As a little girl I wore a hat and white gloves to church. Everyone dressed up for church in those days. There was my dad in suit and tie, his Phi Beta Kappa key tucked into his vest pocket. My mother in stockings and heels, a skirt and silk blouse, held my hand as we walked into the cool sanctuary.
Sometimes on special occasions like Palm Sunday or Easter, my grandparents came out from Germantown, along with my Aunt Edna. She lived with them and years later, after her parents died and her schizophrenia spun out of control, she ended up in Norristown State Hospital. Edna had lovely pale-yellow hair, and she wore velvet roses pinned to her coat lapels and rhinestone bracelets on her skinny wrists. She led a tragic life. She was my first experience in questioning whether or not there is a God.
My grandparents were Lutherans, but in my family, my parents became Episcopalians and so did I. This sounds like a mere recounting, but in a way, it makes me realize how my family always went to church, not that we were devout Christians, rather, Christians by birth and by routine passed down from generation to generation.
We went to church not questioning the patriarchy or the liturgy, the Our Father, never the Our Mother. It wasn’t until later—much later when I was in my mid-thirties and had two small children and was teaching Sunday School with my husband that I became acutely aware of the politics that run through a congregation. It was at an Episcopal church that the controversy centered around disapproval of the ordination of women—and, of course, homosexuality and ordaining gay priests and marrying same sex couples. But politics in church often went deeper than the controversial issues of the day. I felt it at all levels, right down to the sermons. I remember one male priest preaching about a woman’s place being in the kitchen, baking apple pie. He and his wife had four boys and I wondered who those boys would grow up to be, would they respect women with a father like that and a mother who allowed that message.
When it comes to politics, gender and race, people’s views are stubborn. Change must come from within. No arguing, persuasion, facts or information alter how a person feels. No sensitivity training is the answer, for, as one priest told me, they tried that in the inner city and it doesn't work. Biases are like intricate wrought iron, intractable and unyielding. Communities often remain insular.
It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I began to ponder the value of church. Not the message of the Gospels, certainly not that, but the institution that was the church and the people who ran the various congregations—both ministry and lay people. A lot of this converged at a time when as a widowed woman and a writer, I began noticing women in the clergy shying away from words like “empowerment” and “feminism”—as one woman priest told me—they were "buzz words". It made me wonder how I might keep my faith and attending church compatible. It was tricky because I felt I needed a community and practicing Christianity solo felt like climbing a very narrow passageway to nowhere. I’m Christian. Not Buddhist. Gazing at a blade of grass and seeing in it the eternal, doesn’t work for me.
I couldn’t talk to the priests that their message that bringing up feminism and misogyny were best left unspoken, discourteous to others of a different mindset. I have always listened to others. I ran a writing group for ten years and the importance of listening with an open heart to another’s story is sacred to me. My feeling that I should remain almost voiceless, out of decorum and courtesy, left me bewildered. I tried to separate the priests from their sermons, focus on a universal message ... the least among us must come first, the here and now is merely passing ... keep your sights on the eternal.
Once again, in church we face times of political turmoil. Who is on this side politically? Who is on that side? How much do we say? How much is left unsaid? As I write this, I have come to believe that my own spiritual journey must focus on learning more about the Gospels, as well as giving back to the church through teaching and writing, as well as monetary donations, both here and internationally. I admit I’m struggling with the American Protestant Church. The work lay and religious people are doing with children in Africa inspires me and gives me hope.
I remain faithful to the teachings of love and renewal, to my own instincts of what is right and wrong. I attend church, virtually. When church reopens its physical doors, I will once again try and be there in mind and spirit. I remember that little girl, holding her mother's hand as they walked into a sanctuary of people and prayer. I remember the wife and mother teaching Sunday School. I remember the widow, who one day stumbled inside a church and saw sunlight shining on the altar through stained glass windows and stopped questioning why, as much as how. I remind myself that maybe church needs me, as much as I need it, now more than ever.