When we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1993 with our four young sons we began our church search. Having been raised a Brooklyn Catholic in the 50’s and 60’s, I knew wanted something different. When my husband introduced me to the Episcopal Church in Hampton Bays, Long Island in the 80’s, I knew I had found my place. So, it was a no brainer to look for another Episcopal church here in Raleigh.
Coming from the predominantly “non-religious” Hamptons to the “very religious” South was a shocking contrast with churches on just about every intersection. It seemed that church was the hub of one’s social life as well as one’s spiritual direction. Folks went to church on all sorts of days and nights, not just on Sunday mornings. In fact, Wednesday nights seemed especially popular for church events thus, not a good night to schedule any meetings. Of course, in 1993 we did not find the plethora of Episcopal Church choices we might have found if we were Baptists.
We began with the church closes to our apartment at the time. It was stogy and rigid. I not connect at all with the priest and my kids threatened me with throwing up the next time I brought them there. We next ventured to a huge mega church on a highway. It was a former hotel turned into a church with as many classrooms as there had been hotel rooms and a theater like worship space with a full symphony orchestra, film screens, etc. This was actually a Baptist church but we decided that perhaps we were wrong in not trying some more Southern-like religions. We were not wrong, as this was definitely not the place for us.
When we happened upon a little, hidden off the road, cheaply built, rather unattractive, small Episcopal church we were not overly impressed. The senior warden (akin to CEO in an Episcopal parish) ran after us as we left a service and said, “Wait, please come back. We have a great rector. She is a Type A personality, full of energy and I am sure you would really like her. Please give us another try when she comes back from vacation in a few weeks.” We did and he could not have been more correct. This woman’s sermons blew us right out of the water. She spoke from the heart. She spoke from a place of pain, of experience, of wisdom, of incredible intuition and empathy, and with all the honesty and reality you could ever desire. She also had a searing sense of humor and witty sarcasm.
We stayed in this casual, comfortable church for the next 15 years and grew with it as it expanded, became part of a community, served on the vestry (the board of directors), taught Sunday school, prepared meals, ran retreats, started women’s groups and attended almost all events. We could attend services in anything from jeans and a tee shirt to fancier attire, but this was no fashion show. We actually became close friends with the rector who was the same age as me and had a son the same age as one of mine. They also became buddies. When the pivotal tragedy in our family struck in 1995 with the death of our two year old, this community of faith and this priest/friend were our only sustenance. Having lost a younger brother herself, she became a mentor and caretaker of our devastated, surviving sons. Sixteen years later, I can still remember the feeling of her tiny hand in mine, leading me to the grave and holding onto me as I lowered his ashes into the ground. She held my hand both physically and spiritually for the next two years. When I became pregnant with twins, she was with me throughout every stage of nine months and held her breath until their safe and healthy delivery.
We also became close with this priest’s parents, seeing them through their move to assisted living and happily visiting with them until their death. They acted as surrogate grandparents to our kids and were well loved by us all. On Election Day, 2008, our rector suffered a major stroke. Although she was the same age as me, she had a long history of poor health and repeated respiratory infections, pleurisy, surgeries, falls, allergic reactions, etc, that often left her homebound and not at church for weeks on end. So, although we were pretty used to her maladies, it seemed like this might be much more serious. Indeed it was, and she was forced to retire after a year of efforts at rehabilitation. Her farewell church service was most wrenching and we have missed her deeply. However, we no longer see her as she does not seem to enjoy or encourage our visits. With her departure, came my realization of just how attached we were to her as the center of our church.
What followed over the next two years were a series of “babysitter” priests of various sorts. Then came along a brilliant scholarly type Navy chaplain with perfect posture who stayed for almost a year. He was the sort of deep thinking, endlessly questioning, challenging everything you ever took for granted, type that for me was just what I needed. He also found our church in great disarray both financially and management wise. We were actually on the brink of financial collapse so he and the Senior Warden took hold, reeled in all expenses much to the chagrin of the parish and resolved all. It was an interesting time and I thoroughly enjoyed the probing Sunday school for adults that mostly revolved around the forward thinking Faith and Science themes along with studies of radicals like Borg and Spong.
After this scholarly priest left, we had another great woman come who was retired, Scottish, brilliant and a terrific storyteller. She was great fun and a great leader for the time she was permitted. In the meantime, we had many visits from our fabulously gifted bishop who is the quintessential preacher. I am so deeply moved by him that I have yet to sit through one of his rousing sermons without tears rolling down my cheeks, not so much from the content of what he is saying, but moreover from the sheer passion with which he says it.
During this time, parishioners were leaving the church in significant numbers. It was taking too long to find a permanent rector, programs were stalling and folks were losing patience.
Then, in a terrible error in judgment, the bishop chose an interim of the sort that was terribly ill fitting. This church was full of liberal champions of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, environmental stewards, believers in faith and science, and a welcoming beacon to all including LBGT’s at large. So, when this tight faced, sensibly shoed, rigid woman came it proved disastrous. Now, folks began leaving in droves rather than listen to this woman’s diatribes each Sunday. As she complained of her extended stay, she was, I believe as miserable to be in our midst as we were to have her. And for me, I could take no more. The teen programs had crumbled, I winced through sermons and began attending Sunday services less and less. It became clear to me that church shopping was calling me once more, before my now preteens got a message I didn’t want them to get.
