On the Death of Fred Phelps

The opening words of the sermon preached at Westboro Baptist Church on March 23rd, 2014, the first Sunday after the death of founder Fred Phelps:

“Good afternoon, everyone! I have to say, after reading the 18 billion articles Fred sent over the last few days, I’m really quite surprised to see you all here! To hear the media tell it, by this point the building should have been demolished to its foundation, the websites all offline, the tweets silenced, the vines disappeared, the faxes stopped ringing, the signs shredded, our social security numbers zero’d out, and, depending on which version of the story you read, every last man jack of us either moving to varied and separate parts of the world while all sucking our thumbs in the fetal position, all of us buried in a mass grave by our own hands, we should all be sitting on the front lawn drinking spiked Kool-Aid eating laced apple sauce waiting for a UFO to come get us, or probably worst of all, we should all have joined a Catholic church and applied to be priests, to find “true religion”. Yikes. The good old media. Gotta love ‘em. Or not. Thank God though that every article said God Hates Fags! They can say whatever they want as long as they say that!”

I’ve heard people call Fred Phelps a racist. He was a civil rights attorney.

I’ve heard people say they’ll protest his funeral. The WBC doesn’t believe in funerals. That’s why they picket them.

I’ve heard people suggest the sermon I heard on love when I visited the WBC must have been some sort of show put on because I was an outsider. Westboro has no interest in looking good to outsiders.

I’ve heard people say he was only “ex-communicated” so the church wouldn’t have to pay his medical bills. That’s not even how debt works.

He changed his mind.

He beat his children.

His daughter’s been ousted.

The rumors abound.

I’ve learned not to trust much of what I hear about the WBC because they are the unwitting masters of false advertising. They are single-minded in their goal to have as many people hear their “God hates fags” message as possible, and they are unconcerned with whatever messages might get tacked onto it in the process. The sermon I heard last summer certainly fits with the suggestion that Phelps had begun preaching a message of love, at least among church members. However the other sermons posted on the WBC website don’t tell the same story. It may be years before we know the truth, if the truth can ever be known. The death of founder Fred Phelps is equal parts fact and nonsense. Perhaps the saddest, truest thing that can be said about it is this:

At the time of his death, the world had no idea what Fred Phelps believed.

__________________________

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Men in Suits

At a certain point in my journey I realized how much my high church upbringing had made me suspicious of clergy in suits. When I was growing up, priests wore robes during the service, and had a collar on afterwards. If they weren’t at church, they were dressed casually, like normal people.

But suits? Suits were what businessmen wore. Suits were for car salesmen and motivational speakers. Suits indicated earthly, financial wealth (odd that I never connected the beautiful robes, alter coverings, and gilded Bible pages with wealth).

I associated clergy in suits with men on television. Men with huge congregations – the kind that could afford theatrical lighting and professional cameras. And they were always men. I knew plenty of female clergy that put on collars and dressed in robes. I’d never seen a single one of them wear a suit – even in their off-hours.

Now I know it’s certainly possible for a person to both wear a suit and be an informed presenter of religious teachings. I’m just not used to seeing it. There is a deep and inherent “otherness” for me when I see a preacher in a suit. I don’t think anyone tried to teach such a prejudice to me, I think it formed organically. This trip has offered me many opportunities to examine that prejudice. I have learned through experience that preachers in suits, though they represent a wide range and people and places, do have one thing in common.

I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Arkansas, South Carolina, Maine, Michigan – it doesn’t matter. They always start out clear. “This is the story for today.” “This is the verse we’re going to unpack.” They start to preach on a subject and I’m following along, but then it happens. It happens every time.

“Let’s go back to scripture.”

Suddenly, we’re no longer at that particular paragraph in Corinthians. We’re no longer in the story of Cain and Able. Suddenly we’re in James, or Psalms, or some godawful place in Deuteronomy. At first it makes sense, we’re connecting what we were just talking about to this new place. I can follow that. But it doesn’t last. Inevitably we have to “go back to scripture” again. We hop from one book to the next, connecting seemingly arbitrary dots in the most commonly reinterpreted book in the world. Nothing is given context, nothing has story. By the end I can’t even tell you how many unrelated passages we’ve talked about. And what’s worse, I have no idea what I was supposed to take from the whole thing.

Compare this to the sermons I was raised on. When I imagine a sermon, I am basically seeing a TED Talk. I see an informed and learned professional who has a clear and single message to relate to his or her audience. The inspiration for the talk is one of the scripture readings, and that reading is the only scriptural evidence used. Historical explanations will be given, alternative translations may be cited, but the speaker will rarely move to a different passage. When they do, it will be by way of paraphrasing only. “This is meant to remind us of the story of Moses’s birth, and how he was saved from certain death.” We wouldn’t turn back to Exodus to read about Moses. That’s a different reading. It’s a different sermon. It’s a different day.

