Sunday, September 9, 2007

Goin' a Churchin' Pt.2: Stranger in a Strange Land

Sorry it took me so long to get back to the story but here I am. So, I've set up WHY religion makes me both gut-twistingly anxious and new-movie trailer excited, so now you just sit back and relax as I spin a comedy of errors known as Labor Day Service at my mother-in-law's new church. It's sacrilicious!

There's a scene in the 1970s version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (the end really, so stop reading if you're still a "body" virgin) where we follow our hero Donald Sutherland as he seemingly sneaks through the mindless masses of the now alien-invaded American population around him. He's walking through a park or something, looking as vacant-eyed and robotic as the next alien when a still-human friend of his sneaks up to him and says "hey, it's me." At that moment, Donald's eyes go wide, he points an accusatory finger and out of his stretched mouth comes a ghastly howl -- an exterrestrial "intruder alert" siren letting all the other body snatchers that this woman is not one of them. Every moment at church feels like the second before that awful howl -- like I'm about to be exposed as a fake, as someone who doesn't belong. And I kind of like it that way.

The first howl-worthy moment came in the parking lot where four surly older men were directing those eager for church into their appropriate spaces. In what I think is just fucking poetic, I go and park in the exact opposite way as everyone else. Apparently, when coming to God's house you park facing out -- "thou shall not showest God the backside of your SUV." After a stern look from a man who looked remarkably like Louis Gosset Jr in a bright orange saftey vest, I followed the flock and parked accordingly.

After entering church (and NOT bursting into flames, thank you very much) we bumped into my wife's older cousin who did a double-take (complete with Looney Tunes sound effects) when he saw us. "Wow, it's so nice to see the whole family here. What brings you to church today?" He asked. "Obligation," I said (ok, I thought it). But the truth behind the question, at least as I see it, is "how did you convince HIM to come?"

The family narrative is that my wife has married a heathen -- one who has a job and loves his kids -- but a godless, heathen nonetheless. So figuring out a way to get me to church is viewed as no less a feat than dressing a lion in a tuxedo and taking it to the opera. I'm sure her relatives would give her a medal if they could. Honestly, all my wife has to do is ask.

Once seated and began the never-ending dance of "last things" which include two or three trips to the car for must-haves like bottles, coloring books and such. On my last trip back to the pew (coloring books in hand), the very nice man whose job it is to open the doors, joked "You going back anytime soon?"

Now, I didn't quite hear what he said (my mind reconstructed the phrase two seconds too late) but it was uttered in the same tone as strangers on the elevator complain about Mondays or the weather for which I have an array of absent-minded replies like "I feel you" or "I know what that's like." For some reason, I reached into my mental grab bag and pulled out "I wish" as in "I wish I was going back out that door." Technically a Freudian slip, I was still mortified that the kernel of truth had slipped out so early in the game, I had not even taken my seat and already the jig was up. Fortunately, for me I don't think he heard me because the church police (the Christables maybe?) didn't escort me out.

Service began with a really nice song and then the Pastor began by discussing how a recent spate of deaths had humbled him and, in a gesture of humility, he said he would preach on his knees. Now this SOUNDS good when you picture it in a book or hear about such a thing, but to watch it in person was . . . . well, it was at the very least chuckle-funny. And after about 45 seconds of him stumping around on his knees I let out a discernable giggle which I quickly metamorphasized into a cough to cover up -- it worked.

Also worth laughing about were the church brown-nosers. Apparently a fixture at most Black services, the brown-nosers are the folks who are either paid or want to be paid to respond to every.single.word.the.pastor.utters. In this case it was a very tall, manicured-man and his equally well-groomed wife who sat center pew providing a steady stream of "uh-huh" or "tell it" all the while holding rapt looks on their faces as if they were witnessing an actual miracle. They stood and clapped whenever the pastor got on a roll and loudly said "that's right" to ensure the pastor (and everyone else) that they both understood and agreeed with his statements. Needless to say, this exhibit had me just fueled my heathenistic rage.

Why, you ask. Because the brown-noser lays bare one of my biggest complaints about organized religion -- the performance. Though I have no religion, I still want it to be pure to the people who do. I want it to be a very meaningful experience free of social vices but as I have seen, it is quite the opposite. What I mostly see at church is a group exercise -- a well-rehearsed, but highly improvised show without nuance and questionable honesty.

I mean, it's a given that the pastor is a performer -- he literally gets a stage and is announced like boxer ("in this corner, wearing the pinstriped Eduardian suit and several oversized rings, is your pastor . . . ) before coming out to walk, talk, sweat and dance. The audience, much like the Apollo crowd during children's amateur night, has its role as well -- to clap and approve. I use the Apollo crowd analogy for a reason. Only the very mean would boo a child, so while in ALL other cases the Apollo audience is told to speak their mind, they are instructed only to praise the children.

I'm not advocating that we start winging tomatoes at little Quanisha during her screeching rendition of "His Eye is on the Sparrow." But I AM saying that church is not set up to have any meaningful discourse on the fate of your eternal soul. It IS a place to join a performance on how you think you should feel about the fate of your eternal soul. That's not to say that the brown-nosers are complete fakes or that everyone sitting and listening is in complete agreement with lead actor, but from where I'm sitting it's hard to tell.

One last note: I took communion for the first time -- a perverse thrill I might add having seen it in movies so many times. Though I must admit I thought only Catholics did such a thing, so imagine my surprise when they started handing out the crackers and grape juice. They were a little bland, but after 90 minutes of coveting my childrens juice boxes, that splash of Welch's hit the spot.

The best part was that my mother-in-law got to see her grandchildren in church and got to show off her daughter and her dutiful husband to her friends. The entire visit was, after all a show, but in this case, one worth dressing up for.

Ok, I know that sounds all maudlin, but I'm serious so fuck off if you can't stomach geniune, sappy sentiment.

NEXT TIME: "Knock-knock." "Who's there?" "The Jehovah's witnesses."