For the past eleven years, when I’ve gone to church, it’s been to my dad’s church. When your father is a preacher, it’s pretty easy to decide where you’re going to go. But now that I live six hours away, I have the task of finding somewhere new to go. It made sense to start with a Presbyterian Church. Dad is a Presbyterian minister and I’ve been in that denomination for the past twenty years, at least. This brand of Christian has suited me well enough. I don’t jive with everything they believe, but it’s pretty hard to be a free thinker and buy 100% of any one denomination’s teachings. I always described being Presbyterian as having all the perks of being Catholic, and you get to use birth control.
I am not a closet anything. If I do it, I do it for the world to see. Hypocrisy is not a trait I want to possess or pass to my children. Someone once described me as being subtle like a shovel to the face, and sometimes that makes me a little hard to take. When I started looking for a church, I was a little bit worried. I didn’t want to sell out who I was, but I didn’t want to parade in like a wave of defiant obstinacy.
I started by e-mailing the three PCA* Presbyterian churches in the area. I knew one of the pastors at one of the churches. He was a Christian recording artist when I was a kid, and he stayed at our house once. Certainly that would be the perfect place. But when I visited, the sermon was an hour long apology to the congregation for firing one of the pastors. Apparently, money was tight and they decided to fire one of the preachers, the congregation went into hysterics about it, they hired him back and were now going to spend the next however long doing a total overhaul of the church complete with public ass kissing. Strike one.
I got a response to my e-mail asking for general information about the church from the second prospect. The pastor who responded let me know that their church was a “little different” and explained to me they liked to “emphasize the idea of the parishes of the past where people not only attended church together, but they farmed or worked together, went to the same schools and markets, etc. Obviously we don’t demand that children all attend the same school, or that adults work in the same businesses, but we do seek to do life together all week, not just on Sundays.” This was the tame portion of the e-mail. I’m sure this idea works well for them, but personally, if I’m going to join a cult, I’d like for it to be the kind with motorcycles and leather jackets. Strike two.
The third church didn’t have a regular church building. They met in a local dance studio. I knew someone who had dated the brother of the pastor’s wife, and they said that he was pretty laid back and cool. The boys and I decided to give this church a try. It had several things that we wanted. The dress code was casual (which we all like) there were lots of kids (which the boys like) and the service started at 10 so I figured we would be out early enough to beat the lunch crowd. I loved the first person I met, not only did she think I was a lot younger than I really am (“You have an eleven year old? Wow, you must have gotten started early!”), but they served real wine instead of grape juice at communion. But after a few visits, the laid back approach to worship started to feel too laid back to me. I’m a little bit OCD♦ and it is very distracting to me for children to get up and walk around during the service, not to mention the preacher seemed to just talk and never get to a point, or at least not in a concise way that held my attention. As much as I hated it: Strike three.
Now what? An old pastor of mine and a good friend of my dad’s, Charles McGowan, used to live in this area, so dad called him up and asked for suggestions. I laughed when I heard his answer. Charles said I should try a local First Baptist Church. I had this thought of typical Southern Baptist churches and I couldn’t believe that the ones here in Tennessee would be much different than those in Alabama. But dad insisted that they were a unique church that was very forward thinking and progressive. I hoped so. When we pulled up to church with the top off the Jeep, we were usually listening to Eminem, not praise and worship music.
I should tell you, that since I have been here, I’ve been very surprised by the subtle differences between this area and my home back in South Alabama. Not only am I the only single parent in either one of my boy’s school classrooms, but in six months, I have yet to meet another single parent. In fact, I haven’t even met anyone who is single. Walking into some back woods Baptist church as the only single parent this side of Nashville, wasn’t something I pictured as enjoyable. But I figured I’d give it a shot. If nothing else, they were located right across the street from this great doughnut shop, and since it would be our first time there, we could use the visitor parking.
Sunday morning started like a usual Sunday morning. I woke up at eight o’clock on the nose. The boys were still sleeping. As I lay in bed listening to the sweet sound of their little snores from across the hall, I thought about being proactive, getting up, running to the doughnut shop while they were still asleep, and then having a nice breakfast of doughnuts followed by showers and a leisurely time getting ready. Instead, I rolled over and went back to sleep. The great thing about no one expecting you at church, is that no one will be the wiser if you decide to stay in bed and worship in the Church of the Holy Comforter, and that’s what I intended to do.
About an hour later, Dozier came in my room, completely dressed and ready to go. “You said we could go to the Doughnut Palace before church.”
Damn it. I threw the covers back with a huge sigh. “Fine,” I said, “Let me get in the shower.”
I started the calculation of taking the church start time, deducting the drive time, deducting the time to buy doughnuts, deducting the time to eat the doughnuts and deducting the time it would take to get shoes and jackets on both kids and realized that I had 4.7 minutes to shower and get ready. When I got out of the shower, Scout was having a meltdown over his hair. He is growing his bangs out and likes for them to flip in a very particular way, so much that he walks around with his head held at a very certain angle at all times and flips his head around like a go-go dancer about every fourteen seconds. I try to get him to hold his head straight, but then the bangs part down the middle and hang over his forehead. According to him this makes his head “look like a stage.” “Whatever, Scout,” I told him. “Everybody has a bad hair day. Get in the Jeep.”
