The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes

When I explained to my Tallahassee host that I was trying to visit a different church every Sunday as part of my cultural exploration, she asked, “Have you been to a UCC church yet?” I shook my head no, and Currie concluded, “Great! You can come with us tomorrow.”

Chopping VeggiesI knew that the United Church of Christ was a fairly liberal organization, which was confirmed by the rainbow flag on their sign. Currie, her mother, and I all arrived at church and were greeted with the smell of boiling veggies. The church kitchen is only a few feet away from the front door, and I saw half a dozen women inside chopping and measuring. Currie explained to me that about once a month they provide the food for a local soup kitchen, and the parishioners all help prepare the soup before and after service on that day. They call it “Onion Sunday.”

Currie began introducing me to people, explaining that she was hosting me through Couchsurfing, and that I was in the middle of traveling the country. She loved to tell people about my visit to the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, which seemed to fascinate everyone. I met a woman named Nancy whose professionally friendly and calm demeanor I recognized instantly as being indicative of a clergy member. She would be leading the service.

I met several more women and sat down with Currie in the worship space. It was a bright, modern, yet cozy room with chairs instead of pews and a band set up in the corner. At this point I had met only women. As more people filed in I did an informal headcount. The gender ratio was 6:1 in favor of women, many of whom were clearly couples. It seems judgmental to brand any congregation as a “lesbian church,” especially considering that they clearly had men there as well. Still, it was a clear and defining characteristic, and seeing as out lesbian women are a numerical minority within the existing minority of homosexual people, it is at very least statistically interesting. I couldn’t help but think of my friend Markie from college, who always seemed to take delight in any social situation where she could identify complete strangers as fellow lesbians. She had a field day with the Hunger Games midnight show crowd.

The band began playing the gathering song, and lyrics accompanied by relevant stock photos appeared on a screen next to the cross. Rev. Nancy welcomed the group and added that she was a bit nervous. Her partner was traveling and would be arriving home the next day. She asked for our prayers for safe travels. The week’s scripture was read, which was the very appropriate story of Mary and Martha. After the sermon another woman got up to say a prayer. She rustled through a few papers on the podium and then looked over to Nancy, indicating that she couldn’t find the prayer she was supposed to read. The congregation chuckled quietly as Nancy went over to look through the papers, sure that the prayer was there somewhere. As the humor level in the room grew, Nancy threw up her hands and gave up on the written prayer entirely. “Many people come here saying they were turned off by organized religion,” she said. “And we’re anything but organized.” Everyone laughed and Nancy opted to do the prayer herself, extemporaneously.

As soon as the service was over I watched as Currie darted up to the front of the room. The worship space was decorated with several quilt panels. There was a set of three near the front of the room depicting the sun shinning down, and one of the panels had been pushed over just enough so that the rays of light no longer lined up correctly. I had noticed it myself, but it had been driving Currie crazy. She ran up to fix it, which seemed appropriate. She had been the one who quilted it, after all.

Currie asked if I wouldn’t mind sticking around to help with the soup, and I said I’d love to. Together we set to work chopping several pounds of squash and assisting in the proper assembly of the church’s food processor. By the time the last squash was done everything else had been completed, and the soup had only to cook for a few hours before it would be ready to serve.

Food ProcessorFor the most part, my day at UCC seemed very ordinary. Unlike some of the churches I’d visited, it reminded me a lot of my own experiences in the Episcopal Church – the decorations made by parishioners, the jokes when things went wrong, the community meeting together to make a huge amount of food they weren’t intending to eat. The congregation was welcoming and friendly, yet still seemed to represent one specific group. I happened to be relating the story to an openly gay man I met later on my trip, and he explained that in his home town of Washington D.C. he belongs to a church with a lot of other gay men, yet for whatever reason they can’t seem to attract or keep any lesbian couples. However he knows of another church in town that has a thriving lesbian population, but doesn’t have any gay male couples in the congregation. It’s strange to think of this level of homogeneity being created in a subgroup that typically devotes huge resources into societal diversification. But we’re all human, and maybe deep down we still have that ancient savanna need to create our own tribe. As much as we want diversity and know that it is healthy and helpful, it’s also a lot of work. It’s hard to be around people who are different – people who won’t always agree with you and won’t want to do things the same way. When individuals go looking for a new community they are looking for somewhere they belong, not somewhere they stand out.

The church I go to is traditionally Japanese-American, and not really on the beaten path of my normal week. I ended up there when they needed to hire a new sunday school teacher at the same time I was looking for some part-time work. It was just a coincidence. But I believe I can say with absolute certainty that I would have never happened upon the church on my own. And if I had, I probably would have taken one look around and decided I didn’t belong. I would have been wrong, because I do belong there, and I like the people there. And if I’m not careful, I will seek out a community of people who are just like me. But that way leads to an unfounded certainty of conviction. It leads me to believe that my world view is universally accepted as true, and those who would say otherwise are simply crazy, stubborn, deviants.

I’m not knocking the women of this particular UCC congregation for seeking harmony in each other. They deserve it more than most, since the outside world is so likely to provide them with disagreement. But it’s important to remember that no one is above comfort-seeking. No one is too enlightened for simple conflict avoidance. We are the amalgamation of the people we spend the majority of our time with, and it’s easier to be with those who would reenforce that which we’ve established in ourselves, rather than fight it with something new and different. One man described it to me as “The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes.” If there is no one around to question the way we see the world, it is likely that our view of the world will stay the same even as the world itself changes. The women at UCC have no choice but to encounter conflict in their lives, but they have found a small section of their week in which they can be who they are and think how they want without trouble. Certainly a few hours of peace a week is an acceptable trade off for one’s sanity. But I think most of us have the proportions swapped, and would do well to let go of a bit of comfort so that we may make way for a little conflict. It’s our best and only insurance against becoming the crazy, stubborn, deviants we claim to abhor.

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