This past semester, I completed an ethnographic project on a Sacred Harp singing group in the Boston area, motivated by one central question: what is it about this old-timey style of music with its archaic language, conservative Protestant theology, and downright depressing subject material that has managed to hook a bunch of largely progressive folks of all ages, many of whom have left evangelical Christianity behind and some of whom aren’t even Christian at all? And so, yes, I did my good participant-observer ethnographer anthropologist rigamarole, but really what I wanted to know was– why do I keep coming back?
And the question popped up for me again this winter as I went back home to south Georgia for the holidays and attended services at my home church for about a month. I’ll admit it was probably the longest stretch of regularly attending church that I’ve had since graduating from college, thanks to a combination of not knowing many people in my new Boston surroundings, being deterred by long distances to walk in the increasingly cold weather, and having a series of theological thunderstorms in my head. And, as has been true since I first interrupted a Sunday School lesson to ask whether Mary might have been worried about her donkey giving out halfway to Bethlehem, I still nit-picked my way through church. I switched out gendered pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology; I mentally sparred with the pastor, challenging his interpretation of the scripture; I writhed awkwardly within whenever someone told me that God would do a mighty work in my life, trying to avoid the gaping black hole that is the sum total of my understanding of how God acts in the world.
But the thing is: it also felt so good to be there. Maybe this can be largely traced back to the affect theories of religion: I’ve just been trained so long that “my church” means “comfort” and “community” that on a deep, responsive level that’s true regardless of the elaborate spiderweb-thoughts of my rational mind. After several years of questioning nearly everything and trying time and time again to find some kind of peace in that continued unknown, it is also just nice to be around people who really do firmly believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God, and to relax in the thought that they might be onto something I’ve lost track of for now.
But the point at which this feeling came to a head was during the last service I attended before heading back up north. The choir, including my parents, came filing in, rustling their robes and folders. They began to sing a hymn and for a moment I didn’t recognize it because it was slower and out of the context with which I most associated it. It was “We Are Called,” a hymn I had sung most often with my Methodist campus community in college and at meetings of the Reconciling Ministries Network. Now, I know for a near-certain fact that the choir director at my home church did not pick that song with any idea that it had been a rallying song for Methodist activists working for full inclusion of people of all gender and sexual identities in the church. But I knew.
And as I sat alone in my pew up in the balcony, looking down on the choir, singing along, and sniffing away surreptitious tears, it was enough to give me a clue as to why I keep coming back. And I suppose that clue could be summarized as hope. It is hope because while my home church is not one which actively welcomes people of all gender and sexual identities, they could sing that song, and someday they will be. It is hope because while members of that church made me cry after an atheist friend died in college, members of that same church cried with me and shared their own struggles over the doctrines of heaven and hell, their own questions about “if grace is true.” It is hope because while I couldn’t deal with all the happy congregants and their Easter dresses right after being evacuated from Syria and had to go hide in a bathroom stall, members of that same church came in after me and have kept sitting with me– and coming after me wherever I go to hide– when the world seems too bad for God to be in it. It is hope because every time I’ve heard someone in my homes of DC or Boston disparage any hope of reconciliation between conservative and progressive Christians, something has stopped me from agreeing.
I am well aware that to some extent my hope is available to me because of a confluence of events that worked out right for me: I’ve been going to this same church since I was baptized as an infant, so the community was already there when I was old enough to need it. And while I’ve long been the noisy weirdo activist with all the newfangled ideas, I am not the one who is kicked out or denied, only the one who is disagreed with often. But I think still, in spite of and maybe because of its tattered edges and worn-out face, this is a hope worth treasuring and dragging around with me a little while longer.
Source: Wildfeuer, Attribution via Wikimedia Commons