For almost twenty years, I sat with my family in the same wooden pew every Sunday morning. Ours was on the right side of the middle aisle, four rows back from the front. We sat at the left side of the pew, my father, my mother, then me. My aunt and uncle took the right side of the pew. Another aunt and uncle sat with my grandfather and his 3rd wife — we called her Miss Ann — on the right side of the pew in front of us. Nobody sat in the front row.
Between the first numbered hymn of the service and the second, there was a time for prayer. “Concerns and Celebrations” was how it appeared in the bulletin, the program of the service. Concerns outnumbered celebrations. The pastor had a list of both, some new and several carried forward from the week previous. He would read names aloud and give updates as to each person’s condition. The prayer concerns pulled the most clinical terms into our house of worship, often in excruciating detail. This person had lymphoma, someone else lupus and another poor soul suffered leukemia. The always aging congregation shuddered at the mention of shingles, sighed heavily at dementia. Through prayer concerns, I learned the specificity of cancer, facts about what part of the body had been attacked, how many tumors, what had the chemotherapy done, how much hair had been lost to radiation. Methodist ministers are educated folk, but the verbal dexterity was always surprising. This was clinical reportage with a Southern accent.
His list exhausted, perhaps his heart and tongue as well, the pastor would open the floor to other concerns. Celebrations were just as welcome. One after another, a congregant would rise from their pew and give a name, then establish a connection. “You know her, she’s so-and-so’s cousin by marriage, used to live over off Burnt Mill Road until that flood a few years back.” “She’s my nephew’s wife’s aunt from Ringgold.” “He’s my neighbor’s shift manager from the tufting mill down in Dalton.” The pastor would take notes in pencil as quickly and as reverently as possible, knowing he’d need to find the parishioner after for details. Most of these names were unfamiliar to me. They weren’t of our congregation, weren’t necessarily Methodists or even verifiably church-going. But in the moment they were names worthy of concern and prayer by virtue of speaking in that house. Some were ill, others displaced, looking for work or starting a family ill-prepared. I suspect most of these names never knew they were being spoken of, would’ve likely been embarrassed by the attention, by having their business revealed to strangers, well-meaning aside.
Concerns lifted, we bowed our heads in prayer. Prayer had stages like a rocket. Silent prayer was first. A moment to reflect while organ music softly played. My aunt played organ in the church. She still does. My eyes would shut tight, my hands would come together and rest in my lap. Often I’d feel so peaceful, so relaxed, I would fall asleep. A minute or so would pass in quiet and the pastor read the names again, adding the new ones, wrapping each in an envelope of care. Intercessory prayer in our church was a meditation of several introductions. “Lord, we ask you to be with Mark and Mark’s family as he recovers from surgery.” “Lord, we place Louisa in your tender care as she’s moved into hospice.” Then he read the private concerns, particulars known only to the pastor. “Lord, we pray now for others who are suffering this week, though we may not mention them by name, you know their names just as you know all our hearts, Lord.” The prayers ended with The Lord’s Prayer. If I’d been sleeping, I’d wake up mumbling. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name …” There’s a cadence. Before I knew the words, I knew the spoken rhythm of it. “… thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Names rose on thought and care, up and out of our little church. People I knew and many I didn’t, several I would never meet. Through prayer concerns, our small congregation connected to a world outside, invited strangers into our hearts like family.
“For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.”
I stopped attending church when I left for college. After graduation, after moving to Atlanta, I didn’t seek another. I worked at a church for awhile on Sundays, but I wasn’t attending, not in the the same way I had. I arrived on Sunday morning, went home on Sunday evening, went on a few retreats. I was there bodily, but I wasn’t there in spirit, in faith. It is telling I didn’t transfer my membership. As a result, I’m still on the roles at my home church, presumably as an active member. It’s a kindness. I get letters of invitation to homecoming in the spring, to holiday events in the winter.
My mom still plays piano. My aunt plays organ and my dad leads songs. My mom and dad keep the same pew as they always have. My uncle died and my aunt remarried and kept her part of pew. My other uncle and aunt have both passed on, as have my grandfather. Miss Ann left our church for more baptist waters shortly after his passing. It seems smaller, the halls emptier, though the scent is still a mix of candle wax, wood polish, and old bound paper. I would know it blind. That church will always be a home. It’s just not a home I visit.
When I left the church, any church, I said I’d done enough. I’d spent a quarter century with the Word on a weekly basis. I could afford some time away. God would understand, even if my family was concerned. For a few months, my mom asked if I was looking for another church in Atlanta. I wasn’t, though I told her I’d consider it. By the following Christmas, she stopped asking.
My parents weren’t fearful for my mortal soul, but for my loss of community. Many years later, I can see they were right to be worried. It was never about a loss of faith. They feared a loss of connection to people beyond my immediate awareness, those I knew and those I didn’t.
For the first two decades of my life, I had this large family on Sundays, and that big family was made up of other families and friends that branched out even further. Those names I heard on Sunday morning, they were real people with whole lives. And while the prayers were meant to help them recover or prevail, the mere fact they were known and named was powerful in its own right.
When I left the church, I lost all of that human connection. This left me lonelier than I realized, a fact I’m only just coming to understand, several years and many decisions later.
There must be a kind of loneliness you can only recognize when you leave it. When I met Helena, that immeasurable expanse is where I’d been living. I look at her and sigh to think of how different my life is now. I’ve changed so much in the time we’ve been together, coming back to where I was supposed to be. A ship returning to harbor.
A good lighthouse won’t save you from the rocks directly, but with enough light you can steer your own way clear. A bad lighthouse will blind you until you run aground. I’ve had enough of bad lighthouses.
I’m going to try a new church up here in New York City, perhaps even this Sunday. I received an invitation from an old friend of Helena’s family, an invitation I am all too happy to accept. I don’t expect to find anything like the congregation I knew in North Georgia, but I’m not trying to replace it either. I learned how to be compassionate in those wooden pews, even got my first glimpse at the truth of human existence: every single one of us is a story worth telling and hearing. I can keep those lessons and make room for new ones.
When invited, I was assured the congregation wasn’t all that religious, the word “Jesus-y” might’ve been said, but the people were worth knowing, the minister worth hearing. That’s what I’m missing. I’m not missing God. God and I have the same agreement we’ve had for years and we’re okay. But I miss the community. It’s taken a very long time to give that missing piece a name.
Once I’ve gone to this new church and come home in the afternoon, I’ll call my mom and dad, tell them the good news. They’ll be so surprised. Maybe they’ll stop worrying so much. I might even be mentioned in next week’s celebrations.