Neither the aroma of flowers decorating the altar nor the underlying familiarity of the surrounds-rows of pews left and right, altar in the middle, organ on the right, choir on the left-were much help in alleviating my nervousness. It wasn't going to church for the first time since adolescence that bothered me so much as being among a crowd of people once again.
The church I grew up with was a dark, musty, unpleasant place, but this newer building had a good deal of glass at the entry, making the room well lit, fresh, and inviting. Side doors were open, allowing June air that hinted of warmth but hadn't yet heated to flow through the room. The congregation, however, seemed timeless: children in their Sunday best, smiling adults, women in pastel dresses, even a hat or two, still, and white-haired old ladies seated in the front row. Attendance was sparse enough that I was able to sit decently near the front, but not immediately next to anyone else-amid but not among the congregation. At precisely eleven o'clock the organ began the prelude, its pedal tones resonating with the part of me that still sought tribal drums.
One absolute innovation was a young man with a portable microphone who passed up the center aisle from back to front inviting new parishioners and visitors to introduce themselves. As he approached the row in which I was seated, I noticed that my dress shoes were so old and neglected that the leather along the edges was dried and cracking. The minister took a minute to welcome the people who were new to the congregation, inviting them-us-all to refreshments and fellowship, to be held in the patio outside the sanctuary immediately following the service.
I doubt that the liturgy had changed since John Wesley first set it down. After the sermon, a hymn, and the benediction, we all filed out to the strains of the postlude. At the door, I shook hands with the pastor, as custom required. Four steps further along, my hand was seized by both those of one of the white-haired ladies who'd been sitting in the front row.
"How nice to see you," she said. "This is your first time here, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm just visiting today."
"Weren't the flowers lovely?" she asked. "Every time I see flowers, I'm reminded of God's love for us."
I gently extricated my hand from hers.
"Yes," I said, as I began sidling to my left, "the flowers were quite lovely."
"Do have some coffee and cookies!" the woman called out as I continued to move beyond the range of conversation.
Church ladies apparently still baked cookies, I noticed as I walked away from the sanctuary. To my right, along the sidewalk leading to the parking lot, several folding tables had been set up. On display, to tempt the palettes of regular worshippers and guests alike, were enough cookies to satisfy the entire congregation, plus aluminum percolators of both regular and decaffeinated coffee. As I navigated my way through clumps of people standing around and chatting over coffee and cookies, I passed near one of the tables, and my right hand was once again seized in the double grip of Methodist fellowship.
"Hi!" came an enthusiastic greeting over my right shoulder. "I'm Margaret Wilson, but you can call me Peg. Everybody else does. What's your name?"
I turned and looked to see who belonged to such an assertive greeting. "I'm Alex, Alex Winham."
Peg was one of the middle-aged ladies in a pastel dress, fairly tall, trim but not thin, on the attractive side of plain, with short, light brown hair that had been blow-dried into a non-style-a walking ad from the pages of the JC Penney catalog. Her grip persevered.
"How nice to meet you, Alex. Is the rest of the family with you today?"
"No, I'm here alone."
"Oh, so you do have a family, then?"
"Yes," I said, "I do."
"Won't you join us for some coffee and cookies?"
Refreshments, fellowship, and recruitment, it looked like to me, and I wasn't there to be recruited.
"No, thank you," I said, "I'm afraid I don't have time to stay and chat today."
"Well, then, perhaps next week," Peg said cheerily, releasing my hand.
"Yes," I said, "perhaps next week."
As it turned out, there was no next week, at least not for the Methodist Church and me. My not going to church didn't have anything to do with the church. It was simply one of those days when I didn't feel like looking the world in the face. I slept late, felt guilty, and frittered time away writing in my journal and catching up on email correspondence.