Cross and sky

For my non-religious readers this may seem a dreadfully specific point to distinguish. I bring it up because it’s a perfect example of how blind we are to the experiences of others. Those parishioners in Arkansas and Michigan have likely only seen the type of sermon you get from a preacher in a suit. My TED Talk religion might come off as boring. They might accuse me of allowing too much of my faith to come from my priests, and not enough from the Bible itself.

With this in mind, I always have trouble when people argue against “religion.” What religion? Which experience gets to take credit for all people of faith? For all of Christianity? Which format is up for debate? Which group gets to remain uninvolved? We like to talk about religion and politics and race and poverty like they are universal truths. But we come at them with such wildly different experiences, it’s no wonder people are more inclined to fight than discuss. We probably aren’t even talking about the same thing.

I’m reminded of a scene from the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Two women are sitting together at tea, discussing a man they both know named Earnest. As their opinions of Earnest begin to clash, the politeness in the room starts to drop. By the end the women are fighting to the highest degree that polite British society will allow, and all because they don’t realize they are talking about two completely different men, both named Earnest.

I think some people talk about religion thinking it’s all men in suits. I think others assume it can only be women in robes. Neither is right, neither is wrong, and we are destined to always disagree so long as we keep up our mutual ignorance. There is a special part of my stomach that starts to turn when I realize I have been ignorant about someone else’s experiences. That part got quite a workout on this trip, which was the point.

What I find amusing is that I credit my religion for instilling this knowledge-seeking, ignorance-loathing standard in me. Were someone to ask what I find most beneficial about faith, I would tell them humility. It’s that constant feeling that there is and always will be something that you do not understand. And it is your duty to chase after that mystery with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul. Knowing that men in suits preach in a way that I can’t understand makes me want to listen to more men in suits. Traveling around the country once just makes me want to do it again. The more I learn the more I discover all the things I don’t know. And I think it helps me to become a better person. I think we could all stand to have a bit more of our own ignorance thrown into our faces.

So here is my suggestion to you, whether you are the preacher-in-a-suit type, or the woman-in-a-robe type, or the let’s-just-toss-it-all type: seek out your ignorance. It is out there. It always will be. The Well of Personal Ignorance never runs dry.

Training Begins Early

I drove up and down Highway 31 for almost an hour before picking a church. There were a lot to choose from, but none of them were jumping out at me. Eventually I turned down the road to Eden Bible Church because I’d never been to anything that called itself a Bible Church. Besides, something about the nearby Church of Christ building made me nervous.

I was greeted at the door of Eden by an older man, the kind of man whose jokes might be offensive if he wasn’t so damn charming. I took my place in a pew and couldn’t help but notice the family sitting behind me: One woman in her 40s or 50s and seven identically dressed boys. The age range of the boys was about six to thirteen, and all of them were wearing lavender dress shirts with dark purple ties.

Mother and Children

“Where are the girls?” I asked their mother.

“Didn’t have any,” she said with a shrug and a smile.

An usher handed me a crisp, 9×6 folder made of quality paper. It was their welcome packet, and it was full of information about the church and its activities. There’s an “Over 55” luncheon for seniors the forth Friday of every month, an evening service at 6PM on Sundays, and every Wednesday is Family Night. The back of the worship bulletin had a prayer request for their missionaries, and listed 13 people in 7 countries. My favorite was the L.A.D.I.E.S. F.E.L.L.O.W.S.H.I.P. of Eden Bible Church, which is easily the longest and most obnoxious backronym I’ve ever seen. It stands for: Learning And Doing Inspiring Embracing Supporting Friends Enjoying Love Laughter Of Women (who) Share Hearts In Prayer & praise. It sounds a bit like something I would have come up with during an improv game.

Then of course, there was the Sunday School Program.

“Children are important at Eden Bible Church and their training begins early.”

Reading that line in the welcome packet sent a shiver down my spine,. I’m a Sunday School teacher myself, and I just can’t bring myself to think of teaching as training. Training is what soldiers and athletes do. Education is what you get from teachers. Even so, reading their program guide made me jealous. Eden Bible Church has five Sunday School classes, plus two more for adult education. Their classes start at 9:15AM, almost two hours before the regular service. Kids are split up into groups with no more than a two year age range, just like you might have in a public school. When I was growing up, my church used the one room school house approach to pedagogy, and I consider it an accomplishment that my current congregation has the resources to separate the kids into two age groups. At our church the 12-year-olds aren’t sitting through the same lesson as the toddlers. At Eden, they aren’t even sitting through the same lesson as the 10-year-olds.

