Author Annie Dillard has this affect on me: I can’t stop reading her writing. The first time I read ‘Holy the Firm’ was in a philosophy class in college. Since then, I’ve had daydreams of renting a summer home out on an island in Puget Sound to write and write and write. Then I would make ferry trips to Pike Place Market for daily catch delicacies such as sablefish and saffron. After I posted her quote yesterday, I was curious to see what followed, what else she had to say. So, in the tradition of my relationship with her work, I read and read and read.
I cannot keep this passage from you, especially given that I interview people about why they no longer attend church. My prayer today was that I could share another interview with you. I wanted a preface. And I got one. Thank you, Ms. Dillard. You inspire me endlessly.
Following my prayer, I held the closed book in my hands and opened it to this passage:
“The churchwomen all bring flowers for the altar; they haul in arrangements as big as hedges, of wayside herbs in season, and flowers from their gardens, huge bunches of foliage and blossoms as tall as I am, in vases the size of tubs, and the altar still looks empty, irredeemably linoleum, and beige. We had a wretched singer once from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blonde girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
The following are selections from an interview of Daniel, a 55-year-old man who recollects an unforgettable experience as a volunteer at what Dillard calls a “higher Christian church.”
DANIEL, 55, VOLUNTEER:
“What I remember most about that morning was how cold it was. It was cold even for a mid-December day. We were on the tail end of a three-day blizzard, and the temperature was beginning to drop. The winds had picked up and were blowing all that new snow everywhere. I can so clearly remember not wanting to even get out of bed when my alarm went off to get up that day. But you know how churches are, the show must go on and as long as there was going to be church that morning I needed to be there to clean up.
It was a big church, at that point they had more than 3,000 members. The sanctuary was very new and they had a huge gathering area where everyone got together and had coffee and donuts and visited before-and-after church. Because it was the holiday season and Christmas was just around the corner, they were doing their good deed and collecting food for the needy. I remember that’s what they called them; “the needy.” I guess what they really meant by that was that they recognized that some people weren’t as wealthy and fortunate as all of them were. And so rather than dedicating time at a homeless shelter or working in a soup kitchen, they collected food in the comfort of the church to deliver to where the “needy” people gathered, wherever that was.
In the center of the gathering area, they had created a Christmas tree of a different sort. All of the food in its boxes and bags and cans was stacked in the shape of an ever-growing Christmas tree. In reality it just looked like a goofy cone or pyramid. But I know that it made them feel good. The pastor commented about it at every service and somehow it made its way into every sermon, something about our need as Christians to help those who are less fortunate. Things like “we are not supposed to judge but we are supposed to love.” I suppose in all fairness it was a good idea, giving some of our excess to those who have so little.
What I remember about that morning was trying to blend into a doorway in my blue jeans and work boots while the rest of the people where all dressed up in their warm winter Sunday best. Besides being cold, they were a happy crowd. The long table full of coffee and juice, milk and bottled water was also full of fresh rolls, pastries, and other yummy Christmas treats. I remember thinking that this was a good church. They knew how to take care of each other, create a cozy environment, and still were able to focus on providing food for others in a season that was so focused on eating. Then, as quickly as it takes to look in a new direction, all of my perceptions about being the Church and what it means to take care of our neighbor changed. As my eyes moved from the table full of Christmas treats across the great gathering area past the Christmas tree of food to the main doors, it was like I entered a different world.
This church had one of those modern, energy-efficient entryways that had two sets of doors. There was an exterior door that kept the weather outside, about an 8 foot buffer, and then the interior row of doors. Standing outside in the cold and snow and wind I noticed a young couple. They were looking through the glass doors, trying to decide if they should walk in. That wasn’t an unusual sight. I’ve watched a lot of people walk up to the door of a church only to turn around, certain they don’t belong or wouldn’t be welcome and walk away. But on this day, in that weather the sight was a little unusual. They braved their way through the first door only to stand in the no-man’s-land between the two sets of doors. I could see them a lot more clearly now. They certainly didn’t look like they were dressed for church. Truth be told, it sort of looked like they were wearing everything they owned. Not that I wanted to judge, but it looked like they hadn’t showered in a few days either.
It took some time before they appeared ready to actually walk into the church. Judging by the look on their eyes and the conversation they seemed to have, it was the table full of hot coffee and juice and all of the Christmas treats and pastries that ultimately drew them in. Their eyes lit up like Christmas lights. They walked through the end of door and made their way to the table along the wall almost like they wanted to not be seen. Now that they were inside, my picture of them changed and I wondered if they were homeless. They got to the table and while they were polite you could see it was all they could do not to devour everything they could get their hands on. After eating a couple of pastries and pouring some coffee, they held the cups trying to warm their hands. I moved a little closer, somehow I knew things were only beginning. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for one of the long-standing members of the congregation to walk up to greet them. His greeting went something like this; “Around here, we usually try to dress a little better for church.” Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. This was, after all, a wealthy congregation. They had standards and expectations. What a jerk, welcome to our church!
The hungry couple was ignored but did not go unnoticed by the rest of the people gathered there for a couple more minutes. Another longtime member approached them. I was hopeful he might offer them a greeting and a word of welcome. Unfortunately that wasn’t the way this morning was going to play out. He leaned into the young man and said; “We try to just take one donut and cup of coffee. If you want more you can put money in the basket over there.” Well, at least he was subtle. The hungry couple looked horrified, then they looked embarrassed. As they surveyed the room around them they could see that everyone in the room was looking at them. A friend of mine and I decided to walk up to them. We were dressed about like they were, I’d be cleaning toilets that morning. We walked them out of that main room into a hallway. We introduced ourselves and asked their names. It only seemed appropriate to apologize for what they had just been through. It seemed sad that a couple of part-time custodians were having to make excuses for the leaders of the church.
They apologized profusely and said they didn’t mean to upset anyone. They had seen the church the day before and didn’t really know where else to go. It turns out they had both lost their jobs within a month of each other. They had moved to our part of town to live with friends, but apparently too many mouths in one house was too much for the friends and they were asked to leave. They had been living in their car for a little over a week. It had run out of gas and they were literally on the street. It was cold and hunger that drove them into the church. We went and got one of the associate pastors; we knew he was a good guy and would understand their story. Before he took them off to start getting them some help and back up on their feet, they asked what the massive pile of food in the middle of the room was about. We told him it was the church people’s way of trying to help folks who are less fortunate. The irony of that response has never been lost on me. His reply is stuck with me ever since. He said, ‘I guess they want to help, they just don’t want to have to see us to do it.'”