The wailing and moaning that went on during the Jeep ride covered everything from sucking hair to liking the last church just fine, but all feelings of woe were erased as we parked in front of Doughnut Palace. We were going to be late, but a promise is a promise, so we went in and got in line. We ate inside to avoid large amounts of sprinkles and confectioner sugar all over our clothes and washed it all down as quickly as we could. We raced across the street and found the singular open parking space right up front marked “Visitor Parking.”
Now, not only was I single, but I was late. But as I walked the children in and found the childrens church downstairs, I remembered some wise words of my father. You see, I consider myself to be very conservative, but I make it a point to avoid judging others. That makes me a very conservative individual with very liberal tendencies. Just because I wouldn’t do it, or think it’s wrong to do something, doesn’t mean that I would ever come down on someone else for doing something. That was alright back in the Presbyterian church, but now I was about to walk into the First Baptist sanctuary, and I wasn’t sure how they would feel about my beer drinking, tattoo having, divorced ways. But dad’s words helped me out, “If they don’t accept you for who you are, then you don’t want to go to that church anyway.”
The opening hymn had already been sung and it was a packed house. I found the one seat open, and slid into it just as the preacher told all of the first time visitors to remain seated while the rest of the congregation stood up. Before I knew it, Christine appeared above me like the Cheshire Cat hovering above Alice. She must have been in her early 80s or maybe her late 70s, and thank goodness she had good dental hygiene, for although she had pleasant breath, she had no concept of personal space. She introduced herself to me like only a close talker can, and had me sort of pinned down to the pew as she leaned in over me. After a short eternity, Christine left and I opened my hymnal.
I was soon lost in the teenager in front of me. His body was amazing. His torso was that of a model, as was his style. He sat next to his stylish, yet conservative parents. I wondered how they had raised this metro sexual in rural Tennessee. He was wearing Versace glasses! The detailing on his blue jeans was exquisite. I sat there wishing my vision was better so I could read the type on the buttons. I would love to get those jeans for Dozier (*that’s* how you raise a metro sexual in rural Tennessee). Before I knew it, the sermon was starting.
I was getting excited. The preacher had an outline. He mapped out the points he was going to discuss. He was clear and concise. This was going to be great! And then he began the 45 minute hell and brimstone dissertation on the evils of alcohol. Each proclamation that a single sip of the devil’s nectar would send one barreling to hell was answered with a shout of “Amen!” or “Preach it, Brother!” He outlined the satanic practice of selling wine and beer in stores while the congregation hooped and hollered for him to raise the volume even more.
I was trying to be open minded. I decided that when the sermon was over that I would ask him if they were like the Baptist back home that said you shouldn’t drink, but then you always ran into them at the liquor store buying “cooking wine.” If he was a friend of Charles McGowan, that question shouldn’t offend him and he should answer me honestly. Then I had a thought. Maybe I was at the wrong church†. Sure, I had asked dad three times to clarify that I was going to the right place, but maybe, just maybe, there had been a mistake. So I decided that when the sermon was over, I would ask the pastor if he knew Charles McGowan, and then I would ask him if he really believed all that crap about going to hell if you drank a sip of alcohol. I was cheered back up and optimistic, although I was a bit sad when the family in front of me slipped out during the invitational. I was hoping to ask that kid where he had gotten those jeans.
As the last hymn began, I found someone pulling on my hand, as the whole congregation squished up in the middle aisle holding hands and singing. Thank goodness it was a normal looking young woman beside me. What if I’d been seated next to a nose picker or someone with pink-eye? I made a mental note to slip out during the invitational like the people in front of me if I ever visited here again.
I missed the line to shake hands with the preacher and slipped back around to the tail end of the line. He had been joined by his wife at the door to hug and smile at the members. As I reached him, I extended my hand, introduced myself and asked him if he knew Charles McGowan. He lit up a smile, took my hand and responded; “Now that name sounds familiar.”
His wife interjected, “Are you sure you aren’t thinking about Terry McGowan? We know a Terry McGowan.”
He continued, “Did you fill out a visitor card and put it in the offering plate?”
Yes, damn it, I did. I even wrote referred by Charles McGowan, which Reverend Hitler here obviously has never met. “Yes, sir, if you will excuse me, I need to collect my children.” I was in the wrong church!
I couldn’t walk to the Jeep fast enough. “Get in, boys, let’s get out of here.”
As Scout shut the door and began to buckle his seat belt, he chirped, “I like this church, Mama, let’s go here!”
“We’ll talk about it later, baby, Mama needs a drink.” And with that, we raced past the sign that read “You are entering the mission field,” pulled out onto the highway and began our journey home.
*PCA – The Presbyterian Church is separated into two groups. The Presbyterian Church of America is the more conservative branch and the PCUSA, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is the more liberal of the two.
♦OCD – although I have never actually been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I do categorize my canned goods and alphabetize them within each category.
† I was, indeed, in the wrong church. After a good belly laugh at my expense, my dad called Charles McGowan and got the name of both the correct church and the pastor. We’ll see how that goes next Sunday.