After church I met yet another woman with seven boys, though she informed me that six of hers were adopted. I couldn’t help but look for the fathers in both cases, and never managed to find them. Everyone at the church was very kind, very welcoming. After the service they wished me well on my trip, and I continued my drive up through Michigan.

The people of Eden Bible Church fit so neatly into so many stereotypes I would like so much to believe. I can tell myself that their church must offer a simplified, straight-forward message that keeps people coming back, unlike my own denomination whose primary features are the muddy mystery of the divine and a consistently declining population graph. I can pretend that even though they have a much stronger and more established education program, it’s probably more rigid and didactic than my own. I can imagine that my own inclination to remain childless is a much choice than the decision to have seven boys – adopted or not. I can be proud to live in the heart of a modern city, rather than in the pinky of the Michigan mitten.

And in thinking all those things, all I manage to be is the arrogant, liberal stereotype I assume they want me to be. And of course the assumption that they want me to be an arrogant liberal is just another stereotype I have of them. I suppose my training began early, too.

Such is the vicious cycle of The Other. Were I to stay in town for a few more Sundays, maybe catch an adult Sunday School session or crash the potluck lunch, I would probably change my tune. In traveling, I run the constant risk of learning just enough to make myself feel smart, while not discovering how much more there is to know. It makes me second-guess every conclusion I draw. I am constantly asking myself: Was my experience authentic? Do I know enough to draw a conclusion? Will others find my thoughts arrogant? The fear is always there. “You’re wrong,” they’ll say as they shove contradictory evidence back in my face. And I’ll sheepishly back away, because I know that I leaped before I looked. As one of my favorite novels once taught me, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s a long, hard swim back.

Thinking about it now, I wish I would have known about Eden Bible Church’s extensive Sunday School program ahead of time. I could have asked to sit in on a class. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so envious of the program if I had been there. Or maybe I would have coveted their personalized lessons even more. I sometimes wonder if jealousy isn’t at the heart of all pre-judgments. It’s not just about Eden’s philosophy or their language, it’s the fact that they’re doing so well with it. It’s the same with any group or interest. You want the things you love to be successful, because that means you were right to love them in the first place. Sometimes we have to admit that at least for now, what we love doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that the success of another doesn’t detract from our own interests and pleasures. It takes constant, conscious thought to cure ourselves of jealousy-based prejudice.

Or, I suppose, it just takes training.

__________________

The Terrible Importance of Coffee and Cakes

In visiting various churches throughout the summer I was surprised by many things. Different traditions, different demographics, different scriptural interpretations. But nothing was more shocking or outlandish than the complete absence of Coffee Hour nationwide. For those of you who were not raised with such a tradition, Coffee Hour is the social time immediately following the service. Everyone goes to another part of the church (usually referred to as the Parish Hall) to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a selection of cookies and treats brought in by whatever group of parishioners had signed up to bring treats that week. Growing up, this was an absolutely crucial part of church to me. Coffee Hour is the time when I talked with the other people in the community. It was when little kids sold wrapping paper for their school fundraisers, and when everyone got to enjoy a store-bought cake decorated to celebrate whatever birthday or anniversary was just around the corner.

At my current church, Coffee Hour sometimes takes on a life of its own, featuring such feasts as chili cheese dogs or sushi or red beans and rice. But even the smallest Episcopal congregations I’ve visited in my life manage to put together a nice loaf of banana bread and a coffee percolator. But I went to churches all across the country and found nothing. The entire summer I went to exactly one Coffee Hour, and it was at the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.

When every day involves a journey of 200 miles, it can be hard to find time for church. After my Saturday in Portland I knew I wanted to attend a Sunday service, but I was also in a hurry to get to Acadia National Park. I woke up early to pack up my campsite, and I started down the road. My plan was to drive until about 9:40AM, then start looking for church signs. Most churches have their main service between 10AM and 11:30AM, and I figured eventually I would see a sign for a service that started in 5-15 minutes. That’s where I would go to church.

It was 9:45AM when I saw a church with the main doors open to the street. There were bells ringing and an usher at the door. A small sign pointed to the parking lot. I figured it wouldn’t get any easier or more obvious than this, and I pulled into the lot. I threw a skirt on over my shorts, which had become my standard practice at unknown churches. I never know what kind of place I’m walking into and what the dress code will be, but I know most people won’t take issue with a young woman in a skirt, so long as it covers her knees.

