My friend Jaime from Valley and Mountain commented that he doesn’t like to use the words God and church because there are negative connotations for him associated with those words. He put it extremely well, and it got me thinking: why do I feel ok with going to church, even writing about it (constantly)?
Church-related information is the stuff of trivia questions now. I know because I occasionally kill it at trivia as the only person who knows who Lazarus is.
But growing up, I seriously could not imagine not knowing who Lazarus is. I had to go to Sunday school (we called it CCD, and I had to go look that up just now to see that it means Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Really?) once a week from first through eighth grade, and I went to Mass every Sunday until I moved out (and for several years after that). In New Jersey, where 37% of the population is Catholic, it was standard practice. When we moved into our small suburban town, we asked our neighbors where to go to church.
Church was part of the furniture of life, the way that people get into the habit of having brunch on Saturday mornings or happy hour on Friday afternoon. It was the routine. The slight difference between brunch and church, though, is that it is obligatory to go to church, and most people assume that you don’t like it. Or if you do, you’re a bit odd.
So, let me answer your unspoken questions. What is there to like about a man in white robes giving you a papery cracker each week? Well, there is the camaraderie of all your friends from school and your neighbors being there on the hard wooden pews next to you. It was a blessing when I got to sit next to Gabrielle or Katie, my two Catholic BFFs. One time, Gabrielle and I giggled so hard that Gabrielle’s mom turned to us, nearly purple, and said in the loudest whisper possible, “SHUSH! THIS IS GOD’S HOUSE!”
There are all the random people you don’t get to see, people from other generations that I otherwise wouldn’t see living with my family and going to school. I taught myself how to wink when I was very little because old men were always winking at me (avuncularly!). The oldest woman in town, who had been around when my town was still segregated, was one of the Eucharistic ministers who gave us the papery wafers at the appropriate time.
When I haven’t gone to church (and there have been years, including this last one, when I haven’t) I miss seeing old people and young people. I miss little kids giggling too loud, avuncular gentlemen and town matriarchs. You don’t see those people at work or parties or happy hour. At least, I don’t.
The community aspect is a big part of it. Having moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Boston to Seattle to New Hampshire to Seattle again, my “community” has changed frequently. I don’t mean friends and family–it would be nice if they were in my community, but they are almost all scattered across America–I mean people who live nearby, who will keep your spare house key for when you get locked out (I need these people). A church is a fast way to find a friend. They are obligated to shake hands with you and chat before service.
The other reason I think church was appealing to me specifically–this is one harder for me to write about–is that nothing really big and bad happened to me for a long time. I am a mainstream, easily acceptable person: straight, white, smart, and nice. I have had friends since high school, good friends who pick up the phone when I call and who come visit me when I’m sick or sad. I fell in love with the right person for me. I was periodically unemployed, but I always had a safety net–I moved back home for awhile. I got to travel on my severance pay when I was laid off. Like everyone else, I had rough patches, but they were not the type of thing that would destroy your life.
I’m not trying to sound smug, but this type of life, where things mostly go well for you and people jump in to help you when they don’t, made it easier for me to believe in God. Why wouldn’t I think that there is a great big being in the sky orchestrating things to go pretty ok? Why wouldn’t I attribute the blessings of your life to something beyond it? I didn’t think I was particularly worthy of being so lucky. I could have been born into a terrible family, an unhappy place, or with many fewer advantages: less money, less brains, less kindness in my life. And believing in God was what I had been taught since birth.
I don’t think this all the time, that having a good life made it easier for me to believe in God, but it is something I at least partially believe in. It makes it harder for me to understand why churches like God’s House of Glory and Haven of Peace, a Pentecostal church in a poor neighborhood I used to work in after-school tutoring in Chester, PA, the poorest city in the state (which, I always tell people, is pretty nuts considering there is all of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to compete with), was full of enthusiastic Christians who met not only on Sunday but on Wednesday night, too, and were more passionate and more matter-of-fact about their beliefs than anyone in any church I’ve ever visited. (And they had to follow a lot more rules than I did–when we went into the sanctuary once, one of the older women wrapped a white paper tablecloth around her legs because she felt disrespectful not wearing a full-length skirt.)
I don’t understand why church appeals to people who have hardship in their lives because the one time something really crappy happened to me–the time when my aunt died unexpectedly–I quit going to church cold turkey. I was utterly pissed at God, and I decided I didn’t believe in God at all. I didn’t feel guilty at all, not even a little bit, skipping out on church after a lifetime of clinging to Sunday morning Mass-related guilt. Three years later, I don’t feel guilty missing church, and it still sometimes surprises me. I used to feel so bad about skipping Mass that I would make myself stay home the rest of the day if I missed it. That had been the rule growing up.
It’s hard to write about this because it’s complicated. The reasons that I used to go to church were community and commitment–something like God had given me a whole bunch of good things, the least I could do was go to Mass. Now, the reasons are different–I’m not sure what they are. Community is still part of it. It might be almost all of it.