all of the selves we Have ever been
It is Easter morning 2020.
As I shelter in place, I have plenty of time to reflect on the question, what is church?
Surely, it is more than legality. Church happens in places where people have no enforceable first amendment rights. Church lives in places too poor for cathedrals. It exists in places too dangerous to gather, places where militias roam the streets looking to take whatever you have, your life included.
What is church? My earliest personal memories of church begin with my maternal grandmother, my Sita. She was a deeply religious, devout servant of the Lord. My humble immigrant grandmother was so full of faith she glowed! Watching Sita could turn a person into a believer; I know it worked on me.
Sita walked from her home to church every day. On school days, I would see her from the adjacent school playground. Even as a first grader, my Sita’s devotion moved me enough to stop what I was doing to watch her pass. I saw a living example of faith.
In Sita’s house there were many religious symbols. I often saw the black beads of a rosary entwined in her work-swollen fingers. On the wall of her sun porch hung a copy of the famous painting of the sacred heart of Jesus, the one with the eyes that seemed to follow you. Sita had Jesus watching us every time we entered or departed from her home. On a mantle there was a statue of the Virgin Mary that reigned over the living room.
My father did not grow up Catholic, but he converted before marrying my mom. That was how things were done back then. I know dad did it for mom, but I believe he fell under Sita’s spell and did it for her as well. On the day my father left for military duty in Pakistan, there was quite a scene at Sita’s front door. The extended family gathered to say good bye. Pakistan was far away, poor, mysterious, and dangerous at the time. It is difficult today to appreciate the time before cell phones and internet. It was an era when landlines were new and international telephone calls difficult. Postal mail was slow. It was hard for families to be that far apart for so long with no word.
In the midst of the farewell, Sita took the statue of the Virgin Mary from the mantle. She brought it to my dad at the door. As dad stood there in his dress blues, Sita insisted that my father kiss the statue of Jesus’s mother. I saw tears well in my dad’s eyes, and he followed Sita’s instructions without protest. And then dad was out the door for what seemed like a very long time protected by both the smooches of his children and that kiss of faith.
A few years later, when Sita died, we were living on an Air Force base in California. My mother had flown alone back to Ohio to be with her family. I remember when my father got the call from my mother. He went into our small kitchen and pulled the pocket door so hard that it repeatedly ricocheted back and forth between the sides of the door frame. Realizing something significant was happening, I peeked into the kitchen. I saw my father bent over the sink weeping. It was the only time in my childhood that I saw my father consumed by that kind of emotion.
My father sure loved his mother-in-law. Sometimes we sign up and go to church to humor someone else, and then we find that church grows into a space inside of us. We borrow faith until it grows big enough for us to share with others. My Sita’s faith was both a cloak and a seed for her entire family. Church was in session wherever she was.
As a child I loved the rituals of church. I enjoyed the pause in the services as the collection plate was passed. I coughed up bits of milk money and allowance to place something into my tiny envelope as a church offering. In my way, I helped to pay for the new building and contributed to social causes. In school we donated money to save orphans and pagan babies around the world. I marched in processions carrying flowers and later candles. I witnessed countless baptisms, communions, confirmations, and funerals. I blessed myself with holy water and genuflected before I took my seat. As I got older, I joined the line of people coming forward to partake of communion. I learned when to stand, to sit, and to kneel. There were fasting and special prayers that gave the ceremonies significance. In my earliest days as a churchgoer, the mass was in Latin. The language difference added mystery and more significance to the service. I thought Latin was the language of God. Later, as missionaries visited our church and gave sermons flavored by accents from the larger world, I learned that God speaks many languages.
I also loved the sensory experience of church. There were beautiful stained glass windows, sparkling gold chalices, and shimmering votive candles. There was the cool water on my fingertips as I made the sign of the cross. The smell of incense said it was a holy and special occasion. Later there was the taste of the wafer and the wine. People packed the pews and sat in individual silence until it was time to join together in one voice of prayer and song. There were organs and later pianos, guitars, and violins.
As I grew up there were new kinds of services, new towns and new churches. I developed a broader understanding of church and of faith. Much later in my life, church would be at my bedside as I lay in an intensive care unit with one foot in the afterlife. Amid terror, tubes, and machines, a man in a familiar black uniform and white collar stood at my side to offer last rites. Surely, I was at church. There have been plenty of times since then that I have held church in the shower as I prayed for my children. I often hold prayer services in my car as I dodge traffic and aggressive drivers. I’ve prayed with others on front porches and over the telephone. I have been in God’s presence at hospice bedsides and in nursing homes.
The lessons of faith I learned while growing up in church were messages that included “love each other” and “feed my people.” Never have these messages been more universal. On Easter Sunday 2020 church attendance is up. It is taking place in ICUs and at food banks. Silent sermons are being shared at grocery stores where people stand six feet apart waiting to enter. Our Easter outfits are colorful face masks and purple latex gloves. Yesterday, a big white Easter bunny drove through town in the back of pick-up truck waving and sharing faith with children, reassuring them that the world is in good hands. It will go on.
Perhaps contagion is not just the story of disease. Maybe it is also the story of faith. We catch it from each other. And maybe that is why church is so important to so many. Especially now.
But Church is not a building. It can be found anywhere and everywhere that people heed the message.
From the church that is in me to the one that is in you, Happy Easter!