Great church. And it’s fun to say, “Presiding Prelate.” Try it!
James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers – and one of this nation’s best thinkers ever – made a decent living stuffing his books with such pronouncements as: “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Love and fear (but not any connection between the two) were on my mind this morning as Amanda and I shrugged into our church clothes. We were on our way to the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in North Portland.
Before I go farther, I think you need a little background. I grew up in the working class neighborhoods of North Portland and rubbed shoulders with African Americans and Caucasians all day long. It wasn’t exactly a chorus of We are the World. As a young kid in the early 1970s, I was on the daily receiving end of racial hostility. The arthritis of political correctness hadn’t set in, and racial tensions from the 1960s still ran high. My stepfather had done an excellent job of teaching me to handle conflict by running away and that made me, like any weak member of the heard, a target for bullies, white and black. If they happened to have dark skin, their attacks usually had a racial overtone. I don’t need pity and I don’t feel like a victim. But that’s how it was.
Now, bear in mind that I believe in the ideals of racial equality and wholeheartedly support government programs that would help bring that about. Nevertheless, I hope you understand why, when I walk down the sidewalk and see a group of men of color on the corner, I get an adrenaline fight or flight jolt.
Maybe that can help explain why, as we drove out to what I anticipated to be an all-black church, I turned to Amanda and said, “I’m a little nervous.”
But to be honest, my jitters had nothing to do with any threat of violence or hostility. We were going to church for Christ’s sake.
So I have to give you some more background. I’ve twice visited the non-profit Oregon Food Bank for help getting through the week. Their local pick-up spots—pantries, as they call them—usually operate out of a church basement. One pantry, located off of a side door at Northeast Portland’s Allen Temple, was, on the day I visited, operated by a trio of black women. Church ladies in the best sense of the term. The kind of women who have likely done menial work all their life, have been called the worst names by people who look like me and who know first hand how expensive it is to be poor greeted me with smiles as warm as fresh bread. They got me more than I get myself—and they loved me anyway. If I ever feel the urge to re-embrace Christianity, they’ll be the first to know.
James Baldwin would have understood all this. As a fiercely intelligent, gay, black man in the fifties, he emerged from his experiences with, if you’ll excuse the oxymoron, granite-solid compassion. American blacks, he notes, never wholly swallowed the star-spangled myth of a heroic, democratic melting pot in which the men were all noble bread winners and the women mama bear homemakers. In 1963, he wrote that “Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way.” As he saw it, African Americans are our elders, a source of wisdom informing us about who we are. If you’re white like me, you know, deep down, that this is true—and this is why, even if we feel the urge to run away when we see a black man on the street, we’re more than happy to stop and listen to what he may say through his music or his acting or his stand up comedy. We’re going to him to hear what we need to know about ourselves. Only in America can Morgan Freeman can play God to such ironic, poignant perfection.
And so I was nervous as we drove to the First A.M.E. Zion Church. Not because I would be hated, but because I feared that I would be loved.
And that explains why I sat in the back row with Amanda, regulating my breath, thinking about lunch, playing with her hair—doing anything to avoid bursting into tears. As it happened, today was a special youth day. As we sat in that hundred-year-old converted Masonic lodge with nicked-up wooden pews and dingy stained glass, the kids—mostly teen girls—in jeans and Nikes took over the pulpit. One girl, about 19 or 20, fell to her knees and led the congregation in an improvised prayer—a full ten minutes of gut-wrenching soul outpouring.
And then the preacher took the podium. As irony would have it, the sermon was about fear (AMEN!), which is mentioned 180 times in the Bible, usually as a reassurance from the Lord, as in “Fear not, for I am with you.” (PREACH IT, BROTHER!)
The mixed-race choir was led by a woman sitting at one of those keyboards that switches between honky tonk piano and church organ. In the corner, a drum set sat neglected and unused. I turned to Amanda and said, “Is there a drummer in the house?” But, to be honest, if they’d asked me to sit in, I probably would have declined the opportunity. I probably would have been afraid.
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:
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.
The First Christian Church website features graphics as slick and smooth as the service itself.
It’s only my second post on this blog and I’m already starting to sound like Goldilocks. To wit: if the Unitarian Universalist church we went to last Sunday was too politically hot, the First Christian Church in downtown Portland’s park blocks was too spiritually cool.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a single complaint. What’s not to like? Having walked by its round portico all my life, I was glad to have a chance to peek inside. Spit-polished, airy and light, with a touch of old European sweetness, it was like walking into a Napoleon dessert. I’m a sucker for stained-glass-filtered light, anyway.
