Monday, November 30, 2009

Church #6 of 10: Halle Halle Helpless

There is a point when you have been in a situation long enough—a job, a school, a family, a dorm, a church—when the people and qualities of the place begin to enter your dreams. I have always been a very vivid dreamer. From nightmares to fantasies, from realistic to magical, I remember nearly every dream I have, and they haunt me throughout the day. Most of the time, I wish I did not remember. The good dreams make me yearn for things I can’t reach and the bad ones frighten me or make me sad.

On November 1, I visited an amazing church. It has taken me a long time to write about it because another church has continued to infringe on my spiritual space. I dream of my kids, my family, my friends back in Oberlin, but day or night, my former church keeps entering into my thoughts, preventing me from moving forward. Because my subconscious, unconscious, and consciousness are so wrapped up in the poison that is/was Country Club Congregational, every time I sit down to write about Broadway Church, I get caught-up in memories and grudges of my former life.

I played and sung a wedding of a dear friend at Country Club Congregational a couple weeks ago. The surreal experience brought me to tears more than once. There I was in a place where I knew every keyhole, alarm code, nook, cranny and secret room. I could work the sound system, turn on the lights, and direct people in the right direction. Yet, a place that I knew so well, gave me such a terrible feeling in my stomach. I immediately felt lost and afraid. I felt like I was living a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I was entering a space that was once my home, seeing people that were once my family, but facing the reality that I never existed there. The home and family that brought me back to Kansas City was nothing more than a nightmare that felt so real, but no one else wanted to admit happened.

When I first walked into Broadway, the extravagant welcome was genuine and careful. I knew that this was a church that had dealt with those hurt by the church, a church that had been hurt by the greater Church itself. I told my mom as we sat down, “The thing I worry about, coming here, is that it will be too much like Country Club.” I don’t even want to be reminded of the good times I had there. I want to be separate, disconnected, and let-go.

But the church that Broadway reminded me of was not the exclusive, hurtful place that I had just left, but the spiritual community in which I felt most comfortable, Peace Community Church in Oberlin. Formerly Southern Baptist, Broadway Church had a long history of challenging the system. The pastor, who had been there for 40+ years, told me of their three strikes with the SBC (Southern Baptist Conference). Strike 1: He refused to preach about hell, damnation and sin. Strike 2: The church hired a woman to be their children’s minister and eventually their co-minister. And Strike 3: The church began to perform holy unions for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered couples. So removed from the family it once had, Broadway begin to function as a non-denominational welcoming community, “Where souls wake up,” as their bulletin said.

I have always been against the big projection screen, but the church used its white wall behind the altar to project song lyrics, in order to save paper (can’t really argue with that). The songs were mix of contemporary praise music with drums, flute/clarinet, piano and a couple lead singers, and a couple good ole’ Southern favorites, on which the preacher played the organ. There were two women spinning and dancing in scarves and skirts, one was playing the tambourine. I felt comfortable and happy. I’ve kind of been searching for something I could see myself being a part of, when really, I should be looking for something that already has a place set-out for me at the table.

The pastor used a Powerpoint carefully and conservatively to illustrate the limitations of the biblical temple. He educated as well as he inspired and my mother said, “These are the things I feel I should have learned all those years growing up in Sunday School, but I’m just learning them now.” After the sermon, one more song, and the fast 75 minutes was over.

I don’t know when I will stop dreaming about my former church…or at least, stop remembering the dreams. I am constantly reliving the abuse and the anguish and I believe it is preventing me from experiencing these other churches to the fullest. Sometimes I think if members of Country Club Congregational acknowledged the hurt they caused so many, including my entire family, I could move past it all. Apologies are unlikely, and even less likely is admission of responsibility. This is a barrier in my mind that I will have to tear down on my own, just like Jesus tore down the walls and curtains of the temple. Only then will I be able to reenter my relationship with God.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Church #5 of 10: Amazing Grace, How Come the Routine

“So your dad must be pretty conservative,” I replied to Rachael, who was sitting on the floor of her bedroom working on music theory homework.

“Conservative?” Rachael inquired, “Why? He’s Methodist Minister.”

“Right…” I didn’t look up from my book.

When I felt Rachael’s eyes on me, I glanced up and put down my highlighter. “I mean, Methodists are pretty conservative, right? So it must be hard since you’re so liberal.”

“Methodists aren’t conservative,” she seemed utterly perplexed.

“Sure they are. My dad grew up Methodist, they told him he was going to hell because he wasn’t saved. And, in my city, there is this giant Methodist Mega-church that totally gets off on ignorance and whatnot. It’s called ‘Church of the Resurrection,’ but I call it ‘Church of the Mega-Erection.’”

“Are you sure they’re Methodists?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m sure. It’s one of those say-a-lot, do-nothing denominations,” I said, without considering that this might offend her.

Rachael’s heart was so genuine and pure that she seemed more concerned than offended. “In the Bay Area, they aren’t like that at all.”

“You mean, you’ve never met a conservative Methodist?” I raised my eyebrows.

“And you’ve never met a liberal one?”

Since that conversation, I have met plenty of liberal Methodists. In addition to Rachael, and her boyfriend, David, I encountered them all over the country, at protests and marches. I realized that in my own city, The Reverend, Mayor, now-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is a progressive Methodist pastor and politician. But I have not sought them out. I was so proud of my ex-denomination’s national stance on the “tough” issues that I ignorantly pushed aside what I called the “say-a-lot, do-nothing” denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans.

When visiting Broadway Methodist Church, I expected a congregation much like my ex-church. Elderly, progressive in thought, but unwilling to take much serious action. I also thought I might experience a protestant, slow service, like the Lutheran frenzy. I have worshipped in Methodist churches before and have never been very moved or impressed. What most people find comfortingly traditional, I find annoyingly conventional. The Methodists are a large, well-known denomination, and therefore, easy to criticize. Generalizations fit them.

Broadway Methodist fit-in, but stood-out, much like my beloved friend, Rachael Weasley. I know it may seem odd that I shun tradition and also bask in its glory, but it really depends on how it is presented. I love an homage to the past, a recognition of the spirits and places before us, but I always need movement toward the future. Broadway Methodist kept its beautiful stone structure but built a coffee shop into their fellowship hall. Their piano and organ were old and decrepit, but the music was upbeat and contemporary.

The service was out of the ordinary for this church. A guest preacher/pianist spent the first 40 minutes of the service preaching about “Dancing on the Edge of Mystery.” He told a story, made a point, and brought it home with a song...several times. It was a routine that I could stand to endure every week: using music to give the message, using a message to play the music. Such a powerful and moving interaction gave way to the last 20 minutes, which lived up to the slow, boring Protestantism of which I’m starting to tire.

Broadway Methodist required me to admit that it isn’t routine that I dislike…it is under-stimulation. In fact, I love routine and function well in environments with rules, structures and procedures. But I pace when I teach, sing-along with the radio, and doodle during staff meetings. I think when I’m driving, dream when I’m awake, and type blog entries when I’m sitting in graduate class. In order to be really moved, motivated and involved, I need to be visually, aurally and physically inspired. Most of all, I have to be intellectually enthused. And I’m not claiming to be a highly intelligent academic. Sometimes it takes very little to stimulate my mind. For the first 40 minutes, it worked, for the last 20, it really didn’t.

So I wonder if this is true of Methodists. Are they 2/3 like my friend Rachael, interesting, progressive and welcoming, with significant stimulation? And does the remaining 1/3 just happen to live in the Midwest? Which third was it that knocked on my door within two hours of the service with a coffee mug, homemade bread and a pen? And is that enough to make me go back?