Three different people greeted me as I walked in and took my seat. The building was sparsely decorated but full of small touches. There was an instrumental prelude, and an old man with a box of matches waddled up to light the candles at the front. I saw on the front of my program that I was visiting the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, which is part of the United Church of Christ. A few gathering words were spoken, followed by a hymn. An older woman carried a notebook up to the front. She had short, brown hair and red-rimmed glasses. She performed a solo for the congregation, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” She had a lovely voice, but it seemed strange to me because of my previous association with the song. I’d only ever heard Lauryn Hill sing it. In comparison to the emotional, gospel tone of Ms. Hill, the woman in the red-rimmed glasses seemed so rigid, so clear, so proper. I imagined my grandmother singing a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and smiled.

After the sermon there was a second solo, followed by the closing hymn. I went downstairs to attend my beloved coffee hour, and found the parish hall filled with brownies and blueberry muffins. I stuck up a conversation with a little old lady whose voice was high and delicate and reminded me of a famous actress, though I wasn’t sure which one exactly. Her eyes got wide when I told her about my journey, and she pulled another person into our conversation. A few seconds later she ducked away, and soon the gossip was spreading through the whole room and people kept coming up to me to hear my story.

And that’s when I experienced another first. I tend to get asked a lot of the same questions when I tell my story. But one of the first people I spoke with during Coffee Hour at Second Congregational managed to ask me a question I had never heard before:

“What can we do to help?”

I was so surprised I didn’t have an answer. I still didn’t have an answer a few minutes later when a completely different parishioner asked the same thing. Eventually I suggested that they take my card and contact me if they knew anyone I could stay with on my way back towards Seattle. They smiled when I explained that I hadn’t heard of their church at all before today, and that I simply stopped because they were starting the service when I happened to be driving by. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came back out I saw a pair of women loading up a collection of brownies, cookies, and muffins into some tin foil. They handed me Ziplock bags full of extra veggies as well as some cheese and crackers, insisting it was the least they could do.

I have met some wonderful people on my journey. I’ve been invited into the homes of complete strangers. I’ve had men I didn’t know stop to fix my tires. I’ve had families give me a chair to sit on and a beer to drink. I’ve experienced some fantastic examples of humanity on my trip. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so genuinely welcomed as I did at Second Congregational. And it all comes down to that one question: What can we do to help? We would all do well to make such a sentiment central to our lives, and I think churches have a duty to do so. It has been pointed out that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. I have never felt the benefit of being a non-member so strongly as I did in that little basement parish hall in Maine – a place I only found because the timing was right.

Waffles Amen

I wouldn’t have gone to New York City if it wasn’t for Sarah Ruth.

Excluding family vacations, I have been to New York City more than anywhere else in the world. When I was 15 my sister moved there right out of high school, and I visited her many times. The summer before college I lived on Manhattan for six weeks while attending classes at the School for Film and Television. I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and St. John the Divine. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and caught a show at the Village Vanguard. I’ve done the NYC thing. I had planned to skip it altogether.

But then Sarah Ruth got a summer internship at Saveur Magazine. Sarah Ruth was one of my best friends in college. We met in our improv troupe, and spent several quarters waking up early every Wednesday morning to get waffles at one of the dinning halls on campus. Wednesday Waffles were a good time to share all the things we didn’t want to say to other people, usually because they had to do with our problems with said people. We discussed our various tricky situations and tried to help each other out. Some Wednesdays we’d both be too tired to talk and we’d just stare blankly at our strawberries and whipped cream. I always loved our Waffle Wednesdays.

After graduation we would still get together occasionally for waffles. It was never on campus and it rarely included actual waffles, but the point was the same. We met and gabbed and felt better for it. Eventually Sarah Ruth moved out of state, and waffles could only happen every few months when she came back to town to visit friends and family. So I knew that if I had the chance to see Sarah Ruth while she was in NYC, I needed to take it. There was no telling how long it would be until the next waffle opportunity.

I sat on the New Jersey Turnpike for more than 20 minutes, trying to get to the front of the toll line. I was being aggressive, but I couldn’t change the behavior of the people in front of me who seemed hell bent on letting every cheating taxi cab cut to the front of the line. I was waiting so long and the sun was so hot my car started to overheat. At times I thought I might never get out of New Jersey at all.

Once I emerged from the tunnel onto the streets of Manhattan, it was time for red alert. Having been a pedestrian in NYC many times, I can say with confidence that it feels much more dangerous be a driver. You have less control. There are bikers and walkers and motorcyclists, and not a one of them has to deal with the same physical restrictions. On Manhattan everything is small, and everything is moving. It was like learning to drive again, trying hopelessly to expand my spatial awareness to accommodate the full size of the vehicle. Every passing bicycle felt too close, every moving pedestrian felt too fast. I had lived in my car for more than two months, and suddenly I felt like I had no idea where the thing started and ended.

