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Worship in the Park with the Baptists

July 12, 2012

My bedroom looks out on the kitchen and the door is thin. Every Sunday morning I roll over at 9:30, briefly awoken by the sound of my housemate rustling around making breakfast before church. I’m often wrapping up brunch and nursing a book and a second cup of tea when she comes back, one of the few times I see her wearing anything other than old work pants and music festival T-shirts. She’ll tell me about her pastor, who sported a rainbow flag as a cape in the city festival parade; about the trans woman who drove every Sunday from a town an hour away and had her Easter hat complimented by the church ladies; about the Occupy protesters invited in for coffee; about the antics of the three-year-olds, doing their best to learn badminton at the picnic.

Church seemed more foreign to me than the moon. Neither of my parents is overtly religious; though my father seems to have some sympathies for the Jesuits and liberal Lutherans and my mother contemplated becoming a minister in her youth, I have basically no idea of what their inner religious convictions are at this point. We celebrated Christmas and Easter because life is duller without holidays and they provide a good excuse for a feast; there were a few bibles around the house, legacies of the past and unsubtle gifts from those who hoped we would see the light. My mom would have supported me in any faith I developed and gone with me to any religious institution I wanted to go to – she told me so, in fact – but having been inadvertently raised with a knee-jerk suspicion of public displays of faith, I didn’t think of organized religion as a place where I might belong.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that until last Sunday, I had never in my life been to church.

The Baptists were holding their worship in the park last Sunday, and we had a houseguest over who likes to go hiking. Guest thought he might give Housemate a ride out to church and then putter around in the woods after she was done. Well, I’m not one to turn down a ramble in the woods on a fine warm Sunday, so I decided to join them, church notwithstanding.

We were late, having spent too much time grating sweet potatoes and lemon for our breakfast pancakes. This would not be a problem, Housemate assured us; peoples’ expectations of her disreputable friends were generally low, and it was fairly common for churchgoers to wander in with coffee in hand. And so the service was underway by the time we found them, sitting between trees at the north end of the park, with the sky and the lake as their backdrop.  It was the children’s service this week and the children were all running around us waving torches made of rainbow streamers, paper towel rolls, and tinfoil while a cluster of adults with guitars sang about dancing with the Lord. Two people in the back were perched on meditation stools on a multicolored towel on the grass; when they noticed us standing behind them, they offered us their towel to sit on.  It was large enough for all three of us, and we settled down under the dapple of treeshade.

The gaggle of children and their herders made their way up to the front, displacing the guitarists.  Children came up one by one, lighting tea candles set in glass bowls against the wind, one each for God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  They mumbled the words and fumbled with the lighter, but with a little help managed to get the candles burning; I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize they were invoking the Trinity until the last candle.

I don’t remember the exact order of everything that followed.  Some of the Sunday school kids received Bibles.  There was the Time of Questions and Answers: a girl stood up at the pulpit and asked, “We’ve been hearing about this on the news a lot.  What is the difference between secular and Christian marriage?” A very long silence followed. Finally one man got up and described how in parts of Europe legal marriage required civil paperwork and civil officials, and any religious ceremony was separate and up to the couple – how civic marriage was about the couple’s relationship with the state, while Christian marriage was about the couple’s relationship with God. (What about the couple’s relationship with each other, I wonder?) A woman got up and talked about her previous marriage, which the Catholic church still recognized despite her civic divorce.  “And I’m a lesbian,” she said, “and now if I meet the right woman I can have a Baptist lesbian wedding in this state!” And everybody clapped and cheered.

“Now we will pass the peace of Christ,” announced an astonishingly articulate three-year-old from the pulpit, and everybody stood and started shaking hands.  I stood but didn’t move, still undecided on whether I was observing or participating.  Other people made the decision for me. “Peace be with you,” said a woman, holding her hand out for mine, and “Peace be with you,” said a man in a baseball cap, and “Peace be with you,” an aging hippie, and “Peace be with you,” a stocky mouse-haired guy in a faded T-shirt, and “Peace be with you,” the woman who had lent us her towel to sit on, and on and on and on, shaking hands and sharing peace under the trees by the shore of the lake as the three candles, dim in the noonday sun, burned on. And so it didn’t matter, after all, that I was a stranger.

We sang “This little light of mine.”  There was sheet music with lyrics in case anybody didn’t know it. The pastor, who turned out to be the mouse-haired guy from earlier, got up and spoke of how it seemed like a silly song, a kid’s song, but there was once a civil rights activist (I’ve forgotten which one) who wound up in jail and sang it to keep his spirit up, as well as the spirits of his fellow activists.  He talked about how that light was in all of us, and not silly at all, but to be protected, fed, and cherished – and recognized in others.

And then it came time for communion, for it was Communion Sunday, and I got nervous.  Was I supposed to partake? I knew that Catholics restricted communion, but I also knew that Baptists were very different from Catholics. Rules aside, was it morally and theologically appropriate for me to partake – did it imply something about my beliefs that wasn’t true? What was I supposed to do? I decided to copy Guest, who, though not a member of this denomination, seemed on firmer ground with the whole church thing than me. And in the end, with a small child with a basket of grapes offered me one, it was pretty clear what my decision had to be.  I took a grape and a cracker and waited.

“Does everyone have a grape and a cracker?” asked the pastor.  There was a bit of running around up front as all the children who had been passing them out and forgotten to get any for themselves got their grapes and crackers.  And then the pastor said something to the effect of: You do not have to have passed any test to take this communion.  You do not need to have fulfilled any list of criteria.  You do not have to have been good enough this week.  You do not have to be whole. You do not need to have certainty. You do not need to be a believer.  You are all worthy. You are all children of God.

And then we ate our crackers and grapes.

Later there was lunch – a potluck spread over four or five picnic tables in the pavilion, enchiladas bumping elbows with vegetable sushi, tortilla salad side-by-side with homemade pickles and pesto pasta.  Whether you were vegan, gluten-sensitive, lactose-intolerant, legume-intolerant, allergic to carrots, whatever – there was something for you to eat there.  The great march of dishes led down to two magnificent cakes and a few pies at the end of the table; I looked at my full lunch plate and hoped I’d have room for dessert.

After a lunch of delicious food and easy, friendly conversation with people I had never met, we finally went on our hike – up around the rim of the gorge (where we snacked on some early raspberries), over the waterfall that I had visited at the equinox and back down along the southern rim.  Then we wandered to the base of the waterfall, walking in the stream warm from flowing over sun-baked rock. The water was much lower than in the spring – the waterfall was a sedate trickle compared to the pounding torrent of several months ago. Walking back, I thought of the first time I’d come to this place.  It was during a field trip for my first serious geology class; the trees, burning with the fires of autumn, had blazed against a perfectly blue sky.  We’d crawled all over the gorge with our noses to the rocks, inspecting the tracks of ancient life and the ebb and flow of sea and sediment. God’s creatures gone before us, I thought, the Baptist service still with me; and God’s creatures will come after us.  We are only a blink, one link in the chain of being.

I am glad to have broken bread with these people.  I am glad to have seen their lights shine. And while I will probably never be exclusively or even mostly Christian, I think that, if I needed to, I could find rest and welcome at a place like that. Now is not the time; I’m still too restless, and I’m only just discovering what my path looks like, never mind where it’s going.  But perhaps some day I’ll stop there for a while, at that inn by the wayside of the road to the great unknown.

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