Thirty-five years ago I left organized religion. Fifteen years ago I came back to it. In between, I never dreamed I would sit in a pew again.
When my oldest child turned 5, it dawned on me: I would count on strong teachers to educate his mind. Who would help me guide him in matters of the soul?
I would not, could not, return to my denomination of origin. But stuffed into the corners of all the old baggage from my childhood church were a few treasures: a belief in something larger, some universal good as mystifying as it was reassuring, reverence for the sacred in everything.
My husband was ready to find a fold, too. His family had attended a grab bag of churches between several childhood moves, but it was his mother’s deep faith that imprinted his heart.
What I sought was spiritual sustenance both digestible and hearty enough to stick to my ribs. Changing denominations required assembling a new menu, a new kind of shopping that forced me to look down different aisles and ask: What am I really hungry for?
I had a lengthy wish list: a vital youth program, commitment to serving the poor, relevant preaching, sanctuary from platitudes, a safe place to ask hard questions, people who genuinely cared about one another.
We had a few deal-breakers, too. I would not attend a church that refused communion to anyone. My husband would not attend a church that required him to wear a coat and tie.
Half of me wanted a church full of people who swayed to soulful music, arms raised in praise. The other half wanted a church where I could sit unnoticed in the last pew. That way, if I felt the grip of old religious ghosts tightening around my throat, I could escape and breathe.
Our search began. One church offered wide smiles and narrow doctrine. One was a sea of the dreaded suits and ties. One sermon sounded Googled, another dredged up from a dog-eared stockpile. Our spiritual ardor threatened to wane.
Then one Sunday I slipped in late to yet another house of worship, out of breath and feeling out of place. Oddly, I can no longer recall the sermon topic. But once it began, my fidgeting ceased.
An intimate and scholarly pursuit of truth emanated from the pulpit. The pastor’s words pulsed through the hushed congregation all the way up to the last seat in the balcony, where they reverberated in my chest like a bell rung for the first time. This was the moment of knowing I had waited for.
In retrospect, my original wish list resembled the fantasies of a young girl imagining Mr. Right: smart, handsome, never embarrassing, rock solid, unfailingly kind, with bonus points for a sense of humor and compatible tastes in music.
If shopping for a church is like dating, joining one is a marriage of sorts. In the end, it comes down to an innate sense of belonging together. After the honeymoon, there is the hard work of loving through the mess of daily life. We exchange our solitary existence for close quarters, boarding a vessel that heaves across a roiling sea carrying cargo diverse as Noah’s ark, with all its squawks and roars and squabbles.
Commitment can bring pain. I think of my devout Catholic friends who were fiercely attached to churches closed by their diocese. They describe that wrenching experience in the broken-hearted language of an unwanted divorce. They’d believed what they shared was built upon a rock. Suddenly, they were abandoned, with vague explanations that didn’t add up.
Nothing shaped by mortals is perfect. But even in periods of doubt, I scan my church’s soaring ceiling, its carved wooden beams embedded with abolitionist history, and feel shelter.
Each Sunday, the sanctuary fills with a chorus of collected suffering: sons at war, sick spouses, job losses, divorces and deaths, the world’s turmoil. We get to hear the high notes, too: recoveries and remissions; jobs found and degrees earned; new babies, new loves, new lives.
I recognize people by the backs of their heads. There are the Sunday school teachers who gave my children the stories of Lazarus, Moses and the prodigal son; the confirmation mentors who let them puzzle through paradoxes; the volunteers who showed them (and me) how to cut a sub-floor in Appalachia. There are the women who made our family all those dinners when my mom was hospitalized, the deacons who prayed through my nephew’s surgeries. Churches are built for worship, not community, yet this very community opened up for us a dozen different paths toward God.
I still like the last pew. For a long time I sat there for the escape hatch. Now I sit there for the view: all of us riding out the storm, learning how to live together, praying for an olive branch and a rainbow.