In my own biased opinion, I did well. I didn’t run into anything or get turned around. I didn’t get honked at or feel the need to honk. And I managed to get to the other side of the island, approximately 12 blocks away, in less than 30 minutes. It went well, and I can safely say I understand what they mean about driving in New York City. I can also safely say that I never need to experience that again.

I paid a toll to get out of New Jersey, and another one to get onto Manhattan. There was a third toll to get off the island and into Queens, and another one to get out of Queens the next day. In total, I spent $30.15 trying to get through the city. I can’t imagine how commuting is even possible.

NeighborhoodSarah Ruth got an apartment through AirBnB that just happened to be blocks away from where my sister used to live. We hung out at her apartment for awhile before heading to a local diner for some long overdue waffles. Like every waffle conversation, we ran the gamut from frivolous problems on the subway to the serious problems of marriage. It was the first time I’d seen her since she broke up with her long-term boyfriend. It was the first time she had seen me since I changed jobs. After dinner we walked back to her place and moved on to another important topic of conversation: church.

I needed somewhere to go for church the following morning, and Sarah Ruth was trying to help me decide. There was a huge, non-denominational church in Times Square that intrigued me. But that would mean a long subway ride first thing in the morning. There were a few churches just down the street from the apartment, and Sarah Ruth offered to join me if I decided to go somewhere nearby. We got out our computers and began looking up the various churches online. That’s when we found Pastor Marnie.

The website for The Rock Church was certainly the most developed of the churches we looked at, and its reviews were the most … passionate. On Yelp it seemed that the church was only getting one star or five star reviews with nothing in between. The five stars praised the congregation for being so close to God. The one stars said it was a money-grubbing cult and a construction eye-sore. The church had an active blog with posts by someone named Marnie, and I pulled up a video of her called “Life with Marnie – Health Tip.”


Sarah Ruth and I were in love. Marnie’s accent was so thick and her talk so rambling. “Like a dog. An angry dog. Some dogs are nice. Most dogs are nice. I love animals.” We were sold. We had to check out the perpetually under construction house that Marnie called home.

ChurchThe Rock Church operates inside of the sort of huge old theater that makes you pine for earlier days. You look around and think, “This place could really be something if they just fixed it up a bit.” We were greeted when we walked in the door and found our way to the center of the folding chairs. The size of the building made the place seem empty, and it felt as though we were the only ones who didn’t have something else to do. Over a dozen people stood near the door, preparing various things and talking with one another. Several others were getting the light and sound booth ready and setting up the cameras. People were on stage, walking back and forth in front of a giant “I heart Jesus” sign. A choir was collecting off to the side. When I think about it, there were probably already 100 people there when we arrived, but the church felt empty since only a handful of us were actually sitting in the chairs. Sarah Ruth and I waited, constantly turning our necks to the back to see if anyone else was going to show up, or if we were to sit in a sea of empty chairs the whole time.

After the token promotional video on the big screen, the service began. The band started playing and the congregation started singing. I didn’t know the tune but I did my best. There was a woman on stage who seemed to be in charge, but it clearly wasn’t Pastor Marnie. Sarah Ruth and I whispered our disappointment.

“Maybe Marnie’s not here every week?” I asked. Sarah Ruth shrugged.

A few songs went by, and another woman came on stage. It was like we had seen the warmup act, and were now moving on to the headliner. But there was still no Marnie. We sang more, we prayed some, we stayed standing the whole time and most everyone had their praise hands up like in those videos advertising Christian Rock compilation CDs on television at 2AM.

Finally, after more than 20 minutes had passed, it was time for the main event: Pastor Marnie took the stage. Her heels were high and her skirt was long. She prayed and talked, back and forth. I had no idea what was coming next or what was typical for the service. We heard Marnie preach. She referenced being “at the point of death four times,” but gave no further information on the subject. She introduced a man who came out to do a sermon of his own. And they passed the collection plate – twice.

But more than anything else, what stood out to me at The Rock Church was their use of the word amen. Most people know amen as the word you use to end a prayer. In more vocal congregations it can be used as a sort of expletive, a way to shout your agreement during a sermon. In common speech you may even hear amen as a strong affirmation of something said, such as using the phrase, “Amen to that.”

At The Rock Church, you use it like a period. It goes at the end of almost every sentence.

Pastor Marnie said amen quite a bit, often posing it as a question to the audience. “…and that’s what you’re really looking for, amen?” We were supposed to say amen back to indicate that we both agreed and were paying attention. To me, this was an acceptable use of the word. I’ve seen the tactic used before. It’s a standard presentation technique.

