Since I’m stuck in Northern Virginia over the weekend, and since I hadn’t feasted at God’s Table in weeks, I knew that it was an absolute requirement to get to church this morning. I looked on the web site for the Diocese of Virginia to find a parish in this town, and I contacted the clergy there earlier this week. At that point, I didn’t know whether I’d have a rental car, so I was asking about potential transportation help. I ended up in two separate lively email conversations, one with the rector and one with the associate. Thankfully, I did end up with a rental car, but both clergy provided me with names and phone numbers of parishioners who would make sure I got to church this morning.
The service was Rite II at 9:30am, and I got to the church grounds at about 8:30. This parish sits on ten acres of land – and in Northern Virginia, that land is super-duper-uper valuable – and the property is absolutely gorgeous. The church building sits at the top of the hill, with a winding driveway back down to the street. The grounds in front of the building include an outdoor chapel, a bunch of picnic tables, a big playground for the preschool, and plenty of birds and squirrels and other little beasties. It was peaceful and quiet – even being less than a mile from a major highway – and definitely felt like a thin place. I took lots of pictures of the things that spoke to me, and my spirit was fed just from mindfully walking around the grounds and noticing what was around me.
The facility is tremendous as well – two floors, with the nave and parish hall on the second floor. Since the building is on a hill, the front doors to the nave and parish hall are only a little above ground level, and there is good wheelchair accessibility to these. The back doors enter onto the first floor, where the preschool classrooms are. The classrooms are full of bright colors and energy, even with the lights off and no little children at play. There are many photos and pictures adorning the walls within the building, and letters and plaques revealing the parish’s participation in a number of outreach missions.
The last folks from the early service were talking with the clergy when I made my way up to the nave, and the altar guild was preparing for the middle service. I took the time to explore the nave and take more photos of the beautiful banners, the incredible organ, and the layout of this unique and inspiring worship space. In time, I was able to shake hands and introduce myself to both priests, and they both exclaimed in delight that I’d been able to join them. After that, though, none of the lay members of the congregation greeted me. There were signs before you enter the nave asking you to keep reverent silence, but I noticed several hushed conversations. This was okay – none of them were distracting or irreverent – but there was definitely a feeling of an “in” crowd and, well, the others. The only nametags in evidence were those that had titles on them – Greeter, Acolyte Master – and none for ordinary folks. My parish at home has stick-on nametags in baskets at the end of each pew, and absolutely everyone wears one. You can buy a special magnetic nametag, but if you lose it or forget to bring it with you, then you make a stick-on one as soon as you get to your pew.
There is a definite message that the nametags give, and I didn’t realize what it was until I found myself an outsider. When nobody wears a nametag, you feel like an outsider – it feels like everyone knows each other, and you’re the only one who doesn’t know anybody’s name. The special titled nametags actually intensify this feeling. You see the VIPs with their nametags, and they greet and talk with everyone else who they already know by name, and you definitely know you’re on the periphery, and not one of the cool kids. But when you walk into a place where everybody wears a nametag – and you’re invited to make one for yourself, too – then you don’t feel like such an outsider. You can greet other folks by name, or at least start matching the names to the faces without feeling like a dork for not being able to remember who goes with which name. So I’ve come to the powerful conclusion that a key part of the ministry of Christian hospitality has to come down to those blasted nametags. (Dangit.)
While I was welcomed very warmly by the two priests – who, after all, had gotten an opportunity to get to know me a little bit through email over the week – I didn’t feel much of a welcome from the parishioners until the service ended. One of the most crucial jobs for a rector of a parish is to make sure that every last person in the parish knows that it is their job to exercise the ministry of hospitality. That’s right – hospitality is not a ministry of trained ushers and greeters – hospitality is the responsibility of every single person in the parish. Of course, for those of us who are introverts, we close our ears when we start to hear these words. We don’t want to have to reach out of our comfort zone and say hello to someone we’ve never seen before. But it’s our job. God is there to comfort us, but God never calls us to be comfortable. (Dangit.)
The service was lovely, as I would expect any BCP service to be. The music director is clearly skilled. I don’t know whether it is the worship space – which is carpeted, has hangings lining the ceiling, and is surrounded with a number of banners on the walls – or the people, but I found the singing lacking in joyful noise unto the Lord. And I was embarrassed when I talked with both priests after the service, to have them both say they could hear my voice from the altar. Yikes! And I know I splatted some notes and jumped to the wrong verse on the second line of hymns. Ah well.
After the service, I saw one lady sit down to the side of the narthex. She hooked her cane next to her chair and closed her eyes. I recognized the expression on her face – I don’t want to miss everything, but I’m so tired of feeling this way. I’ll just sit here and watch everything, so I don’t feel left out. – and I knew that she was running out of spoons. When she opened her eyes again, I walked over to her and introduced myself. Now, if you know me, you’ll know that this is completely out of character. I just don’t go up to strangers and talk to them, even in a church. I know, I was just talking about hospitality, and here I am saying I don’t do that. So I realized it was time for me to extend hospitality, even though I wasn’t the one in my parish home. (Dangit. 🙂 )
I said that I recognized the expression on her face, that she looked miserable. She explained that she’d just gotten out of the hospital, and that this was her first time back to church, and she raised both hands and gave a cheerful, “Yay!” I grinned and yayed right back at her. We commiserated about things like church, that are wonderful and that feed us, but that extract a cost from our bodies. She is waiting for a diagnosis, and we talked about how hard that is. No matter how awful the disease is, we just want a name for it, something to call it, so that it doesn’t seem so big and vague and scary. She would like her dis-ease to be called “GeorgeClooney-ism,” and I said I’d sign up for that one, too. We shared a laugh at how illnesses and diseases and syndromes can’t have nice names like that. As we chatted about pain and hope and hurt and prayer, I saw her eyes light up and her whole face smile. When I stepped away from her, I touched her arm and wished her the very best over the coming days, and she smiled back at me. Just a moment later, her husband returned and helped her up. It lifted every part of me to spend those few moments in conversation with her, and I think it helped both of us to find someone who understands the world of chronic pain and the toll it extracts from our bodies.
So this morning, I was blessed. I was blessed to be welcomed into a congregation in a strange place, invited to feast at God’s table, wrapped up in community with my brothers and sisters in Christ. And I know I’m tremendously blessed by my parish family back home. I hope that you find blessings today, because they are all around you, just waiting to be noticed. Peace be with you, my friend!