About a year ago I wrote about my struggle to find a church home. I spent some time learning what it was like to be the new person at church, not knowing anyone, not knowing where to sit, feeling awkward and alone. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to go because I knew it would ultimately lead to me driving home after the service in tears. There were some mornings I would visit a church and I would leave without one person even talking to me. For a girl who grew up with the church as my safe place, this period of time was extremely difficult.
I can see now that it was important for me to experience a different side of church. Because for a lot of people, what I experienced is exactly why they don’t go. The church isn’t a safe place for them, it’s a place that reminds them that they don’t fit the mould. And why would you go to a place like that?
I needed to learn this lesson, as painful as it was at the time. It’s made me so grateful for my church community now and it’s taught me about how to think about creating a safe place for new people to come.
For one of my classes this semester, I was required to attend an Orthodox Church on a Sunday morning and then write about the experience. So this past Sunday, myself, along with three other classmates went to a Coptic Orthodox Church in Toronto. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. We looked up Orthodox Church etiquette before going and so I made sure to wear a dress, below my knees of course, and I tried to remember not to cross my legs during the liturgy, since apparently that’s a no no! So in we marched, dressed in our best.
The air in the church was thick with incense, an ashma sufferer’s worst nightmare. The lighting was dim and the architecture ancient. We made our way into the sanctuary and sat near the back of one of the four sections of pews. Since we clearly stuck out like a sore thumb for not being Egyptian, we didn’t want to sit near the front and draw too much attention to ourselves. Immediately 2 young adults approached us to welcome us, and inform us that we had entered the Arabic service and had just missed the English service! Our bad! They went on to tell us about the church and some of the events for young adults. They even offered to give us their numbers so we could get connected. It hadn’t even been 5 minutes and we had been sought out and welcomed.
A few minutes later after the young adults had left, a deacon dressed in the full gown (I thought he was a priest at first) came over and said there was an English service going on in another room that was for youth and families with young children. So he escorted us to the other side of the church and into the English liturgy. We sat near the front of a room full of kids, parents and youth. The boys were all seated at the front of one side of the room, all wearing long white robes. The older boys instructing the younger ones, concerning proper worship etiquette. The priest was assisted by several young men throughout the liturgy. The priest came over to us right away and shook our hands, welcoming us. Several times throughout the liturgy he told the people that we were guests and that they should make us feel welcome and after the service to bring us downstairs and feed us, with middle eastern hospitality. He mentioned this to the congregation more than once.
I wasn’t exactly sure about all of the things that happened throughout the liturgy, lots of incense, lots of chanting, and we never quite knew when to sit or stand. A few times I sat when everyone stood. A few hours later when the liturgy had finished, following communion, we were swarmed with people. They shook my hand, told me their names, welcomed me and my friends over and over again. They apologized for the noise from the kids, which I actually loved. They told me to come again, and then at some point we were ushered downstairs and put in a room. Then they brought us food and drinks. Several people came in and out of the room to welcome us. One deacon came in and sat down to talk with us and said that the priest was going to come down and meet us but had been slightly detained. So we waited, not sure what to expect. The Father finally came down and sat and chatted with us for about 40 minutes. He asked us about ourselves and told us about his story. I was able to ask him all of my questions about the Orthodox traditions and things that happened during the liturgy that I didn’t understand. Before we left they made sure we knew that we were most welcome anytime.
As I drove home I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. I’ve actually been thinking about it all week. I honestly never expected that the kind of church where I’d feel most welcome would be at a Coptic Orthodox liturgy, full of people I’d never met before and with a service where I didn’t really understand what was going on. But do you know what? If I didn’t have a church home that I loved, I’d go back. Even though the service is really long and it wouldn’t be my first choice of how to worship, I’d still go back.
Because I’ve never felt more welcome and wanted in a church ever before, in my entire life and in my entire experience with the church!
This is how it’s supposed to be.
This will teach me to judge a book by it’s cover, or a church by it’s name and style.
Lesson learned, and thankful for it! Sometimes it’s the places you least expect that will teach you the most meaningful lessons.