But then another woman, quite pregnant, took the stage for announcements. Amen became the Valley Girl up-speak that turns every sentence into a rhetorical question.

“…which will start at 7PM on Thursday, amen?”

“…since we had so much fun last year, amen?”

“…we have that going on, amen?”

Over and over again. It started it wear at me. I was reminded of those times in high school when our teachers challenged us to listen for how often our classmates said “like” or “um” in their presentations. Suddenly you can’t hear anything else. Amen, amen, amen. Without end.

On the way out the door both Sarah Ruth and I had to thwart attempts to get our contact information. Luckily we could both honestly say that we wouldn’t be around for much longer, since she was leaving in two weeks and I was leaving in 20 minutes. Our pursuers seemed quite disappointed to hear such a clear explanation for why our info would be useless. I imagine they have arguments ready for most visitor rejections, but “I don’t even live here” is probably less common.

I will say one thing about The Rock Church. It reminded me of the power of following along. At one point during the service, I decided to raise one of my hands up. Just the right one, just a little. Everyone else was doing it, and when visiting churches I take on a very “when in Rome” mentality. And it worked. I enjoyed the songs just a bit more, even though my hand had moved less than six inches. But that six inches says a lot. It says why not. It says let’s go. It says I’m trying.  And I know that if I kept listening to Pastor Marnie, she would start to make more and more sense. I know I would start using amen to punctuate my sentences. I know I would greet people at the door and insist on getting their information.

Most people bring these things up when talking about the dangers of herd mentality. And it can be very dangerous. But it’s not inherently detrimental. Herding animals herd for a reason. Herding lets us rely on others, and helps us to make good decisions even when we can’t have all the information. Sometimes religious believers are mocked for following blindly, but that is a trait we all share. The only difference is what you follow. Some people blindly follow God. Some people blindly follow family. Diets, politics, culture, social convention, it’s all there. It’s just waiting to be followed. And sometimes when you make the choice to raise your hand up a little and be part of the crowd, a strange situation becomes a bit more familiar. We’re social animals, and we will always find a herd.

I Should Have Budgeted More Time for the National Cathedral

I love visiting churches, and before I left Alexandria my friend Josh recommended I stop by the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I couldn’t remember if this was one of the attractions I had seen during my first visit to the city in high school. So much of that trip blurred together. But I figured a church is a church and I would still enjoy looking around.

MLK CarvingI parked in the garage, where the first half hour is free. I figured I could be in and out in thirty minutes, no problem. I was so wrong. You don’t visit the National Cathedral like it’s a church, you visit it likes it’s a museum. There are pamphlets and self-guided tours and every piece of art has meaning and history. On either side of the main worship space are small alcoves, labeled as “Memorial Bays” on my map. Each bay has a unique stained glass window and stone features, such as the Kellogg Bay which features a carving of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as  he preached his last Sunday sermon from the Cathedral’s pulpit, or the George Washington Bay with abstract designs reflecting the search for freedom.

Woman in the WindowI saw in my brochure that the Cathedral had a “Space Window” commemorating the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The window contained a piece of moon rock brought back by the crew. I located the window on the map and begin walking down the alcoves in search of it. As I passed by the memorial bays, one window caught my eye. In the lower left there was a picture of a woman. She is dark-skinned with large eyes. She looks at you. She walks toward you. I found her captivating and couldn’t say why. I kept walking in search of the space window, only to realize I must have passed it. I walked back, once again stopping at the window with the woman. Who was she supposed to be? I remember looking at the description and not understanding the connection. Later I tried to remember which bay she was in, and went searching online for photos. I could find more photos of her window than any other, but few were labeled for where in the Cathedral the image was taken. Finally I found it – it was the Woodrow Wilson Bay. I can’t begin to guess why, except that she must represent some policy he created. All I have now is her haunting figure, asking me for something. Trying to tell me something. I have no idea what.

Eventually I found the Space Window. I had been looking at eye-level where the memorial bays were, but the Space Window is high above, near the ever-distant ceiling. I walked out into the nave to gaze up at it. It’s a nice affirmation to my understanding that science and religion are not at odds, but in harmony. It’s too bad many of the people who work so close to the Cathedral can’t seem to come to the same conclusion.

Chapel Altar PieceThere are multiple side chapels, each constructed and decorated to a theme. There’s the Children’s Chapel with a figure of Jesus the size of a six-year-old child. There’s the War Memorial Chapel with images of soldiers and valor. Saint John and Saint Mary each have a chapel as well, and after circling through each one you end up back at the front of the very long High Altar space, where you can see the three rose windows to the north, south, and west.

