We’ve been church homeless for about seven years now. This has been by choice. I had been a clergywoman in a main line denomination for almost twenty years. I enjoyed it for the most part. When our last child graduated from high school, we got an offer to move west and I wanted to start writing. So I semi-retired from the ministry, we moved our household to the west coast, and I began my writing career. I’ve written three books in a series and I plan to finish the fourth book soon. But sometimes it’s good to have a diversionary topic to write about and I’m ready to tackle another project.
I want to do something that combines my church background with writing. Perhaps a semi-fictional, novel about a quirky clergywoman will be forthcoming soon, but for now, I’m looking for something that requires both action and writing. Because writing can be such a solitary act, I need something that requires me to interact with others.
So, my idea was born. As I stated, we are church homeless by choice. We have lived in four different states—one in the Midwest, one in the South, one out West and now we live along the East Coast. I’m deliberately being vague here and you will see why. When you’ve worked in churches for a good part of your life, sometimes you just want to stay out of them when you can. So, my husband and I have taken up golfing, hiking, biking and other activities that have eaten into our old Sunday morning church routine. We kind of like it. We’re not sure we even want to go back to a regular church diet. We like the freedom, we like the variety, we like almost everything about not having to attend church.
But we miss a few things too. We miss the routine of worship. We miss the fellowship of others who believe (for the most part) in the Christian God. We miss The Lord’s Prayer, The Doxology, the choir, the hymns, the children’s time, the occasionally though-provoking sermons. Hell, we even miss the offering, a chance to give something to the institution of God, if not to God. In a word, we miss church.
But in our sporadic visits to various churches over these past seven years, we are not sure that Church misses us. I’m talking about being welcomed, actually having someone greet us and speak to us. I’m talking about feeling like we can be part of the worship time, even as guests or strangers to the rest of the congregation. I’m talking about wanting to come back to that church again, because the community of faith welcomed us and invited us into their worship space.
This act, or lack of, welcoming, when we visited churches sparked my idea for this project which I am about to embark. I’m calling it “I Was A Stranger Too,” based on Matthew 25:31-46, specifically focusing on two verses. In verse 35, “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” and verse 43, “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.”
I am going to endeavor to visit different churches over several months, maybe even up to a year. I will attempt to pick ones from various denominations. I hope to visit Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Non-denominational, Baptist, Quaker, Catholic, Moravian, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and any others I can find. My only stipulation, and I gave this a great deal of thought, is the churches have to be somewhere along the Christian spectrum. I can’t judge a Synagogue or a Mosque based on a New Testament scripture. It just doesn’t seem fair. Although, I think other faiths could be helpful for a future project (which is still incubating.)
I do have a few other ground rules. One, this is my project. Although my husband would come with me if I asked him, I want to do this on my own. I’m hoping to remain incognito, or unrecognizable by the people in the houses of worship. And if my husband comes, we’ve just doubled the chances of being recognized. So, I’m on my own here.
This brings me to the second ground rule. I am going to visit every church in approximately the same attire. I am not going to dress up, I am not going to wear makeup. I will dress in reasonably comfortable clothes, nothing ragged or torn, nothing fancy either. I will comb my hair and brush my teeth. I will appear perfectly presentable, but not impressive. I will wear modest or no jewelry. I considered dressing like a stereotypical homeless person, a vagrant or a drug/alcohol abuser. But after careful thought on this, I decided that I didn’t want to pretend or worse, lie. I don’t want to come off as someone I’m not. It might make for a more interesting experiment, but it would be disingenuous. And I want to be as transparent as possible. My normal wear is very casual, sans makeup and jewelry, so I will be going as I normally am. I will give my name if asked. I will say I live in the area if asked. Or if I’ve driven a ways out from my home, I will say I am just visiting the area. It will be the truth.
Another ground rule is I will try to visit a variety of churches, but they have to be within an hour or so drive. Again, it would be great if I had a private plane and could hop to all the interesting churches along the Eastern Seaboard, but this has to be doable for me. If it isn’t somewhat easy, I will give up. And although it would be great to “welcome test” all the mega or famous churches out there, this is just going to have to be limited to my area. It is what it is.
And just one more thing: I will not give the actual name of the churches I visit. I will describe them in some detail, even give the type of church (Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) but I will not give away too much. My goal is not to embarrass or rave about anything. I’m simply conducting an experiment, sort of.
My main objective is to find out if/how the church members welcome me. I will be looking to see how their church is set up for a newcomer, how easy or hard is it to follow the bulletin, the order of worship, the singing, the praying. Will I be offered communion if it is served? Will it be obvious how to receive it? Will I be ignored or will I be pointed out (which might be worse?) Will the Pastor greet me, or anyone else in an official capacity? Does that matter if the congregants are friendly? I suppose I will have more questions and more observations once I get going on this thing. The main question I will be trying to ask is this: I was a stranger, did you invite me in?
Final note: You may be wondering about my motives for choosing this endeavor. I’m not entirely sure myself. I do know that I have had two great constants in life—besides my family—God and writing. God has loved me beyond deserving and gave me one decent talent in life, writing. I’m probably not going to win the Pulitzer or anything like that, but I suppose God wants me to use my gift anyway. And since my church life has waned over the last few years, maybe this is my way of trying to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak (although good writers never use clichés.)
HERE WE GO!