It’s just that my quest for the right church means I’m looking for something more than religious decoration. Push me! Smack me! Make me squirm! (FYI, I’m talking to the minister, not Amanda. Though, now that you mention it, I’m not not talking to her.)
What we got, however, was a roomful of white people smiling fatuously for Jesus. (If I were God, I would long ago have grown sick and tired of people smiling at me all the time.) The sermon had something to do with joining Christ on his path – a message that seemed rather simplistic for an audience that doesn’t really need to hear it, and unconvincing for someone like me who does.
And then the choir started up. Think: Dockers, Land’s End sweaters and an acoustic guitar. The softer side of Sears™, but more churchy. I hissed in Amanda’s ear that if they played Kumbaya, I was getting the hell out. Unfortunately, they didn’t, so I had to stay. If Jesus shopped at Pottery Barn and listened to Kenny G, he’d totally fit in at this First Christian Church.
The biggest challenge for me was trying to keep up as the service had me juggling back and forth between two hymnals, the Bible and a printed program. At the end, the congregation formed a giant circle around the perimeter of the auditorium and joined hands in a final prayer, Alcoholics Anonymous style. Yes, I joined in. But my heart wasn’t in it – and my soul was nowhere to be found.
So the search continues. Maybe next week’s church will be just right.
This Sunday’s church was recommended by one of my blog readers in Florida. She wanted to see how her church represented itself on the opposite coast.
I immediately said YES! (It’s my policy for a reason!)
So we hightailed it down there to experience the Disciples of Christ firsthand.
My overall impression was that this was a far more inclusive church than the UU. Zero politics. No social agendas. Just lots of GOD talk. I mean LOTS. So much that I lost my way a little bit, in spite of the fact that it was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever entered. Architecturally speaking it was utterly stunning.
The music, sadly, left much to be appreciated. Joel (a blues drummer/soul brother trapped inside a white man’s body) and I kept making eye contact every time the pianist started. It was just so… WHITE. I mean, REALLY white. Like David Hasselhof white. No soul in this church at all.
But they tried hard, I’ll give them that. There was nothing even remotely offensive about the service. It was just…. Friendly, Christian, if a bit overly homogonized and saran-wrapped. Basically it was the Lunchables version of spirituality. We found the service itself fairly complicated too. By the time we could find the hymn or the song or the scripture we were meant to be following, it was already over. Lots of ceremony. Not particularly intuitive for first timers.
At one point, the reverend (preacher? minister? I’m not sure I’m getting the titles right…) asked for a moment of silence so we could all bow our heads and pray for the various members of the church who had raised their hands and submitted their worry or joy to the congregation. I huddled my children close to my side and thought, FINALLY! Here is my moment! Let me just clear the clutter from my brain and…
MMmmm. Damn. What is that SMELL? Oh no. It’s that fine-looking bald man sitting next to me. He smells fierce this morning, like he took a bath in pheromones. And his knee just brushed my leg. Now he’s looking at me with that face he makes when… Holy hell!
If you’re trying to work on your spirituality and find your inner MOMENT, you know what’s a REALLY bad idea? Meeting your boyfriend for church on a Sunday when you haven’t had a moment alone together in almost a WEEK and you have the libido of a 14-year-old boy.
That service felt LONG.
Every time he reached down for a hymnal or the Bible, the bastard paraded his beautiful bald head right in front of me! So all I could think about was LICKING HIM. And then our hands would somehow find one another on the church pew (where the kids couldn’t see) and…
I had a full on girly-boner the entire morning.
I’m not sure I’m cut out for this religion business.
My kids, on the other hand, were CHAMPIONS. In spite of the fact that neither of them ate a single bite of the waffle breakfast I laid out for them before we left, they were angels. Squirmy, snuggly little angels. I’m sure it helped that I promised them Slappycakes if they were good. And they were. We said goodbye to the baldman and hightailed it to breakfast then filled the day with shopping, visiting my sister and general good time cavortification.
It wasn’t until right before bedtime when church came up again.
“Hey mom? Since we go to church now, does that me we don’t get birthdays anymore?”
This is what happens when the only religion your children are exposed to comes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who live next door.
“Hahahaha! NO,” I replied. “I promise that no matter how many churches we go to, we’ll never choose one where you don’t get birthdays.”
“What about Christmas? And Halloween?” Genoa was seriously worried.
“Those are all yours. I cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”
Joel (who spent 35 years as a Jehovah’s Witness) would never forgive me otherwise. Neither would my lesbian sister.