Another Park(ed car), Another Sunday


It was deja vu all over again. I didn't go to church today. As was the case last week, I did drive to two churches. I just didn't go inside either of them. I can only imagine what character flaws of mine this reveals. Perhaps someone trolling the net for heretics will read this blog entry and let me know.

I woke up early enough to make it across the Golden Gate Bridge to a 9:30 service at a progressive Christian church in Sausalito. I've never been to this particular church, but in my mind, this isn't just any old progressive church--it seems like almost a kind of flagship of progressive Christianity, since its pastor is a leading figure in the progressive Christian movement. Before going, I checked its web site to get directions, and for some reason I decided to read the church newsletter that was posted there. There I discovered information about a complication in making the trip; it seemed that a nearby hotel, whose parking lot had been available to church attenders for some time, had decided to revoke access privileges for churchgoers to the parking lot. Parking in Sausalito is rarely an easy proposition and never free, so this really was a complication. The newsletter offered an alternative parking suggestion--going to a city lot on the waterfront down the hill. In addition, it encouraged creative transportation, such as carpooling or bicycling to church. It was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny, and I imagined myself taking a pleasant bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to visit this church, but I wasn't feeling quite that adventurous this day. So I got in my car and drove, already feeling less than enthused. Any obstacle, no matter how slight, can serve as an excuse to scare me away from these things, and I already had found one such obstacle before the trip had even begun.

As it turned out, when I got to Sausalito, I discovered the town to be a hive of activity. I encountered many bicyclists on the road, all decked out in their fancy bike jerseys. I wasn't sure if I had stumbled on some kind of group ride event, or if it is just the case that everyone bicycles in Sausalito on beautiful Sunday mornings, and maybe everyone who does so wears a fancy jersey. (I hate wearing bike jerseys, by the way, because they are all designed for people who are way thinner around the waist than I am.) In any case, the reluctance I was feeling was increasing as I drove past the parking lots. I passed a right turn that I couldn't see a street sign for--was that where the city lots were located? Discouragement was now officially complete. So why was I there? What was impelling me to go on these pointless drives? I found a side street where I could turn around, and went back the way I came, over the Golden Gate Bridge, paying $5 at the toll plaza.

My carbon footprint got a little bigger with that big waste of gasoline. Since I bicycle and take public transit to work, I tell myself I can give myself some leeway occasionally and waste a little fuel, as I did today. Driving around in the sun, listening on my car radio to intellectually stimulating public radio programs like To the Best of Our Knowledge and Philosophy Talk was, in essence, my church service for the morning.

Bur the morning was far from over. I briefly stopped home to use the bathroom. It was 9:30--plenty of time to make a drive from there to the same Presbyterian church where last week I had driven to but not gone inside. The service was at 10:30. I made my way out the door. More carbon for me to waste.

The church is located in a neighborhood where parking is often difficult, but I found street parking just a block away. Once again with respect to this church, the parking gods seemed to be smiling on me, but I knew in my heart I wouldn't go in. After walking down the main neighborhood drag and visiting the bookstore I had discovered last week, I decided it was time to go home.

I walked right past the front of the church at about 10:28. A silver-haired woman with a cane was slowly making herself to the front entrance as I walked by. A young woman came outside to greet her, holding what may have been programs for the service, and called her by name. Somehow this friendliness between them reinforced my decision not to go in. I suddenly felt like a true outsider.

It hit me that there are two things that scare me about visiting a new church for the first time. I am scared that the congregation will not be friendly to me; and I am scared that the congregation will be friendly to me.

As for the first fear--a church is, after all, community, where the people know one another; and partaking of their services as a visitor who is only checking things out makes me feel like an interloper. It makes no sense, but there you are. I felt that way as I watched the young greeter speak to the woman with the cane. They knew each other--and I'm an outsider. That is why I like to have someone along for moral support when I visit a church for the first time; then I have the comfort of someone to lean on and share my discomfort with. I think that perhaps all my years of being a Quaker has contributed to this feeling; Quakers are so typically indifferent to visitors at their meetings, and I always am in the habit now of expecting not to be particularly welcomed when I visit a worship service. I am always pleasantly surprised when that isn't the case, but that sense of dread of somehow not being welcomed stays with me.

And yet a second thing that scares me is the exact opposite of the first one. I am scared of the congregation being friendly to me. Part of me likes the idea of slinking into church in a back pew, quietly not being noticed. For one thing, if I don't like it, I can just slink right back out when it is over. I don't have to deal with the awkward and uncomfortable situation of exchanging pleasantries with people who are welcoming one who didn't particularly like what they saw. If I am just visiting as a process of exploration or curiosity rather than as part of any intention of finding a community to join, then I feel almost like I am just toying with the church, having intruded into a community that I will never become a part of. And on top of all of that, an innate shyness and reserve in new social settings comes to play when speaking with strangers at a church.

It is all the more complicated when I visit a church from a denomination I have never experienced before, which is the case with the Presbyterians. What are the unknown conventions of the church and its form of worship that I know nothing about?

Lack of certainty about what I am getting myself into, lack of certainty about how welcomed I'll be, lack of certainty about how I even want to be welcomed, lack of certainty about whether the service will be a little too orthodox and thus rub the scars of my fundamentalist past, and maybe just plain feeling a little funny about being inside a Christian church at all. These feelings are what often keep me from going inside new churches. Yet something draws me out of my house on Sunday mornings. I often want to experience a religious service on a Sunday morning. But then something also keeps me away.

But I didn't really mind what happened this morning. As I said, I enjoyed the nice weather and listening to the radio--today, that included discussions about the morality of war and what it means philosophically to be an autonomous human being. Oh yes, and the weather--did I mention it was beautiful? Somehow, this hesitation, this going-and-then-not-going, was okay for me today. What will happen on future Sundays is anybody's guess.


Ruth said...

I heard an item on the radio here in GB a few months ago that said that more and more people are choosing to attend cathedrals rather than local churches - so that they can remain anonymous.

I lurked at the back of our church yesterday as my little daughter was, well, let's just say that she was distracting the congregation and that her voice carries well. I noticed two or three people leave the church during the final hymn - not wanting to engage with anyone just yet.

I didn't attend church for several months when we moved here. I waited till Palm Sunday, when I knew that the church would be full and no-one would notice me.

JP Manzi said...

Boy, have I been there and done that. There are many things in life I do not think twice about doing but for entering a church for the first time is one hell of a nerve racking experience. How did I get over it? Just went in and dealt with the feeling of an IBS attack coming on. Trust me, the thoughts going through your head are far worse then the actual experience. Good luck on the search. It sure is not easy, especially when, if your like me, highly critical of organized religion.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Mystical, the going-not going is surely OK. What can I say? Maybe next time you will go in.

I suppose it's wrong of me, and I don't mean to belittle your experience, but your post made me smile, because I saw something of myself in you.

You must admit that the story has its humorous side.

Ann said...

This is so true to life of many - even clergy!