We’ve started attending a different small church near our little oceanside haven. Absolutely nothing wrong with the previous one. Not a thing. But, now and then, it’s good to see what else is going on in the neighborhood. At times, even spiritually.
It’s a small church – probably just over a hundred folks on the roles. Weekly attendance is about 60-70. Most everything about it is typical of thousands of other churches in thousands of other small towns.
One physical thing that sets it apart from others we’ve attended is a 20 foot high wall of glass on one side, running the length of the sanctuary. As you sit facing the chancel area, you’re mindful of the Pacific Ocean – off to the right – on the other side of those windows. Peaceful most of the time. Storm-tossed at others. Like our lives.
The building is a little more than 60 years old. It’s beginning to show outward signs of prolonged seaside weather on wood and glass. Inside, the feeling is homey. Seating, carpet and fixtures also beginning to show the wear of time and use. Still comfortable, though, and quite conducive to worship.
But, if you had been there last Sunday, you would have seen something quietly moving. Quietly spiritual. A wordless act that could define why churches exist. An act many may have never known.
About 10 minutes into worship, a young man entered the rear of the sanctuary. His clothes were old and dirty – his hair long and badly matted. He probably hadn’t had a bath in some days. He likely was one of the homeless that have taken shelter in our building on recent, below-freezing nights. He wore a bulging backpack filled to more than capacity – probably holding all he had in the world.
Rather than slip into a pew near the rear as other homeless visitors had done, he walked straight-shouldered down the center aisle to wordlessly take a seat on the front row directly in front of the lectern. The distance between him and that lectern was about a dozen feet. He set his pack on the floor.
He didn’t stand when the rest of us were singing several hymns. He only uttered a few words once during the service which was a quick, quiet, seemingly friendly remark to the pastor.
The service continued. The first special moment came when the lay reader stepped down to hand the young man a hymnal and her program for the service. The second was when she stepped down again – before the pastor’s sermon – to take a seat next to the visitor. She stayed by his side for the rest of the service.
After the benediction, came the special moment all churches talk about but some never accomplish. The lay reader kept her seat as other members of the congregation stepped up to join her and engage the homeless young man in conversation. As we were about to greet the pastor at the rear of the sanctuary, I glanced back to see more than half a dozen members gathered around the still-seated visitor. By just their body language, the handshakes and the smiles, you knew the greetings were real and welcoming.
All this happened on a Sunday – a Sunday six days ahead of an inaugural ceremony in Washington D.C.. An inaugural most of us in this country – as you can tell from the popular vote in November – hoped would never happen. A lying, racist, bigoted, homophobic misogynist, surrounded by the most unqualified cabinet in history, would take the required oath of office to be our President. A man who would place his hand on a Bible to swear allegiance to our country and its laws. A man who has exhibited his love of wealth over good works – power over service to others – narcissism and bigotry over duty.
Quite a contrast to hold simultaneously in your mind. A self-loving, ego-filled, materialistic worshiper of wealth with his hand on a Bible, about to put a nation and world to risk. And a man from the streets walking into a small church to acknowledge an unseen god who accepts us because of our good works and not our possessions or station in life.
It was an interesting Sunday in our little seaside church. An opportunity to be part of a faith we profess but seldom see in practice.