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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI,” do that now.

The final church visit was made to a Lutheran church on Palm Sunday. I chose this church for a specific reason: I thought it might actually be one I could attend regularly.

After going to five churches and reaffirming the things I don’t believe and don’t like about church, I thought it might be good to do some research. Thanks to religion.net, I was able to research a variety of world religions. I looked at the site’s chart listing all the various categories for belief (the Bible, communion, heaven, hell, etc.) and followed across to see where my personal convictions matched up with an organized religion.

The top contender appeared to be the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Voila! I had my sixth and final entry of my study.

When I walked up that Sunday, the congregation was preparing for the special Palm Sunday processional. The greeter asked me to sign the guest book, which I did. As in the other church visits, I did not fill out the address because I didn’t really want to be stalked by various church representatives. The greeter, a kind-looking elderly lady was persistent.

“Where are you from?,” she asked. “Bloomingdale,” I replied, naming the nearest city. “Which part?” she probed. “Just up the road,” I said evasively. “Yes, but which part?” she demanded. Luckily, I was saved by another neighbor, Robert, from four doors down, who steered me away to meet his wife Phyllis. Phyllis was sitting alone during the service because Robert had a part as Judas in the Palm Sunday presentation.

Even with the service modified to celebrate Palm Sunday, it felt comfortable – like slipping on an old bathrobe. I was raised Presbyterian, and many aspects of this service were similar to what I remember from services at Highlands Presbyterian Church. I could recite the Nicene Creed without assistance, for example.

One hour later, I was back in my car and ready to go home, mission fulfilled.

One week later, I headed to the courthouse to turn in my bulletins. The clerk shuffled through a basket of papers (what, no computer files?) and pulled out my citation. She stapled the bulletins to it and said I was finished. “That’s it?” I asked. “No receipt?” “That’s it,” she said, looking a little disturbed that I had questioned the system.

Though my husband still gets a kick out of calling me a criminal, I’m pleased with my sentence, and how much I learned. My theory of life is that if something wonderful happens, then that is great in itself. But if something not-so-wonderful happens, then that is OK because it makes a great story.

In other words, bad decisions make good stories.

I guess sometimes crime does pay.

THE END

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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V,” do that now.

Next up was a visit I had been both anticipating and dreading. One block away from my house is a Revivalist church. I ambled over there at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night and was met with what sounded like the worst “American Idol” audition ever. A guy was playing the keyboard and warbling hymns with all of his heart and energy. Too bad he was completely tone deaf.

According to the literature foisted upon me when I walked in the door, the church was founded by a married couple when “God began to use them to change the spiritual atmosphere of Savannah and the surrounding areas.” The brochure also said that “speaking with tongues” was not only to be expected but encouraged. Yikes.

I was “sister” here too, and greeted by everyone who came in the sanctuary (I use that term loosely as the building is a one-story concrete structure that looks like it may have been a storage unit at one time). Each person explained that I really should come on a Sunday when there are more people (70 as opposed to 17). After the fourth person made that comment, I finally said, “Well, the important thing is the message, not the number of people, right?” The lady blanched and fled to the other side of the room.

Like most standard services, this one began with a few hymns. Instead of hymnbooks, the church employs technology: an overhead projector and screen. The words were there but, because of the accompanist’s limitations, it was kind of hard to get the melody.

The sermon was not so much a sermon as a collection of anecdotes. One was about a science class and a jar of rocks filled with sand and water. The teacher apparently put in the various items in that order, asking each time if the jar was full. The jar was not full until he poured in the water, which is akin to how God’s love is able to fill in all the cracks in our nasty little human hearts. The pastor was not much of a storyteller, though. He was interrupted about three times by the person who first told him the story (the student) to correct parts he was butchering. And the poor pastor also had an odd habit of adding “Amen” in unexpected places. As in, “The teacher poured in the water, Amen” and “You may be seated, Amen.”

The pastor also offered his thoughts on mental health. According to him, “Depression is not a disease; it is a spiritual problem. It results from turmoil.” Maybe he and Tom Cruise should compare notes and join together to save all of us from unnecessary medication and doctor visits.

After the service, I ran home as fast as I could go. I avoided the road and any lights that could illuminate me and my path. I didn’t want any of the revivalists to see where I live.

Up next: “Yes, but what part?”

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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV,” do that now.

In the Lowcountry, churches are plentiful. There are four within a one-mile radius from my house. One of those is a historic church that keeps a strange schedule: Services are only held on the first Sunday of each month.

Folks at this Baptist church were very welcoming, without being overbearing. As it turns out (and this is how far removed I am from the church culture in my area), the pastor is my next-door neighbor.

We sang a few well-known hymns and then neighbor man delivered a sermon, which also was about the path to heaven. According to him, all you have to do is say out loud:

“I accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.”

I guess saying it in your head or to the dog won’t work.

Up next: “You may be seated, Amen.”

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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I, Part II and Part III,” do that now.

/\ Me

My coworker invited me to her Christian church where I felt like produce at the grocery store. Each “Welcome, sister” was accompanied by a handshake, hug, shoulder rub, full-body squeeze or some such contact. I needed to be hosed down with antibacterial gel after the two-hour service, during which the minister asked me to stand and say something to the congregation. “Uh … thanks for welcoming me” was my impromptu speech.

The day’s sermon concerned the way to heaven. According to the minister, the only way is to be baptized and join this particular church. That’s it. No other way. I wondered if you could still go on living a wicked life, but yet belong to the church and be OK.

