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Losing religion in American churches


Much of my life is a quest to answer a question.  If, as so many of us believe, you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual, what do you have to be?  I can pinpoint the moment this obsession began: an old woman passed me some strawberry jam then burst out, “We goes to a real nice church, and I aint meanin’ that nigger church!”  Let me explain.

I was nineteen and walking across Arkansas.  Why?  Sort of a sample the simple life kind of thing, like Paris Hilton without the funds.  I wore a t-shirt, jeans, and backpack.  My weather forecast was way off; a churning sky looked ugly and angry.  As raven-hued cloud-mass cracked open and hailed, I ducked inside a church.  Instantly, every eye was on me.  The pews were white; the members were not. 
Worship reignited when Reverend King broke into rhyme: “On one side of town, folks drivin’ Cadillacs; on the other side of town, folks havin’ heart attacks; all over town, folks need to know the facts.  Jeeesus is my A; all I ever need.  Jeeesus is my B; beautiful to see….”

Yes, he made it all the way to Z, without missing a beat, and (taking a cheap shot at Arkansas) without missing a letter.  The room was small; the crowd was large (and numerous).  “Da King” started dancing, the audience started stomping, and everybody started sweating.  We sang “Amen” over and over, until all dripping bodies meshed arm in arm into a swaying trance.

Afterwards, people dispersed.  Every visitor was invited to someone’s house for supper—except the one lone white guy, who almost got his groove back.  A rucksack suddenly seemed heavier.

Next morning, across the railroad tracks, on the other side of town, with country music playing, over ham, eggs, and biscuits, I sat in stone silence as the guesthouse owner offered up her religion and even less subtle racism.

With a bruised but resilient soul, I struck out across the cotton fields.  The scenery was like a page ripped from John Grisham’s A Painted House.  A rising sun lit up the dewdrops, chasing away my darker thoughts.  Abruptly, I came across a blazing red cardinal, flopping on the ground.  Clasping her in hand, I unsnagged a thorn from the left wing.  The tiny breast heaved up and down as her racing heart threatened to explode.  I released her to hop, hop, and fly away.  Little did she know that my heart was also endangered, or that she had restored my spirit’s ability to fly.

Looking upward, I addressed an audible “Thanks” to the general management.

Ever since that day, I’ve preferred to take my spirituality with as little religion as possible.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way it’s usually served.

Years later, I stumbled into a very different church.  Its stained glass and Celtic symbols had graced the British Columbia skyline since 1891.  To the right was a Tudor-style pub serving up cheap breakfast; to the left was a used-condom-and-hypodermic-needle-studded park with a floral wreath marking a recent murder site; across the street was the Elizabeth Fry Society, providing shelter for women in transition from drugs, beatings, prostitution, and incarceration.  I ascended steep granite steps as a man in black shirt and white collar extended a pink fleshy hand.

The lobby featured framed scrolls listing members living, dead, and (being Presbyterian) somewhere in-between.  Campbell, McDonald, McKnight—I was just catching on to the ethnic trend when a guy strode past me sporting a red ponytail and kilt.

After worship, everyone gathered in the fellowship hall for strawberry tea and Scottish shortbread.  (I was reminded of the Arkansas jam and that the English even call these cookies biscuits.)  Most of the congregation were either elderly men or divorced moms and I met one of each.  A flustered but aggressive woman downloaded on me the many reasons she hated her ex, whom she described as a “typical male.”  Then, after reciting her vast martial arts pedigree, she explained in bone-crunching detail what she’d do to any man who tried to assault her.

Weary from assuming submissive, non-threatening postures, I sat down by a white-haired, soft-spoken member of my own gender.  He began talking.  Most of what he said was enjoyable until he landed on the subject of “those damn Americans.”  When he paused for air and asked me where I was from, I swallowed hard and mumbled, “California.”  Long awkward silence.  For the first time in my life, I fully appreciated the need for brightly lit exit signs in public buildings.

Sometimes church sucks.  Most people know this, so my dose of bad religion may not seem like divine epiphany, but God often speaks to the individual like a Horse Whisperer as well as to the multitudes from thundering Sinai, because frail and nervous humans and horses can be startled rather than guided by a booming voice.  The soft glow of the exit marker was all the light from above I needed. 

Glancing back as I descended the outside church stairs, I couldn’t help thinking that the snow-capped mountains looked far more inspiring than the bronze-capped steeple.  For thousands of years, lofty peaks and alpine forests filtered sunlight and inspired awe without the coordinated effort of stained glass.  I saw little reason why they should not continue to do so. 

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