I have been to a lot of churches. I grew up Catholic, attending mass every Sunday with my little family. When I was little, I liked getting dressed up for it. Before Easter, my mom always took me shopping for an Easter hat. They were all white with different colored ribbons (at least in my memory). I chose the ribbon to coordinate with my dress and my shoes.
Being Catholic meant going to church. We went no matter what; when we were on vacation, my dad found us a church to go to, or we went with whoever we were visiting. Denomination wasn’t critical. When we stayed with my mother’s parents, we went to their Lutheran church. I preferred that church to the Catholic one nearby, because at communion, we ate real bread instead of the papery wafers we usually had at Mass.
I didn’t know then that the real difference between communion at my grandparents’ Lutheran church and my Catholic one was that I was eating a memorial to Christ in one and the literal body of Christ at the other. I wasn’t all that interested in these quibbling-seeming theological differences, though the church split over it. I did sometimes feel guilty (revealing my true Catholic nature) that I didn’t have to go to confession at the Lutheran church.
At Valley and Mountain, my new “church,” the service is called “Celebration.” I can’t get down with the name yet, though the people I’ve met say it easily enough. When I mentioned to Jaime, my welcoming friend, that it was a strange time for church–4 pm–he said that he didn’t like to attach that name to it. Fair enough.
Church weirds out a lot of people, my husband Andrew included. It makes them feel uncomfortable, or unhappy, or out of place, or just odd. Sitting in a pew watching a man in a white robe hold up a circle of bread towards the heavens while someone rings a bell to signal the exact moment the bread turns into the flesh of Christ is only normal if you do it every Sunday from birth. Seeing an emaciated body hung on a cross with a well-placed torn rag and a crown of thorns would be terrifying if I stumbled upon it in real life. But I looked at a ceramic crucifix about nine feet tall weekly until I was twenty-three.
Going to church is weird. It didn’t take me long to figure that out in high school, when everyone’s parents (except mine) let them sleep in. But I didn’t rebel all that hard–I liked going to church. I liked thinking back responses to the priest, the ritual of eating a piece of bread to remember someone, and occasionally enjoying the homily. I liked sitting in silence, about one-third against my will. I liked doing something that I didn’t have to do because I felt like I had to do it. It made me feel like I was part of something larger, because I wouldn’t have chosen to do it on my own.
Celebration at V & M is very different from Catholic Mass. It starts with everyone sitting around and talking. There are no songs to gather people together, though last week this man was playing the piano when I walked in. He’s a local, Mr. Joe, and he comes in to play the piano in the big refinished warehouse-y space often. We sit in our fold out chairs and talk to each other, introduce ourselves (in my case). Then someone from the group–not the minister, John–leads us in a prayer for other people.
They read off of the same folded pieces of white printer paper that we all read the prayer off of. Their name is part of the program, as in “Chad” for one part and “Chad and everybody” for another, to show who is supposed to speak when. After we pray for community needs, the day’s leader reads a part of the Bible. Then John gives a “message” which is like a homily or a lesson.
This is all fairly normal components of a mainstream Christian church service, albeit with some major language differences (at V&M, we don’t pray for “life from conception through natural death” like I sometimes did at Mass). But then things get really different. First, there’s time to respond to the lesson. What the other people in the group have to say is often as interesting and surprising and amazing as what John had to say–like the week we talked about body image and how Christians have this disconnect between loving their bodies and loving God, and one woman talked about how growing up fundamentalist Christian, she was taught that her body was sinful and bad and eventually, she started changing her mind. She felt torn, could she love her body? Was she allowed to have sex, allowed to make what others might call mistakes? She was driving around Seattle thinking about this when she saw graffiti hearts everywhere. She took it as a sign that God loved her and her body.*
Then we split into three groups: a meditation group, a Bible study group, a gardening group, or a service-doing group. My first day, I made PB&Js with Jaime for Nightwatch. I’ve always wanted to do community service instead of church–it was pretty cool. I got to talk to a really cool family, the Joneses, who spend their time helping others in their community. (Note to self, I need to find out how they do that, because it seems like they literally walk around finding people to help and then help them. How do they pay their rent?)
After twenty minutes of this second part, we all get back together and sing one song (“Guide my feet,” a less-cheesy sounding folk song than you might thing. I’m trying to like it, it references running). John and the rest of us bless a meal that someone has cooked and then we eat it. My first couple of times, it was soup and bread, but last week, V&M started hosting community cook-outs.
We all eat together and talk about whatever** we like, John and whoever else has an announcement shares it, and then John blesses us with an on-topic blessing and we leave.
I like it. It’s relaxed. It’s cool. I actually have gotten to talk to people during church.
*This story is remarkably similar to another story about a woman from Restoration Church, the evangelical church where I spent a year. This particular person sees hearts in everything, from a puddle of seawater on the beach to a necklace puddled on her dresser, and she takes it as a sign that God loves her. She takes photos of hearts that she sees on her phone.
This hearts thing really freaked me out when I heard about it–it seemed nuts to me. I mean, who believes in random hearts? But I was almost tearing up at the graffiti hearts story. So…
**Remember when I mentioned that I only alienated one person (so far)? So at soup time, I talked to someone who had gone to school in a city that I know of and instead of being like, “Represent, New Jersey!” I said, “Holy crap, that place is scary. I’ve driven through and hoped I would get out without getting shot.” And then when she told me what she was specializing in at med school, I told her that my best friend had planned to do the same thing but found it boring. I was going to try to blot these two insults from my mind but instead I decided to immortalize them on the internet. Judge away, I deserve it.