Simple Story of Church
Church can be hard for me sometimes. There have been moments that made me cringe. I’ve watched folks walk out of a service in anger. I’ve heard folks use the pulpit to go off about a political pet peeve. I’ve seen church folks hurt others and exclude people for the most trivial of reasons. Worse yet, I think I’ve been guilty of all those things at one time or another. Which leads me to a recent Wednesday night service at Freedom Fellowship, a church nestled in the heart of the Butternut/Chestnut neighborhood.
For some reason, the weight of those frustrations felt very real to me that evening. I’ll admit that I probably didn’t have the best attitude going into the evening. and yet as I walked through the doors, something amazing happened. Church happened.
It started with big hugs from the folks who always seem to hang near the back of the church for the first few minutes. I’ve known a lot of churches that have greeters, but I don’t know of any place where the embraces feel more genuine than the back couple of pews where Bob Gomez and Terry St. Pierre await anyone who attends.
The endorphins from hearty hugs from Bob and Terry had splashed a smile on my face as I found a seat. The band was just finishing a pre-worship prayer, and when they began I got a wink from my wife, who has been helping with the singing at Freedom for about a year. As someone who grew up in a church without women in leadership roles and without instruments, I couldn’t help but to smile a little wider to be worshiping in a place in which my thoughts on ecclesiology were more widely held.
As I began looking for a seat, I noticed a picture of our friend Roy. He had sat in the row in front of me for as long as I’d been attending Freedom Fellowship until he passed over the summer. The picture was of Roy hugging someone, and his face exuded the joy for which he was known. It was a simple reminder that Roy had been here, and that he had affected us all.
During the second song, there was some kind of mix up with the powerpoint that led to a relatively new song being sung without help from the congregation for the first half or so. While I hate that feeling when I’m running the slides, I felt connected to the three guys who were heroically struggling to get the situation resolved. “I’ve been there,” I thought as Dr. Richard Beck and Paul Mathis helped someone I hadn’t yet met eventually troubleshoot the problem. What had started out as mostly the worship team singing ended with all of us joining to sing, which seemed theologically fitting somehow.
Next up, a friend I hadn’t seen since Juneteenth, found a seat in a pew a ways in front of me using a walker. He used to live with some of our partners in the Stevenson neighborhood, but had since experienced homelessness. It reminded me that this church was a place at which folks of all kinds of backgrounds felt comfortable worshiping. That point was made even more apparent by the large bearded and tattoo-covered man sitting in front of me and the half dozen bikers across the aisle.
Herb played the guitar well, as always, but he has become nearly legendary for his scripture reading. He never disappoints, and that night was no exception. With a loud and passionate voice, he announced the words of the Psalm powerfully. He’s the kind of Bible reader who makes you feel the emotion and gravitas of any verse.
A friend of mine plopped down beside me a few moments later. Zach’s the kind of guy with whom you can ask tough questions and know that he won’t judge you for voicing the idea nor for not having easy answers at the ready. His presence reminded me that no matter what questions I might have, that there is great worth in sticking it out with people you love.
The lesson was brought by a friend from the neighborhood. Tim is a fantastic person who is probably a lot better at living out the call to tell the Good News to everyone than most people I know are. Certainly he’s better at it than I am. His message was short and to the point, exhorting us to share Jesus’ love with others constantly. I love hearing deep theological ideas fleshed out by skilled orators, but sometimes I need to hear a simple message spoken plainly.
With a little time remaining before we were to go our separate ways, an elder suggested we spend a few minutes praying with each other. During these moments, a very kind woman whose kindness reminds me a lot of my own mother scooted towards me. She told me that she had been thinking and praying about some difficult concepts we’d talked about in the past. She hadn’t come down in one place or another yet, but she explained that God was stretching her through the process of studying and considering. She thanked me for the conversation that spurred her study; a conversation I didn’t even realize was a big deal to her. Her encouragement reminded me not only that a good conversation can have long-reaching effects, but that I need to do a better job of letting people know when they make a difference in my own life.
As we exited the building, I shook hands with the drummer. As a man with less rhythm than most, I have a great appreciation for people like Val who are musically gifted. It’s a blessing to me everytime Val plays the drums, because he had a very major health scare just a few short months ago. Everytime I see him, I remember what a gift it is to get to see him and his family, and that I shouldn’t forget to thank him for leading us in worship.
A family was trying to load up into a minivan across the street after church, so a friend and I went to try to help fix an onerous fold-down seat. Though neither of us are especially handy, he was able to extricate the seat from the stuck position. Afterwards, we chatted for a minute about his daughter’s health. Their family’s grace in a tough situation is inspiring, and made me want to do a better job of being a friend to them.
As I said at the beginning, church can be hard for me sometimes. But on nights like the one I just described, church can feel as natural and easy as anything in the world. A diverse bunch of people come together to try to love God and love the people around them a little bit better. And to me, whether that outcome is easy or difficult, it’s worth the effort.