I referred briefly to T being busy on Thursday with the NOISE project and yesterday A and I joined in as well. Briefly to explain, the NOISE project is a church-led community project that happens every August, when teams of young people with adult leaders and helpers volunteer to do jobs for the less able members of the community – anything from cutting grass, to lopping trees, digging flowerbeds and painting sheds. T has taken part for the last two years and has thoroughly enjoyed both times. Children/young people have to be over 11 yeas of age in order to take part unaccompanied, so A needed me to do it with her. I wasn’t able to last year so had promised her that this year she could do one day with the idea that, if she enjoyed it, she could do it unaccompanied next year when she will be of age.
We headed off to the Baptist Church around 8.30am for breakfast with our fellow volunteers. T had steady gone ahead to met up with friends – I didn’t want to cramp his style by insisting he come with us! We were warmly welcomed and offered cereal, toast and juice or tea. Very nice.
I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable in group settings and don’t often put myself in them. I’m not a great joiner-in and don’t really like talking to complete strangers. Luckily, I knew many of the faces, albeit most of them were in the young people category and so unlikely to want to chat to an oldie like me. So, plate loaded with toast and cup of tea in hand I plonked myself down at the table where A had met up with a girl in the year above her that she goes to guides with. They didn’t seem to mind. Phew! I thought I’d got away with sitting quietly listening to them natter but we were then joined by a couple of girls in their twenties that I didn’t recognise. After asking my name and introducing herself one of them asked the dreaded question “So, do you come to church here?”. Uh oh.
I don’t go to church. We as a family don’t go to church, unless it’s for a wedding, christening, funeral or if I’m feeling festive at Christmas. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an element of “belief”, I just don’t go to church. K was brought up Catholic and attended a faith school. He didn’t enjoy attending church, it was always a family obligation that he had to just put up with. I went to a C of E faith school which has us own chapel and had to attend at least two Sunday’s each month, as well as assemblies during the week. I didn’t hate it, I even went through the process of getting confirmed in my latter years at the school. But I’ve been brought up, mainly with my nan’s influence, to believe that you don’t have to go to church to have faith. Although the church has played an enormous role in my nan’s life from a very young age to now and she still sees the vicar, at the church that she’s been going to since she was a young girl, every couple of weeks when he comes to her flat to give her communion, I’ve been brought up believing in the afterlife and having loved ones that are no longer with us “looking out for us” and that everything will work out for the right reasons: didn’t get the job I wanted? A better one was round the corner; old auntie so-and-so had tipped my boss the wink that I would be good in a different role (old auntie so-and-so was dead by the way). This was never in a creepy WTH kind of way, it all seemed very normal, along with the faith healing room and the pictures of various people that she was “thinking about”. It’s a lovely way to believe in something bigger, another force other than fate and free will.
We got married in church and had the kids christened at the local C of E church. I suspect this was mainly due to a feeling of expectation from K’s family and to some degree mine (nan liked it that we did) and I was even given some reasonably heavy hints that I should convert to Catholicism to marry K like his mum had done to marry K’s dad. Err, no. At all these occasions I’ve almost hoped to find some sort of connection with something but no joy. I don’t mind the singing, and sometimes the sermons can be quite interesting, but I just don’t feel comfortable with it all. Once, we went to a midnight mass and had to shake hands with the person next to us. A stranger! But it was Christmas Eve and I sort of went with it.
Anyway, getting back to yesterday and the dreaded question. No, I don’t attend the baptist church – I don’t attend any church. I mumbled something about my husband being a bit forced into it all as a child and how we hadn’t wanted to inflict anything on our kids, but that I’m not anti-church or anything, gabble, gabble, gabble. Ok, shut up now, she’s looking at you like you’re cuckoo.
