I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately on how the church might be more welcoming to children and their families during Sunday morning worship. At my church, we try to help parents feel at ease when they enter with a young child, but I’m also very aware they have a hard time letting go of the worry. Will their child speak too loudly? Will she escape down the aisle during a hymn? Will he draw too much attention to their presence?
Sunday morning, I was the one worshiping on pins and needles, asking those same questions, except I wasn’t worshiping as a parent of a young child. I was worshiping with my 74-year-old mother-in-law, and I was keenly aware of the anxiety felt not only by new parents, but also by those who worship alongside a person with Alzheimer’s.
It had taken us two days to talk her into visiting a new church. At first, she would hear nothing of it. It wasn’t her church with her Sunday school class, and her pastor, even though he yells at them and never has anything good to say (her words, not mine). Everyone would wonder where she was. We knew we were messing with her routine, and it wasn’t going to be easy.
My husband is a pastor, and is no longer comfortable attending his parents’ church because his mother incessantly introduces him to her friends as a “real” preacher, not like the one at their church. We’d considered simply not going to church that morning, but my husband’s sister needed her mother out of the house so she could do some purging in preparation for her parents’ upcoming move to be closer to her. Going to church was a reasonable distraction, so we headed off to find a church we’d heard about and wanted to visit. We’ll never know what happened in her brain to make her willing to go with us, but we were grateful it wasn’t going to be a battle.
When we pulled up in front of the small, white, wooden building, the first thing my mother-in-law noticed was a woman in a strapless dress. “She’s half naked,” was the first of many loud comments about that poor woman’s attire, and I told her she would need to use her “whisper voice” when we entered the sanctuary. I found myself wanting to sit near the back so we could make a quick exit if we needed to (and I remembered those young parents I encourage to sit up front so their children can see what’s going on). We were greeted warmly by both church members and the pastor, and I fought the urge to say something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t mind us. She has Alzheimer’s and that’s why she keeps saying the same things over and over.”
While highly anxious about what might unfold during the next hour, I was thankful for the kind woman who stood at the end of our pew, welcoming us to her church, and engaging us in quite a delightful conversation. Her hair was the same white as my mother-in-law’s and many of the others filling the seats around us. I guessed she’d had conversations with her own friends who repeated themselves a lot. There were a few ladies who sat behind us who forgot to use their “whisper voices” when it was time to begin the service. A teenager with apparent physical and mental special needs sat near the front and joined in the responsive readings with a voice that rose above all the others, and no one flinched. A baby cried, and I began to sink into the thought that we might actually be okay in this place.
The sermon was about being genuine with others, yourself, and Christ. It was actually pretty good. And as I looked around the sanctuary, I was grateful to be joining this particular community of faith on this particular morning. In the midst of being so uncomfortable, this seemed to be a place where it was okay to come as you are, and I felt safe. The warmth of the dark wood in this beautiful, old sanctuary made me mindful of the traditions that were honored and passed down week after week and year after year: reciting ancient creeds, singing weathered hymns, breaking bread together. And this worshiping body reminded me, more than my own, that everyone indeed, is welcome at the table. And not just once…not only when we use our “whisper voices,” not only when we say the right things at the right times, not only when our brains and bodies do like everyone else expects them to, and certainly not after we have it all figured out…but always…each and every day.
So, today I give thanks for that small, wooden Louisiana church, surrounded by Spanish moss-draped oak trees. I am grateful for the warm welcome, and I am grateful that my mother-in-law had a good morning, even though it wasn’t her church with her Sunday school class, and her pastor, even though he yells at them and never has anything good to say. And I am grateful there is always room at the table, even for me.