Church on Sundays

Every Sunday morning, our family would get up early, put on our “nice” clothes and head to church. Even if you felt sick or were bone-tired from staying up Saturday night at a sleep over or watching reruns of Elvis movies, you still had to go to church. Church was mandatory, not optional. As a kid, I really didn’t mind because I loved church. For about six years, from the time I was four until ten, we lived within walking distance of Canterbury Methodist Church, a grand and imposing structure where I spent countless hours learning Bible stories and playing sweaty rounds of Red Rover at vacation Bible school in the summer. I also sang in the church choir and donned silly outfits and face paint for numerous plays that dramatized educational tales from the Old and New Testament: Mary and Joseph searching for a room at an inn, the manger scene of Christ’s birth, Noah and the flood. Church was like a second home to me and I often felt a swelling in my chest as I sang or saw the morning sunlight filter through one of the lovely stained glass windows.
Sunday school met for an hour prior to the formal sermon; all the kids would gather by grade and listen to some volunteer teacher tell stories aimed at teaching us to be good Christians. There we’d sit, a semi-circle of freshly washed faces hanging on our teacher’s words and looking very angelic. But occasionally there’d be a poke, a pinch, a tug of someone’s hair and all the tales of Jesus’ kindness would be forgotten. A kid’s attention span is short, after all.
Once Sunday school was done, a flock of hyper and screaming pupils would make its way to the main sanctuary to find moms and dads and pack into a wooden pew for an hour, sometimes more, of signing and sermonizing. I’d eagerly look at the program to see which songs had been chosen for the week, having a penchant for some of the heavier hymns like Rock of Ages and Onward Christian Soldiers. When Amazing Grace was on the calendar, I’d feel a tingle and knew it would be a good day. On cue, the congregation would rise to sing and sit to listen to the preacher as he thrashed about in the pulpit. The sermon was my least favorite part of the hour because I found it hard to follow all of the twists and turns of the lecture and would easily lose focus, sometimes laying my head in my mom’s lap if she’d allow it, slightly tired and bored, eager for the next song so I could stand again and try to stay in tune. But I’d watch the adult’s faces and see how they’d nod and smile at the minister’s words. Somehow, they understood his ramblings. During the weekly sermons, my mom sat pretty and rigid in the pew; she was shy about raising her voice in song, having been told numerous times by my dad that she was “tone deaf”. Having been raised in a strict Baptist family, she knew the rules of church etiquette.
My dad endured our religious life, too, but he was harder to read than my mom. I am sure he was listening, but there was one foot always bouncing on the floor as he watched the choir and the preacher deliver his message from his lofty perch, glaring down at the sinner s before him. A charge of nervous energy emanated from my dad and he jittered in his seat. I often watched my father, too, for he had a strange, addictive habit while in church. Inevitably, during the hour of singing and sermons, my dad would take one of the 3×5 pew cards and begin to crease and fold it. He would bend the card into smaller and smaller geometrical dorms, squares and rectangles, reinforcing each edge with swift and hardy strokes. By the end of the hour, he would have a tiny, tightly packed square of paper, worn soft and thin by so much worry, and he’d unconsciously stuff it into his pocket. Sometimes I’d ask to keep the tiny paper forms and I’d marvel at their precise creases and the intricate folds. I’d hold this small relics and wonder about the nervous energy radiating off my father and whether the paper-habit helped him to concentrate more on the preacher’s message or allowed him to eliminate it all together, the only thing commanding his rapt attention was a bit of pulp.
For us, church was not reserved solely for Sundays, either, and we often visited during the week for pot-luck dinners. These meals were held in the gym, where a host of women would bring in covered dishes filled with surprises. At the buffet, someone would hand you a paper plate, and you’d meander down the long table, peaking under lids and often trying to determine just what was inside. Many nights I was forced to endure a sad tuna casserole and endless arrays of pasta salad, usually drowning in mayonnaise, a staple food of the 1970s. If there was something good in the line- up, you had to act fast. Nothing is sadder than getting to a deep dish of macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes only to discover they’d been picked clean by the greedy mouths in line before you.
In the south, church is a hugely social event, a time when the congregation would gather, say their silent and communal prayers, and then meet up in the conference room for chit-chat, coffee in Styrofoam cups with powdered creamer and stale, but somehow still delicious donuts. I understood early that it was important to go to church, to be seen by others doing the right thing but also learned that many churchgoers simply went through the motions. Heading home from services I’d hear my mom or dad rant about so-and-so and his underhanded business dealings or some woman’s haughty airs and ill-behaved children. I deduced that church was often a place where people put on a good face but that it was one they could quickly remove by Sunday night. A few hours in God’s house bought one the right to head off for another week of “real” life.
Our church service followed a reliable formula; each week was basically the same as the last except the message and the song selection changed depending on the ecclesiastical season. The congregation filed in, donning suits and dresses, and gave an hour or two of their time and ten percent of their income to this ritual of devotion. If the minister went too far beyond his sixty minutes, there’d be an audible shuffle of feet, a round of coughs and visible bodily twitches to alert him to the fact that his time was up. It was a tacit agreement; the congregation would behave and pay its respects by showing up and listening attentively but limits had to be set. The relationship between parishioners and preacher was largely business, not spiritual. At noon, when the bells would ring to mark the hour and the end of the Sunday sermon, families would meander out into the sunshine, pile into their cars and head home to begin another week. Perhaps the words and ideas of the preacher still echoed in their ears but I am guessing they were quickly forgotten once the afternoon football games began on television.

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About waggingmytale

I am an English teacher, writer, animal lover, and aspiring athlete. If you stop by and read or "stumble" upon my blog, please leave a comment and say hello. It's nice to know who visits :-) Namaste!
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One Response to Church on Sundays

  1. Walt says:

    Brings back memories of long hours spent on Sunday as a kid wishing to be able to go home and play! Mine was a much more open and liberal congregation with my dad for a time as pastor. But that could work against me (as a kid!) – the sermons were not necessarily time limited, a period of announcements and concerns from the congregation could be interminable, and the lunch afterwards was often an obligation and a death sentence for the prospect of an afternoon to play with my friends!

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