I had already passed the half hour mark, but figured I could still finish my visit in an hour and only pay the minimum for parking. Then I turned my map over. I hadn’t been downstairs.

Downstairs?

Few and far between are the churches with publicly accessible crypts. The crypt at the National Cathedral holds an additional four chapels. All of them are as beautiful as the main nave above, if not more so. The Bethlehem Chapel has dozens of hand-stitched prayer cushions depicting the birth narrative of Jesus. In the Resurrection Chapel, mosaics line the walls. The color and shine bounce off the art in such a way that the whole room glows. I’ve never seen a windowless room be so bright.

Eternal Rest in the Gift ShopThe anachronistic feeling in the Cathedral gift shop made me giggle. In order to maintain the beautiful gothic exterior, no additional buildings have been added on to the Cathedral. This means the shop must be incorporated into the existing structure. And when the existing structure happens to contain 100 years of religious practices, it means that occasionally someone’s burial tomb is directly above the “My First Communion” books.

Like seemingly all significant churches on the east coast, the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church. I beamed with pride upon seeing the table of paraphernalia dedicated to the Episcopal church. Would you like a T-Shirt of Robin Williams’ “Top Ten Reasons to Be an Episcopalian?” How about a pocket-sized Book of Common Prayer? They even had the book written by current Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. I feel like it gives me a lot of denominational cred that my church’s highest office is held by a woman – not to mention a licensed pilot.

Older Style WindowAll told I spent over and hour and a half visiting the National Cathedral, and I didn’t even get to look at the gardens outside. Unfortunately I had places to be and battlefields to see. Had I known I suppose I would have tried to get an earlier start on the day. But the Cathedral wasn’t the first place I visited where I wished I could stay longer, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get. Maybe next time I’ll get to see the Darth Vader gargoyle. I may even find the time to pray.

The Importance of Tradition

I had only one more Sunday before I left the South. I had learned by now that I needed to be careful about chasing stereotypes, but there was one stereotype I felt I just had to find. I wanted to go to a very large, very conservative church. I looked up the Southern Baptist Convention online, and found all the member churches between Charleston and Asheville. First Baptist in Simpsonville said on their website that they had multiple locations and an average Sunday attendance of 2,000 people. This was the place.

The Band

I didn’t think I would need to arrive very early since the site said they had parking specifically for visitors, and I ended up getting the very last spot in the twenty car visitor’s lot. There were men directing traffic and people walking towards the church from all directions. Inside I saw a table with about two dozen empty collection plates set out in preparation for the service. There were ushers at every aisle, and I was welcomed and handed a program. The space was large with multiple aisle-ways and balcony seating. It reminded me of a major urban theater, and had the sound and lighting setup to match. On stage a man who looked like the typical western depiction of Jesus tuned his guitar. The band did a sound check. A sizable put plain wooden cross stood off to the side, underneath one of the two projection screens. The screens were rolling through slides advertising the various events going on in and around the church. There was a “Getting to Know You Dinner” for new members, a marriage retreat in the fall, and my personal favorite: Flag Football and Cheerleading for elementary age children. I grew up in the Anglican high-church style, with robes and chanting and structured prayer. To me, Simpsonville feels unconventional, modern, and non-traditional.

The service began with a couple of songs. They were of that Christian Rock variety that is a little hard to get into but you know you’d probably like it once you heard it a few times. On an a cappella refrain repeating the lyrics “Hosanna in the highest,” the drummer held his stick in the air and pointed to the sky. I think it must be more meaningful to be in the band than to be in the crowd.

Baptism

After an introduction and a prayer or two, it was time for the baptisms. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we had baptisms maybe twice a year. First Baptist was having three at the 11:15AM service alone. The lights came up on a cut out portion of the wall some twenty feet above the stage. The lowest point in the cut out was a piece of glass that allowed the congregation to see the top half of a tank of water. Family members watched from behind the tank as both the baptizer and the child stood in what seemed to be about four feet of water. Both were dressed in white robes. It was clear from the way the presider spoke that he didn’t know the child very well, and the crowd watched as the little boy or girl was tipped backward into the water to the refrain of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The child walked off to the side of the tank and disappeared behind the wall stage right, as did their family. The next child and family entered from stage left and the process was repeated. All the baptized were probably 7-12 years old, and all were introduced as having made the decision to let Jesus into their lives. The whole thing was objectively cool. While I don’t want to belittle the experiences of these children, if I were nine years old, I’d want to get baptized, too.

