Why Do You Go to Church?

The incense hangs in the chapel air. We’re all squeezed in where we can fit, no concern for “our pew.” We listen to Gospel readings using The Message translation, so the words makes everyday sense. There is—or isn’t—an unpredictable response to the music.The blessing of the wine and bread is abbreviated. That’s okay. I know all that stuff anyway.
I began attending the Wednesday morning church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to help with the art ministry. Most congregants at the service stay at the Union Mission down the street or are otherwise homeless. The amazing Canon Laura Foster Gettys wanted to add an art component to the morning and asked me to be involved. She knew I facilitate a weekly writing group of those who’ve experienced homelessness and that I’d written a book about making crosses from found objects. She combined the two and asked me to come make art at this service for those on the streets. In my opinion, this is what priests should do: identify a ministry that might gladden a church member’s heart and ASK the member to do it. I’m glad she asked me, glad I said yes.
I weave through folks, passing the peace. He sits on the last row of chairs, his back to me. Seasoned by the rigors of living on the street, he feels my approach and glances out of the corner of his eye. I smile. He realizes I am going to talk to him. His face softens. His eyes smile. We shake hands and pass the peace.
I’ve been showing up at the service—when I’m in town—for over a year. This stint in Memphis, I’ve not been doing art work. The—again—amazing students from Rhodes College have been offering art projects over the last several months. So I am now simply a congregant.
The guitar player says, “Y’all sing along with this one. You know it.” She strums into Amazing Grace. I walk back from communion and sit on the piano bench. My voice wobbles. I keep at it until I hit the same note she’s hitting. When she finishes, we all clap.
Why do I go to this church service? What about it makes me want to come back?
Not everyone does the same thing–some go to communion, some don’t. Some stand when prompted, some don’t. Announcements describe services for those listening (blood pressure checks, computer classes), not committee work of the church. The group murmurs when the priest touches a soft spot. Sometimes the murmurings are in disagreement. An impromptu ending “off bulletin” sends us into the next phase of the morning: raucous rock-and-roll music during breakfast where, occasionally, folks dance.
The church service I keep coming to is the exact opposite of what most folks want out of church: shared beliefs, planned movement, familiar readings, behavior understood as appropriate, known faces, church music, beautiful language, written ritual you can follow along, predictability. Others at the service around me may keep coming for the chance to sit down. For the opportunity to serve at the altar. For the amazing breakfast afterwards. To wipe trays. Who knows. Who cares.
After the service, I speak to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich-makers. Those waiting in line for breakfast trail past me. I find I like it, standing there, saying hi to everyone on their way to get food. “I’m just standing here,” I explain. “I’ve been out of town for several months, and I’ve missed seeing y’all.”
“We’ve missed seeing you too,” one guy says.
I have no idea if he knows who I am. Maybe he’s just being kind. That’s sort of the point. Those at this service let me be happy without judging my happiness, which makes me happy.
We all come to church for our own reasons, and mine aren’t any better than anyone else’s. This service isn’t any better than any other church service. It only better suits me. Which, I think, is the purpose of this thing we call church.

"Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness", church services for the homeless, church with the homeless, homeless art work, homelessness, Making Cross: A Creative Connection to God, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral

Comments (8)

  • This really worked for me. Very evocative; you draw readers right in & carry us along .
    It makes me want to come and see for myself

  • Thank you for sharing this heart-warming experience with us. The service, sharing, art, music, breakfast, human connection, divine connection – all sustaining body, mind, and spirit.

  • Your church sounds like my kind of church. No shoulds or musts, just come and be what you need to be and give what you can when you’re able. It seems so simple but why is it so hard? I’m an C & E church-goer and not a believer but there’s something about being in a building with so many faithful that gives comfort even to an old doubter. I so enjoy your posts about faith and god, Ellen, because they reach beyond platitudes.

  • It is wonderful that you have found a style of church going that really suits you and which draws you back. It is the way you want to worship. The big question is: Is this the way God wants you to worship Him? Have you ever read Justin Martyr’s account of how Christians in the second century worshipped Him? http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm (sections 65, 66, 67). At first glance there seems to be more thanksgiving and unity going on in the second century version, than in your version. If you had to choose between the two, would the choice be easy or difficult?

    • Thanks so much for reading, joining the conversation, and sending the link for me to take a look at. At this church service for those who are sleeping at the Mission or on the streets, when the time comes for the offering, folks dig into their pockets and add their change to the collection plate. Each time I see this, I realize how much thanksgiving there is for God, for life, for the church offering this service. As to unity, I think the thanksgiving transcends the unity of action, which is definitely not present in this service. 🙂

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