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Year of Sundays

NoPo's First A.M.E. Zion Church

I’ll be honest, I had HIGH expectations for this church. I had my mouth watered for audaciously be-feathered hats, jerry curl, purple pin-striped suits and the kind of fire and brimstone that would make my grandmother weep for my poor, deranged soul. I wanted to feel under-dressed and over-analyzed.

Of course I got none of that, but what I did get was a thousand times better.

I got an organist who belted out “That Old Time Religion” for her father, who would’ve been 100 years old that week had he still been alive.

I got a scrappy, pitchy church choir who backed her up like their very salvation depended upon it.

I got children talking and laughing and crying during the sermon, the plastic butterfly barrettes at the ends of their cornrows clinking like music boxes as they bounced on their granddaddies’ laps.

I got an awkward 14-year-old boy whose parents were no where to be found, bracing himself for a gut-wrenching solo, in spite of the fact that the 8-year old girl who followed him could play that out-of-tune piano much better than he could.

I got the feeling I could live another 100 years and never see anything so magnificently vulnerable for the rest of my life.

I got the thunder of buses going by on the street behind us.

I got the feeling that we were all alone in the pews, until that first altar-prayer ended and a good 50% of the parishioners straggled in 20 minutes late, including the preacher himself and most of the choir.

I got the idea that I’d need to gain about 100 pounds before they could find a choir robe to fit me.

I got a serious need to look on e-bay for a fan with the holy father printed on it.

I got it.

If you want to feel God in your bones and in the pit of your stomach and all the way down to the soles of your feet, THIS is the church where you belong on Sundays. Unfortunately, I can’t feel God at all, so I just got to sit there in slack-jawed awe of everyone else who could.

The beautiful simplicity with which these people handed their lives over to a greater power filled my greasy, grimy, gopher guts with envy. I didn’t grow up with faith, so I can’t grok it on even the most basic level. I could no sooner take that leap than jump across the Grand Canyon. I often explain my godlessness exactly that way, particularly when zealots are trying to convert me. “What would it take for you to STOP believing in God?” I ask. “Well that canyon is just as wide no matter which side of it you’re standing on.”

This church made me want to back up, plant my feet hard and take a running leap. It was religion from the inside out, from the bottom up. The fact that the sermon was all about saying YES and facing your fears didn’t hurt this church’s appeal. Not at all. If I had so much as a Mr. Gadget’s clue how to pronounce the word correctly, I’d have been hallelujahing right along with the rest of them.

My favorite part came at the end, when a procession of tall, proud, perfectly-groomed black men and women rose from the pews to pay their tithes. The clang of their pocket change hitting that brass collection bowl resonated with something deep and glorious inside of me.

Not God. Or religion. Or faith. Or even spirituality, but something far more enviable: LOVE.

I wanted to heed that preachers’ words:

FEAR NOT.

See, I had something burning a hole in my pocket too. Three little words I’d been itching to spend for weeks.

But I was terrified to utter them because the last time I told a man I loved him, he said it back to me, came, and then… went. I never saw him again.

But FEAR NOT, the presiding prelate had reassured me, he is with you.

Emboldened by the sermon, I spent that Sunday aching to finally get the weight of those words off my tongue.

I wanted to tell him when we sat in my car after the service and hatched the idea for this blog.

I wanted to tell him again at the Little Big Burger counter after we finished our truffle fries and he was spoon-feeding me a rootbeer float.

And how perfect would it have been to say it as we kissed in the crosswalk while waiting for the street light to change in front of Powell’s City of Books?

Or when he stuck his beautiful bald head in my car window to kiss me goodbye that crisp sunny afternoon?

I didn’t work up the nerve to finally say it until almost midnight and by then we were sweaty and out of breath from using our bodies instead of our words to show each other exactly how we felt.

That preacher had said, “Fear can make an honest man crooked.”

But he had no idea how frightening it can be when love turns a crooked woman straight.

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