The sermon displayed a number of important indicators of modernity and hipness. The program had a sort of worksheet where parishioners could fill out answers as they were revealed during the sermon. The pastor had an iPad that could be projected onto the screen so he could write out certain words as he explained the Greek translations. There were presentation slides with high-quality stock photos. At one point he told a story about getting a free emergency gas can at the local mini-mart, and threw it on the stage behind him as a visual demonstration of how much we don’t need a backup plan if we have Jesus. That part would have been cooler if I felt it was remotely related to the rest of the sermon, but there were a lot of parts of the sermon that seemed a bit out of place.

WorksheetFor example, somewhere near the middle he stopped to play a video advertising the fall marriage workshop. He told us all how excited he was about this year’s workshop leaders, the authors of “Men are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti.” The pastor explained how important it was to work on your marriage, because “Satan likes to attack nowhere better than in a marriage.” I’m not sure what this had to do with II Peter 1:5-11, but I don’t think that mattered. At one point in the sermon the pastor was cracking a joke about how silly it is to expect others to work on your soul for you. “If you wanted to learn Spanish, you wouldn’t send your wife to class.”

The church announcements were done via pre-recorded video, with a man talking directly to the camera about the various upcoming events. After the first few announcements the man said, “Last week I made a comment comparing women to bacon, and that bothered some people.” There were laughs from the congregation. “But there’s nothing wrong with being bacon. Bacon is the candy of meat. It makes everything better.” The congregation laughed, he smiled, and we all moved on to the next announcement.

Notice he didn’t actually apologize for calling women bacon.

Marriage is clearly very important in this community, but not as important as gender roles. The boys play football and the girls cheer on the boys as they play football. A wife is someone who can be sent places. Every year there is the marriage retreat. Women are unapologetically bacon. And I almost feel like I’m doing a disservice to you as the reader to point out these incidents so specifically, because they were comparatively subtle. Another person, especially someone who hasn’t spent their life being acutely aware of gender roles, might not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. And that’s the thing to remember. When you’re there, it doesn’t seem that strange. No one is saying that women are chattel or the domestic abuse is okay. They just believe that husbands and wives have different roles, and part of the man’s responsibility is being head of the household. It seems very reasonable doesn’t it? The church isn’t sexist, it’s just honest. Right?

Watching the quiet gender culture of First Baptist gave me the best understanding I have ever had of why people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is a threat to so-called traditional marriage.

Because it is.

The world according to First Baptist, as I saw it, is fairly straight forward. People grow up in the church. At a certain age they find a husband or wife. The husbands lead the family, making important decisions and providing financially. The women take care of the home and the children, and provide emotional support for their husbands. They do everything they can to make the marriage work, no matter what. They have children that they in turn take to church so that those children may learn to follow the same path.

And there is nothing wrong with that scenario. Everyone should be free to choose that path if that’s what they feel called to do. But the scenario alone isn’t Traditional Marriage. Traditional Marriage is the idea that this highly structured, gender-based relationship is the only option. It is tradition, and it cannot be broken.

But if two women are married, they can’t only be in charge of the home and the children and the emotional needs of the marriage. At least one of them will have to make money, if not both. If two men are married and they adopt children, at least one will need to raise the kids, if not both. And if these men and women are able to do these things successfully, it means that the first scenario is not the only way to have a successful marriage, it is simply an option. And if it’s only an option, it means that not everyone has to follow it. Which means some of the women of First Baptist might not want to stay at home with the children, in fact they might not want to have children at all. It means that some of the men would rather take care of the house, or may even be inclined to show their emotions. It means the little girls might want to play football and the boys may want to cheer. And if all that is true, it means that the subtle claim that husbands and wives have “equal but different” roles is a lie.

First Baptist SimpsonvilleThe funny thing about the Bible is that what you find in it will always be whatever you were looking for. If you open up your Bible hoping that it will tell you that you should always listen to your husband, it will. If you go looking for instructions on how to control your wife, they’re there. And if you want someone to convince you that your marriage is not a mistake, and that you just need to work harder and it will all get better, well, I’ve got a book you can read.

But if one day you happen to meet a pair of women whose love for each other seems to put your happiness to shame, you might start to question. If you see their happy, smiling children, you might start to worry. And if you’re not careful you might feel inclined to throw the whole thing out and blame the gays for why no one wants to come to the Get to Know You Dinner at church. But I hope it doesn’t happen that way. I hope instead that you pick the book back up and find the part where it says that in Christ there is no male or female. I hope you realize that you aren’t truly living the Gospel if you allow your talents to be restricted to an arbitrary role. And you’ll see that just because something is our tradition doesn’t make it holy.

And maybe, if we’re very lucky, we really will destroy the traditional marriage.