But I was back the week following, this time without any particular nervousness about being there, and without feeling the need to observe the order of service carefully. Predictably, this Sunday was just like the one two weeks ago. This week, when the fellow with the microphone came by, I was seriously studying a bit of architectural detail where the east wall of the sanctuary intersected the ceiling. My feeling was that I sat there and let the service flow past me. I wasn't there for the religiosity of it, I wasn't there seeking Christian salvation for my soul, and I wasn't there to build a relationship with the congregation. My being there was a test, an experiment to how I'd respond to the people around me.
Once again, after the service, I shook the pastor's hand at the door and let the white-haired lady grasp my hand with both of hers.
"How nice to see you back again!" she said. "Can we expect to be seeing you regularly now?"
"It's nice to see you again, too," I said. "I can't promise that I'll be a regular, but I will probably be back from time to time."
"Weren't the flowers lovely today?" she asked. "Every time I see flowers, I'm reminded of God's love for us."
"The flowers were lovely," I said, as I began sliding my hand away. "They add a nice touch of freshness to the sanctuary."
This time, I was prepared to see the tables of cookies and coffee, but I still didn't feel like standing around making chit-chat with the parishioners. I believed that my reasons for being at church were quite different from theirs, and, in truth, I no longer believed in Christianity as the only pathway to heaven any more than I believed in the Easter Bunny. It seemed to me that any conversations I might have would be vapid, hypocritical, or uncomfortable for all concerned. Again making my way around the clumps of people talking over their coffee and cookies, I chose a path on the far side of the walk, away from the tables and Peg. I did not reckon on Peg's keen attention to the crowd.
"Alex! Alex!" she called over the heads of a dozen people. "Come say hello and get some coffee!"
It's possible that if I had any real courage of my convictions, or that if I really were as antisocial as I considered myself to be, I would have feigned deafness and kept walking, or even ignored Peg completely. But I couldn't bring myself to do that. I couldn't be downright rude, regardless of how I actually felt about getting involved with the church fellowship.
I edged back through the crowd and let Peg take my hand in hers in that double-fisted fellowshiply way. "How are you?" she beamed. "So, you decided we were worth coming back to visit again after all, huh?" Like I was a long-lost friend. Serious recruitment efforts, here. I glanced down at our collection of hands and noticed that her left hand, on top of the heap, was not sporting a wedding ring.
"Hi, Peg," I said. "Yes, I decided to come back again."
"Is the family with you today?"
"No, I'm here alone. We didn't attend church as a family."
"If church isn't part of your family, what's brought you by yourself?"
"It's kind of a long story," I said.
Peg, having released my hand, stepped back and looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. "Oh," she said. Then, after a pause, "Would you like to talk about it?"
Would I like to talk about it? Well, yes and no. Part of me would have loved to unburden itself by pouring out my tale to an attentive woman. The more cautious part of me, the one that was currently dominant, warned that everything was too fragile right now to invest outside of myself. I wasn't sure where my center was, and I didn't especially want a witness to my fumbling around in search of it.
Peg took my silence as assent. "You're right," she said. "This isn't a very good place to talk. Listen, all I have to do is serve. Since I'm on the set-up committee, I don't have to stick around to put everything away. Why don't we meet at the Kozy Kitchen in a half hour. You know where it is?"
I could have backed out gracefully, but I still was, after all, flying by the seat of my emotional pants. My own decisions, my own actions, fate, and a slightly aggressive middle-aged Methodist woman had combined to create this particular crossroads of time and place. Which fork should I take? It seemed to me there couldn't be much threat in having lunch with a church-going woman in a public restaurant, and it would be good practice in reassimilating myself into the world. I agreed.
The Kozy Kitchen, a neighborhood family restaurant a couple of miles down the main street from the church, was full of Sunday brunchers and breakfasters, some looking like they'd just come from church, and some looking like they'd just come from bed. The mixed aromas of bacon, coffee, and syrup hung heavy in the air. After a brief wait, I got a two-person booth next to a window, ordered coffee, and waited for Peg to arrive.
.... There is more of this story ...