And so, here I am six months into attending the fanciest, most upscale Episcopal Church in Raleigh, maybe even in all of North Carolina. It is a gorgeous structure built in the 1800’s with a new rector and a good friend of mine as his assistant. This priest is from New England and he is completely terrific in every way. He speaks from the heart and you can tell that it is a heart that has been hurt and revived. This is important to me. If you have not been to hell and back, then I don’t believe you can really preach the idea of heaven with a whole lot of credence. He is very, very smart and chooses the most pertinent and timely topics to teach about. He makes you think and squirm and feel a bit uncomfortable in order to grow. I love that. As for my friend who just recently decided to return to priestly duties, well, she was a great therapist before that which qualifies for quite a bit of deep understanding. She exhibits a real sense about people and has great empathy for their individual paths. I know all about her journey to the bottom of the well that also makes her a great, intuitive preacher. She is hysterically funny too, which doesn’t hurt.
Then, there is the Youth Group that is to die for. My kids actually love going to Sunday school and cannot wait to go to youth group on Sunday nights where they hang out with and eat with 60 kids their age as opposed to the six in our old church. They are also planning their fabulous ski trip for January with this stellar group! As the priest I spoke with said, “If your kids feel that way, how could you question for one moment whether you belong here?” So true!
So, why am I miserable?! The people! My, my, my – this is wealth on a level that I have not quite witnessed all in one place and it is southern wealth with all its trappings to boot. I am ashamed to say that I spend Sunday service distracted by the fashion show of cutting edge designer clothing, the absolute highest and most expensive stiletto heels, the exquisitely smocked little girls dresses that match the bows in their hair, the navy blue suits in size toddler three with ties that my kids would never have been caught dead in, even at age three! How much do those Christian Louboutin heels or the Bottega Veneta handbags set these ladies back? If I sit on the left side of the church, then I get to bear witness to the largest diamonds I have ever seen, adorning left hands on their way up to communion. Last Sunday, I sat next to the governor of North Carolina and she too had some very fancy shoes on! I do not feel good about my judgmental attitude. Believe me, I don’t. I am ashamed enough that I actually went to speak to this rector about it asking just what I am supposed to learn here and why I am so completely intolerant of this display of wealth. He let me have it too, saying that it was no better for me to have prejudices against the rich than against the poor. This is true and quite honestly, this is a very generous group of people who give freely of their treasure towards social programs and feeding the hungry.
So, just what is my problem? I had hoped for a new community of friends and that is not possible it seems. When I attended a women’s bible study I pictured six women sitting around a table. Instead, there were 40 women at one of the most fabulous homes I have ever seen that just happened to have 40 matching wrought iron chairs on the deck. Everything irritated me. The triteness of the pimento cheese and deviled eggs (do any Jews ever serve deviled eggs?), the fact that there were 39 frosted blond heads in the crowd and that I was the only brunette, the still perfect outfits and shoes even on a weeknight, etc. all ate away at me. And where, where, where are the African American women, the Asian women, all the “other” women?? The wine was great, the bible was still the bible, but I could not be present as I stewed. The most condescending “nicety” of all, “I don’t believe we’ve met??” in the most sweet southern accent was the most I got from some of the women. (“Nope, we have not met” was all I could think of but kept silent).
And then too, I signed up for Foyer group in the hopes of meeting some other couples. The idea of this type of group is that four couples are paired up and rotate having dinners once a month from one home to another. We went to the first one last week and I really thought I would suffocate from not breathing, before it ended. The couple whose home it was in, were very ditzy and silly although they seemed to be in their late 70’s. The next couple consisted of a man who never made eye contact with anyone in the room and actually made reference to “The Coloreds.” I nearly choked when he said that and I mentioned how shocking it was to us from the north when we saw “The Help” and realized what had really gone on in my actual lifetime, in the south. No one answered me. His wife sounded exactly like Minnie Mouse which made my hair stand on end each time she opened her mouth. She deferred to her racist husband for every nod. They spoke about their involvement in Habitat for Humanity though and see, this is where I become derailed and confused. This is where I need to learn that all is not strictly black or white. The third couple was hard of hearing, extremely wealthy and spoke about the phone company changing over the years and how many television stations there are now, for most of the evening. The dinner was plated with two pork medallions, squishy corn bread and some salad. I wondered, what if I had been a vegetarian or worse yet, a Jew?? Not possible I suppose. I swayed between complete rolling on the floor hysteria (especially whenever I glanced at my totally shocked husband) and utter outrage throughout the evening and when it was time to eat my predictable lemon square with Cool Whip I could barely contain myself much longer, so we left. I cannot imagine that I will be able to make it through three more of these dinners.
So, here’s the deal. Where to go? Tried another “inside the beltline” church yesterday just for kicks. There one finds a youngish priest who is also part of an Indie rock band and an author on the side. This is a big bustling church so God only knows and I am sure only He does know, how this guy does it all. His cockiness and attempts at humor during the sermon were annoying and not all that funny. No dice. I am not going back. Then, there is the “other” old Episcopal downtown church just a block away from the one we have been going to. It was the church built for the “colored folks” I believe because in that day I don’t suppose they were welcomed at the “white church.” Good grief.
But, this church has an ailing youth group, and two old white male priests, who many are waiting for to retire. I can’t wait like that. I just know that won’t cut it for me. So my search continues and it is a search inside of me as well because, somewhere I must learn greater tolerance and greater acceptance of all. This is no way to be a Christian after all.