I kicked my church attendance into high gear for Holy Week, figuring it was a perfect way to experience a variety of services. On Palm Sunday, I visited Church of the Village, a Methodist church just a few blocks away from me on 13th Street and 7th Avenue. It bills itself as "radically inclusive," and I was drawn to the quote I saw on the website:
It is part of our mission as a Church to offer the all-loving God that we know, especially to those who assume they will not be accepted because of how they have experienced the church in the past.
I was struck by the beautiful diversity of the congregation and got tears in my eyes as I held my palm frond and watched the service begin. Memories of past Palm Sundays came up. There was the year my mother led my Sunday school class in a mini-pageant on our church steps, with my friends and me taking turns wearing the two-person donkey costume and waving palms as members of the cheering crowd. And now, here I was, in a new city, in a new church, but there were the red Methodist hymnal and the black supplemental songbook The Faith We Sing, sitting in the pew racks just like they do in my childhood church. As I was greeted and embraced during the passing of the peace, I felt right at home.
You may be surprised to know I passed on the chance to take the microphone and introduce myself with the other visitors. I figured I'd wait for a return trip. However, a cute girl named Rachel stood up and announced she had just moved to the city and hailed from Newnan, Georgia. I chatted with her, and we went to brunch, where we traded notes on our worship plans for the rest of the week.
Thursday night, I attended Maundy Thursday service at St. Bartholomew's Church, located very near my office at 51st and Park. I'd considered a few other services, but somehow, I just had a deep sense that it was where I needed to be that evening. My friend Lynn found a church home at St. Bart's; it was the site of her wedding. She had told me to be sure to look for the vicar, Buddy Stallings, who hails from Mississippi. As I approached, the clergy were greeting visitors on the front steps.
"Are you Buddy?" I said to a gray-haired man who looked like his name might be Buddy.
"I sure am," he replied with a friendly grin.
I mentioned my friend's name and said she'd encouraged me to visit. He asked if I'd grown up with her in Tallahassee. I explained I was from a small town called Quincy, outside of Tallahassee.
"Quincy?" he paused. "Is there a little private school there?"
"Well, yes, there is," I started. "But I can't imagine why you would have heard of it. I will say, though, people always joke that my small town has a large reach."
He said his ex-wife had taught at a small school in Quincy while he was doing some graduate work at FSU. I got her name and promised to ask my mom if she recognized it. I took this as a sign that I was indeed in the right place.
The service was beautiful, and it included a ritual foot washing. I am ashamed to admit, I used to have a bit of a knee-jerk, scornful "isn't that something only Holy Rollers do?" reaction to foot washings. But now I adore the intimacy and the humility of the symbolic gesture: the cleansing gift of water, the reminder we are called not to be served but to serve.
Unfortunately, the last foot washing in which I participated was when I chaperoned a middle school youth retreat. To avoid a sophomoric mess, we used Wet Ones. This version was decidedly more elegant, with glass pitchers, porcelain bowls, and a robed altar guild armed with stacks of clean towels. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten my flats at the office and was wearing my tall black boots and hiking socks. Unzipping one's hooker boots up on God's altar seemed a little dodgy, as did putting my clean feet back into my dirty socks, so I opted out.
But the service really couldn't have been any better; I've focused a lot on forgiveness this Lent, and the service lifted some of the burdens on my heart. I lingered for a while after it was over in thought and prayer and felt so grateful to have been there.
Quite a contrast to my experience the next day, when I decided to attend the Good Friday service at noon at St. Patrick's Cathedral. "What better place to be on Good Friday than the city's most famous place of worship?" I'd thought. It was packed with tourists. The usher was reluctant to hand me a program.
"The service will last three hours," she stated.
Three hours? I politely asked if there would be opportunities to exit if one could not remain for the duration. No, she said, she didn't think so. What, lady, is the priest going to tell me to sit back down?
Her job was obviously to weed out the gawkers who weren't there for serious worship, but I felt unwelcome. Nevertheless, I decided to stay and sat down in a pew, close to a large column so my eventual exit wouldn't require crawling over any neighbors. But as I sat and read the order of service -- and the flyer I'd been handed on the steps by some advocates of victims of sexual assault by priests -- I realized I felt so uneasy about the whole thing that I simply wanted to leave. Walking out was a relief.
(Side note: St. Bart's was also having a three-hour service, but they'd kindly advertised it with the following tag line: Come when you can; leave when you must.)
Later that night, I met my new friend Rachel back at Church of the Village, which had a beautiful performance featuring dancers and incredibly talented vocalists. It was gorgeous and moving. We both agreed we hadn't known what to expect, but we were so glad we'd been there. Having fully experienced the real weight of Holy Week made me feel full of anticipation for the joy of Easter.
Strangely enough, I think the experience I had at St. Patrick's on Good Friday was quite good for me. It was an uncomfortable reminder that, as the quote I referenced above points out, church isn't a place of love and acceptance for everyone. It's all too often a place of rules and exclusion. We make people feel like they have to meet some three-hour requirement, instead of meeting them where they are. We swab the surface with Wet Ones, afraid of making the mess that's required for true cleansing and healing. And that's a shame -- during Holy Week or any week.