This kind of information is important, because I think I’m pretty wicked in general. Plus, two of the tenets adhered to by the good folks at this church are “Women are to learn in silence” and “They are not to teach in any capacity over a man.” I’m serious. It was in their bulletin. As I am rather a chatty sort, and I am employed as a college professor teaching both women and men, I think this church is not for me.

Up next: “What a friend we have in Jesus”

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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I and Part II,” do that now.

Just over 36 hours later, I was in another church: a Methodist church near my house.

Unlike my mother-in-law’s church where parishioners were on me like sharks to chum, the Methodist folks smiled, nodded and generally left me alone. Only the pastor, sporting an Irish brogue and a green jacket perfect for St. Patrick’s Day, officially greeted me.

The start of the ceremony resembled a town hall meeting. Announcements ranged from the results of the bake sale to what the county’s industrial development authority was planning to do with a parcel of land up the road. I noticed that the dress code has changed since I was a regular churchgoer. My parents would not have been pleased if I wore jeans to church, but now it appears jeans, T-shirts, cut-offs and flip-flops are all just fine to wear to hang out with God.

Apparently, this is appropriate church attire.

During the sermon, which was about what Jesus must have been like as a child, I took a look at the bulletin. On the back of the bulletin, under the heading “Prayer Concerns,” was a list of people asking for special thoughts and why. In addition to the expected, such as “fell and broke hip,” “gall bladder surgery” and “soldier injured in Iraq,” there were a few that made me feel as if I now knew too much. Apparently, Bobbie is “causing family problems” and Paige has “legal problems.” I guess those are the times when you chat with God the most.

Up next: “Welcome, sister”

 

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STOP: If you haven’t read “Sentenced to Church, Part I,” do that now.

My Puerto Rican mother-in-law was the first to offer up her church for inspection. I’m sure she thought it was the perfect way to rehabilitate me, the White Devil. It is not that I’m not religious in my own way, I just don’t attend church services. I am suspicious of organized religion and mostly see it as a way for people to have an excuse to be intolerant of others’ beliefs. Like there is only one right path to spirituality, and it is theirs. (Remember in Part I that I said this series was guaranteed to offend someone.)

According to Biblical lore, Jesus sat on a stump and talked to people. If that’s true, why should I go to a place where humans have torn into nature to build a massive structure where they ask for more money to build more structures? (This is, after all, the Bible Belt, where the size of the church equals standing in the community.)

Anyway, I decide to attend a Friday night church service with my Spanish-speaking mother-in-law. The congregation is building a new church, so they were borrowing a sanctuary from a different church in the meantime and had to wait for key assistance each time. So, at 8 p.m., when the service was supposed to begin, everyone was still loitering outside. My mother-in-law saw her opportunity and seized it, introducing me to her fellow parishioners en masse.  I tried to think happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.

Once inside, the first thing I noticed was the band. It was a six-piece ensemble with a singer and his two back-ups. One of the members of the congregation brought her own tambourine. Others formed a sort of mosh pit in front of the first row of pews. After 30-45 minutes of vocal warm-up, including inspiring songs such as “Señor Jesus, muévame!” (which means, essentially, “Mister Jesus, move me!”), the pastor took the spotlight, but there was still plenty of audience participation. One man yelled “Hable papa!” (“Speak, Father!,” a phrase kind of like “You go, Girl” for the iglesia set) every two minutes.

I thought I was the only one of my kind, but then I noticed two very white old people in the front row. I thought they must have been confused and were looking for the services for other church, but then the man got up and approached the pastor. Apparently, this guy was a visiting pastor and – holy crap! – his Spanish was good! So good, in fact, that he was able to deliver an hour-long sermon, during which many members of the congregation “caught the spirit” and flung themselves crying into the aisles. My mother-in-law kept stealing glances at me to see if the spirit was making an appearance yet in my heathen soul. Or maybe she was just making sure I was awake.

The evening culminated in a group therapy session at the front, with the guest pastor laying his hands on the heads and faces of the assembled in a healing sort of way. Meanwhile, my prayers were answered when he stayed at the front and didn’t roam throughout the sanctuary finding people to save.

On the way home, any good will I built up with my mother-in-law for attending her church was lost when I refused to take her preferred route. Let’s just say I didn’t want to take the long way home after two hours of spirit possession on a Friday night.

Up next: Causing family problems

 

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Dear Readers:

Writer’s block is a nasty beast. It periodically leaves me incapacitated, as is the case lately.

As I’d like to retain the few of you I have left, I present to you a personal essay from the past that has never seen publication. It’s a seven-part series, so I’m set for a while. (Me = drunk on content!)

Warning: The series is likely to offend anyone and everyone.

Enjoy!
Beth

City Hall, Garden City, Georgia

Sentenced to Church, Part I

Police laser guns are not infallible and neither are their operators. This is what I tell the Garden City, Georgia, judge when I dispute my ticket for going 41 in a 35-mile-per-hour school zone. It is possible the officer tracked another car, but blamed me, I said. Plus, the school zone ended at 8:30, which is the time I was pulled over.

My argument sounded lame, even to me, but it was all I had. The judge took pity and dismissed the ticket on the condition that I complete a certain task: I must attend six church services over the next six weeks and bring proof of my attendance in the form of bulletins.*

Um. What? Isn’t there supposed to be a separation of church and state? And what does speeding have to do with religion anyway? In a small town in Georgia, I guess anything goes.

Though friends and relatives advised me to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, I was just happy to have avoided the $114 fine and the blot on my perfect driving record.

I decided to look at the sentence as an anthropological assignment. I chose to attend six different churches to contrast and compare.

 

Up next: “Señor Jesus, muévame!”

 

* True story. I promise.

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