Note: I wrote this in 2013 after meeting with Jackie, the priest who is the rector at St. Patrick’s in Lebanon. For those who may not know this part of my story: I was raised in the evangelical church and in 2012, after a time of personal and spiritual unraveling, I stopped attending church altogether. I wasn’t sure what I believed and if I’d ever go back to church once I figured it out. In March 2013 I got up one Sunday morning, googled “Episcopal church near me,” made my way to St. Patrick’s for their late service, and have been part of that community ever since. Today is Jackie’s final Sunday before her retirement and it feels right to me to share this little glimpse into one of my first conversations with her. She has had a profound impact on my life and I’m so grateful I am able to be part of the wonderful community she has helped create over the past few decades. I wish her every blessing as she moves on to her next adventure. (Also, for several years I participated in the #OneWordChallenge and the word I chose at the beginning of 2013 was ‘weave’)
April 19, 2013
Yesterday, when I sat in the old, worn pew in the back of the sanctuary and we chatted, I have to admit I began a bit guarded. When I’d called the church office to ask about newcomer classes, she suggested that rather than waiting for them to arrange another session, I come in and meet with her, the parish priest. I know I’d readily agreed to it, but I was still a little nervous.
The rectory office was in the midst of a re-organization effort and the common area was busily being rearranged for an upcoming activity, so the sanctuary was the only free space when I arrived at our agreed time. It was mostly quiet, save for the kids from the free preschool they run listening to a lesson up on the stage. It’s not an enormous church, but the last pew is far enough back that we couldn’t hear them.
She asked about my church background and what brought me to St. Patrick’s. In a few quick minutes I explained growing up in church and then trying to find the right place after the boys were born and then becoming a church drop-out to study my faith and try to figure out where I belonged. I tried very hard not to ramble. I think I did okay.
We talked about what I’ve been reading — Richard Beck, Rachael Held Evans, Thomas Keating, Barbara Brown Taylor, Miroslav Volf. She is a good listener. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows and it felt like a holy moment, even though I’m not sure I believe there is such a thing.
Looking me in the eyes, she said, “You are so young and that is quite a journey. You are brave to keep trying. A lot of people give up.” I detected no hint of condescension or insincerity or flattery in her voice. I kept my composure and asked about her journey, but my heart was breaking open in the most excruciating and beautiful of ways.
When she considered her words and said that she knew there were some things she may be wrong about, but that she kept praying and seeking understanding and grace, I felt hopeful.
When she said that I would find people in the congregation who held opposing political and social views, she stretched her arms out wide to demonstrate the full reach of those differences. But when she assured me that the congregation strongly believes we are one in Christ and are called to share the table even with those differences, I felt like I was hearing the church I’ve been listening for.
When she said that they aren’t always perfect at it, that they are a place comprised of people which means they will never be perfect, I laughed and told her that if she’d tried to convince me her church was perfect I would have known it was not the place for me. I told her that her congregation was the most welcoming I’d ever experienced and that each Sunday at least two people I hadn’t met yet made a point of chatting with me, and she said she was very glad to hear I’d been made welcome.
She didn’t try to pressure me to continue attending or for any kind of commitment, she simply said that based on our conversation, she thinks the Episcopal church seems like a good fit for me. She encouraged me to call her if I have any questions and agreed to come up with some books for me to read to learn more about their traditions and beliefs. And then she gave me a big hug and said she enjoyed talking with me.
I waited till I got to my car to let the tears fall.
At the beginning of this year I didn’t know if I would ever feel at home in a church again. Four months later — after only six Sunday mornings there — and I can’t imagine finding anywhere else that feels more like home.
They are having a dinner/fund-raiser Saturday night to benefit the local interfaith homeless ministry. She’d seen that I signed up to attend and as we discussed it, she mentioned that she is going to speak for a few minutes beforehand. The topic? Weaving the Fabric of Life.
Maybe there is the slightest possibility I do believe in holy moments after all.