mystery worshipper report – week 1

medium_2fa730d1f86c93abc739My bride and I have begun “church shopping,” a phrase I personally loathe, but for which I don’t have a good substitute. Last week, we were farewelled from the parish where we’d worked and lived for the last six years. People asked where we were moving to, and the answer was “We don’t know.”  I would tell people that God calls people to places, and God calls people from places. We are obeying the command to go forth, and now we wander through the wilderness, experiencing many ways of worship, until we come finally home.

Today, we visited Good Samaritan Episcopal Church for worship. However, we didn’t really accomplish the mystery piece because…

  1. I was there in my formal habit. That makes it harder to be a mystery worshipper.
  2. I am 4’9″ tall (about 1.4m), and my lovely bride is about 6′ tall (about 1.8m). We make rather a memorable impression as a couple.
  3. I was a member, regular worshipper, and vestry member at Good Sam in the 90s.

So, you see, I could never be a mystery at Good Sam, which is why I worshipped in my formal habit–it was pointless to try to be undercover!  Ship of Fools owns the “Mystery Worshipper” format, so I will write this post as a narrative and a reflection, rather than in their question & answer form.

Good Samaritan is located in Virginia Beach, across the street from the Virginia Wesleyan College campus.  The neighborhood immediately surrounding Good Sam has a lot of poverty, alcoholism, and homelessness.  When I was still a regular worshipper there in the 90s, crime was rampant as well. Just beyond all of this lay more affluent neighborhoods, and perhaps the most expensive private school in Hampton Roads.

In its history, Good Sam has never been large and affluent enough to support a full-time priest. Knowing they don’t have a lot of cash, Good Sam uses the other things it has in abudance–land, and a building that can be accessed and used. And so the building is used! In addition to twelve-step groups and scouting groups, Good Sam houses a neighborhood tutoring program run by Virginia Wesleyan, a summer preschool for disadvantaged children, a community garden for the neighborhood, and is getting ready to break ground on a new Family Life Center through a partnership with nearby Enoch Baptist Church. While they may not have funds, Good Samaritan uses the gifts it has to serve the community.

The worship space at Good Sam is casual and comfortable. The nave is carpeted, and the chancel area has a contrasting color. The pews are cushioned and are in rows, but diagonally rather than perpendicular to the aisle (like the seats on a bus). This gives a stronger sense of community, of drawing together for worship, than the typical two rows facing forward. There are casual light fixtures, and even ceiling fans.

In harmony with the worship space, the congregation was dressed casually and comfortably. Just about everyone was in pants (but not I. or my bride.), and a few were even wearing shorts.  I remember years ago, there was a family whose son was on a high-level soccer team. On the Sundays when it was possible to get to church, he would be there in his game clothes–everything except his cleats and shinguards.

Before the service began, people were milling around, preparing the space, rehearsing music, and greeting each other. After about ten minutes of effusive greetings and introductions, we chose a pew and sat, and we were able to take in the space and sit in (our own) quiet to prepare ourselves for Eucharist.

The Holy Eucharist used the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and we sang both traditional hymns and more contemporary songs. Given modest resources, the contemporary songs were led by a singer and guitarist; the hymns were accompanied by a MIDI recording and a trumpet descant. All music was accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments, played with joy and gusto by congregants from two group homes.

Worship was reverent and unfussy, falling into the “broad church” stream of the Episcopal Church. There were a gospel procession, signs of the cross and the triple cross, an altar and Communion rail, an aumbry and tabernacle lamp.  The crucifer had an obvious developmental or neurological disorder, and he was alight with joy as he performed his role. The group home members sometimes made sounds, which went unremarked.

The sermon today, preached by the rector, continued the calls to compassion and service that we’d just heard in the readings (Elijah in Zarapheth, and Jesus raising the widow’s son from death). It was compelling and held our interest. The only critical comment I would make is to slow down a little and take a breath.  🙂

The schedule on Sundays, for Good Samaritan, is 9:30am worship, 11:00 (immediately following) brunch, and 1:00 (ish) Christian formation. Today’s formation was replaced by an acted-out play of the Widow of Zarapheth story during worship.  We stayed for brunch, which was lovely.

Overall, I felt love, joy, and healing this morning during worship. I have needed a place to find love and healing… and I wasn’t really expecting such joy. As we drove home, I felt great peace, a powerful sense of well-being.  I would settle my heart in this congregation without hesitation, but I am not the only one making the decision. My bride needs to know that the community she worships with welcomes transgender persons as the beloved children of God, that she won’t be seen as a freak for being a six-foot-tall woman. She needs to feel safe and loved and whole. I know we will talk, and that we will have more to reflect on once we have a second church for comparison.