So, I’m working on my manuscript for a book on belonging, and I’m writing about the rituals of going to church from an outsider’s perspective. Because that’s what I felt like my first year at a new church: an outsider, a newcomer, a loner.
I’ve been thinking about ways we can make our faith communities more hospital to outsiders. Last week, I wrote a friend on staff at my church to ask, ”Why do we print the Apostles’ Creed in the bulletin but not the Lord’s Prayer?” It’s awkward enough for a Catholic like me to say “trespasses” in a sea full of “debtors” but how on earth is someone who’s never uttered an “Our Father” not supposed to feel like a total dunce when everyone’s reciting it as spot-on as a teacher’s pet?
Since I’ve been attending church for the last year without my husband, I’m also becoming more sensitive to the solo church-goer’s perspective, how much harder the motivation is to show up and how it’s even harder to linger after the last hymn has been sung. And perhaps nowhere in the service am I more aware of my single status than in the passing of the peace.
You know what I’m talking about: Everyone turns to his or her daughter or mother or father or partner or roommate or friend with “Peace of Christ be with you” while you stand there looking forlorn waiting for round two. Only then is it your turn, outsider, only after the first string has been chosen.
It was one of the reasons I was looking forward to Rush coming to church with me this week. So there we are together, sitting in the pew, when I get to thinking about my manuscript again and what a real act of hospitality it would be for the insiders among us to first offer peace to someone with whom they didn’t come.
Seems to me like the kind of upside-down theology Jesus would have liked.
Apparently, though, I’m a better theologian in my head than in practice because when we push ourselves off the floor from confession and are invited to share the peace of Christ among us, the man on my right turns to his girlfriend and Rush on my left turns to the single woman beside him and there I am, again, handshake-less in the middle.
I could hardly stop what happened next.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I utter, audibly stupefied.
In fact, it was so audible that the woman Rush had just reached out to apologizes when she shakes my hand, glancing up at Rush like she stole him from me. As if he belonged to me. As if we didn’t belong to everyone else there.
I had to be kidding myself.
Going to church is hard enough for those of us who grew up in its ranks. We don’t need to make it any harder for those who come to us from another faith, or another church for that matter. In fact, if we’re being true to the Good News of God, maybe we are even called to give up the very privileges of belonging we’ve worked all these years to achieve.
I feel hurt, wounded, that Rush didn’t turn first to me in that moment. I think for a second I might even cry. But I am able to breathe and pray and remember the tenuous feeling of being an outsider. I don’t have to think back too hard.
When the service ends, I scoot by Rush and tap the young woman on her shoulder. She turns around and her eyes light up, as I stick out my hand.
“Hi, I’m Erin.”