After brekkie our team-leader introduced herself – seemed like a nice lady – and it turned out A is also at guides with her daughter and her daughters friend, and they were also on our team, as was the friend from school. Next stop was at the Methodist church for our Kick Start. T had advised me (I don’t want to say “warned” but it probably was) that there would be an element of “churchy stuff” going on and so I was prepared. I was introduced to a couple of people – an older chap who was our site coordinator and another lady who turned out to be his wife. We sat down on chairs around the room with the younger volunteers sitting on the floor. After some admin notices and some announcements we got started with the service. I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and out of place. Everyone, with the exception of T and most of his friends (some youngsters seem to be able to just tune out what’s going on around them without looking rude) seemed to know each other and what was expected of them. I guess this was to be expected as they probably all attend services regularly but I felt like a fish out of water. It almost felt like I had been dropped in another country and my brief was to try and blend in without giving away my true identity. I’ve felt like this once or twice before when I’ve been to Catholic services with K’s family and have known none of the hymns and none of the responses. One such occasion was the christening of one of our nieces and I was godmother. I didn’t know how to reply to the questions. They just assumed I’d know. Oops.
The session involved lots of participation and talking in groups (shudder); some singing (words on a screen – great, but no clue as to the tune); and then – my worse nightmare – physical contact with strangers (hands on the shoulders of the people next to you). I’m sure if you’re used to it it’s perfectly lovely and, of course, the people next to you aren’t strangers that you’ve only just been introduced to, they’re people you’ve known for some time and who you’ve worshipped with on numerous occasions or maybe just once or twice. Please don’t get me wrong, this is entirely my issue and this isn’t meant to be in any way critical of the baptists and the way they do things. I just don’t think I’m cut out for any sort of organised religion.
The session ended with a sermon by one of the volunteers. He was brilliant. He asked what love means, after reading an excerpt (is that the correct terminology? Passage? Quotation?) from the bible that gets read a lot at weddings. It was very thought provoking and I really enjoyed it. He was humorous, very down to earth and rather entertaining. If going to a service involved just listening to him I’d probably go!
Our day properly began for me when we got to the house we would be working at for the day. It belongs to an elderly couple who have health issues (his long term, hers more recent) which stop them from doing the more labour intensive jobs in their beautiful garden. We dug flower beds, cut back bushes, painted their shed, cleared paths and shovelled dirt. It was a real team effort and the girls worked as hard as any of us three adults. We had a nice lunch at the church hall and I sat chatting to a couple of mums I know from school. The afternoon had a couple of awkward moments: more physical contact with a stranger when a couple from the church came to gee us up and tell us how well we were doing. “Can I give you a hug?” the lady asked. I guess I could have said “no” but how rude would that have looked?; and a prayer session with the couple we were helping. I was kind of impressed that the other adult team members were able to come up with these words of prayer off the cuff like that, but I just didn’t feel I should be there. I have to admit to a few goosebumps when the lady of the house (that sounds far posher than I intend) got a bit choked up when she explained how much we were helping them.
Our day ended as the others headed back to the hall for dinner. We had plans to out for dinner en famille (a point T had forgotten until I rang him just as he was tucking in to a plate of spag bol!) so we didn’t return with them.
I got quite a lot out of the day: sore muscles and an aching back; a sense of achievement and pleasure knowing we’d done a good job; pride in my daughter and son for working so hard. I also confirmed that I am a bit cocooned in my personal space and wonder if perhaps I need to let go a little bit? I enjoyed the sermon in the morning and think it will stay with me for a while. But mainly I confirmed that I am not a church person. I have no issue with anyone who gains comfort, joy, pleasure or love from going to church. It just isn’t for me. I have my beliefs and faith in something bigger than me but I think I need to keep them cocooned up with me in my personal space. We’re quite happy there.
Update: reading this back I feel a little embarrassed that it’s all a bit me, me, me. The spirit of the day and the sermon in the morning was really about doing stuff for other people and not expecting anything back. Oops. As T would say “Epic fail, mum. Epic fail.”