She was wearing a modest dark dress. And no hat.

The inside of the church looked like an auditorium, with folding theater seats. I was placed between the man Billy, and the woman Sarah. The boy Todd sat on Sarah's other side, on the aisle. In case I decided to try to escape.

The service began with unfamiliar songs, and an unfamiliar prayer. And then the priest...no, the preacher, stepped up to speak. And he spoke. And he spoke. And he spoke some more. I dared not fidget, dared not fall doze, but he spoke for a powerful long time. He spoke about the Samaritan who found the injured man along the road, the man whom the religious had passed by.

At the end of the service there was more singing. The words were still unfamiliar, but the enthusiasm of the singing made the unfamiliar welcoming, in the way a Chinese family living on a junk might welcome an American sailor.

Back to the parking lot, still under escort. "You'll come to lunch with us?"

Not an order. There was shy wistfulness in what Billy said.

"Sure. I'll follow you?"

The woman Sarah hung back while her husband and son entered their dark and formal Chevrolet. "Thanks," she said.

"I enjoyed it." I was still trying to figure it out.

She looked me in the eye. "It was getting hard for me to get Billy and Todd to come to church, you know? And i said, this morning, Please, just go today. If you don't want to go after today, I won't nag. I won't beg. But give God one more chance?"

And they looked so...churchy.

She pressed my hand. "You'll be here next week?"

I looked at the church, with its long fearful name carrying a "y" in its belly, the tall windows leading into the auditorium where many words lived, and where God lived, too.

"Of course."

I was a stranger, and you made me welcome.

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