I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. My father was decidedly un-religious, and to the best of my knowledge, he might have attended church once or twice in my life. My mother’s parents were also un-religious; her mother was an astrologer and made up biorhythm charts for her clients. Her father was an illiterate subsistence farmer and used car salesman. Neither ever attended church, although late in life my grandfather become enamored of evangelical TV preachers and watched them constantly, particularly after my mother and grandmother passed away.
My mother wanted to fill the void in her life that she perceived from a lack of religion and prevent that void in mine, and went church shopping. This is one of the earliest memories I have - choosing a Southern Baptist church in the low socioeconomic area of town where we lived. I began attending daycare, then preschool, then kindergarten there, in addition to regular Sunday services and eventually Wednesday night services. My father never came with us to any church event. As a young kid, this meant my world view was just that dads don’t “do” church. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how this must have distressed my mom and made her feel isolated.
In addition to our frequenting of the Baptist church, I began attending a private Southern Baptist elementary school. The older I got, the more I began to realize that there was a huge dissonance between the message I thought I was reading in the New Testament and the message that I was getting from the church and the school. While Jesus taught forgiveness, all I saw was people holding petty grudges against people who were not as “churchy” as they thought they should be. The old joke about Southern Baptists is that you never take one fishing with you, because he will drink all your beer. But if you take TWO Southern Baptists fishing, you’ll have the beer all to yourself. But in fact, I was starting to see what I came to regard as an illness; a sort of Theater of Christianity, where the melodramatic actors used all the trappings and effects of the Bible, taken out of context and reinterpreted in a horrible, petty, paranoiac script that emphasized the judgement, damnation, wickedness, and fear, and all but dismissed the grace, selflessness, humility, and forgiveness.
After my dad passed away, we could no longer afford the exorbitant tuition at the Christian school, nor could we feel safe living in our crime-ridden neighborhood. So we moved across town to the white ghetto, affectionately known by its zip code - 72209 - where were we all known as “09’ers”. It was there that I began attending a public school. At the time, I thought it was the worst thing that could possibly happen. Our church, once located in an underserved part of Little Rock, decided to pull itself out by the roots and move to the up and coming, totally white, expensive West side of Little Rock. In the process, they lost half of their long standing faithful congregation. The pastor was so proud of his beautiful new church and fancy architect, but even as a kid I could see that the mission had been lost. We drifted away from religion entirely.
My mother passed away when I was 23, which was the herald of the darkest time in my life. This was followed by the implosion of my beloved almost-famous rock band, for which I had given up college, an internship, my friends and family in Little Rock, and moved across the country to Boston. The silver lining of that time is that I also married my favorite groupie, who is still my wife today. She’s even in one of our band’s videos. But in the wake of this series of disasters, I swore that I’d never set foot in a church again. And I managed not to, except for one or two weddings I could not avoid. Until, that is, Melissa and I had a baby. A friend couple of ours had raised three girls without church, and when the oldest was starting to notice other kids having first communion or other milestone events in their family religions, she felt a sense of loss and of not belonging. I’ll be honest - it was Melissa, the reformed groupie, who pressed hard for us to explore going to church, primarily for the benefit of our child. I resisted, resisted, resisted, until at some point, I was able to allow myself to accept that my interpretation of church might not have been the only one.
So, as my own mother had done, we went church shopping. We tried out Allin, and the First Church. I honestly figured I’d be the most comfortable with the Unitarian church, but was surprised to discover that I felt it was too relaxed. You can take the boy out of the Baptist, but not the other way around. Finally we came to St. Paul’s. We sat all the way in the back, with our little Ellie, and with an escape route planned if and when she began to wail. But I was there merely as a spectator; I had no intention of actually taking part in the church. I still saw St. Paul’s through the lens of my poor experiences back in Arkansas. There was something about the priest, though, that caught me off guard. On one occasion, Melissa had mentioned to him that we would not be attending the following week due to another commitment, to which he replied “well, that’s ok - you know you don’t have to come to church every week, and you don’t have to tell me anyway?” This was a stark change from the trigger happy judgement I was used to. Week after week of sitting in the back, we began to talk to other families. I started to realize that the people at St. Paul’s were not the sickeningly Conspicuous Christians I was used to - the ones that dress themselves up in Bible verses, proclaim that they are Good Christians, and then behave in a way that would have had Jesus flipping over tables. These were people who were not so different from me - they were people I actually enjoyed hanging out with - even not at church! It felt really strange telling my devoutly atheist friends that we were having friends from church over. Not church friends, mind you.
I still felt very much on the sidelines. The social component of the church seemed ok to me, if only there weren’t all that religious stuff too! Melissa had begun hanging out with a group of friends who had created a clandestine organization of women who would get together for social evenings, have wine, and pool together funds to donate to a charity picked out each month, donated under a pseudonym. As I had begun seeing the value in engaging in community, I was jealous. I wanted to be in a group like that. Some of you know that I am a Freemason. I became one initially because I wanted a non-religious outlet for my desire for service to the community. But there was a big catch - membership in Masonry is contingent on belief in a Supreme Being. I had long ago lost all faith that there was anything more to the Universe than genetic blends with uncertain ends. I had to face my own doubt, pare away the notions of the anthropomorphic Southern God of the Bumperstickers, and become open to rediscovering what it meant to have faith.
I would never, in a million years, have thought that not only would I set foot back in a church, but that I would gladly serve at one, alongside friends, in a place I call home. And I have you all and St. Paul’s to thank for that. Thank you.