That request reminded me of the letter I wrote to my grandmother back in 1998 when I decided to join the Episcopal church. My grandmother was a pillar of the Southern Baptist church I grew up in. She pretty much did everything but preach there, and I was really concerned about her reaction to my decision. Why, Episcopals were one step removed from those odd Catholics! So I very nervously put in words what I was feeling...
November 7, 1998
I am writing this letter to you the day before I’m to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I suppose Mom & Dad have told you of my decision. I just wanted you to know that you have only yourself to blame! All of my life you have shown me how to be a woman of faith (and I must say you are a hard act to follow!). I have watched you work in the church, you and all the other strong women I grew up with--Lil Stepp, Lillian Holsclaw, Brenda Fox, my mother, just to name a few. And I have watched that same wonderful welcoming church slam its doors in the face of my generation, just because we wanted to follow God all the way to the altar and beyond. At the time I thought, “Fine, I don’t think I can ever be other than Baptist, so I’ll just put church on the back burner of my life. I don’t really feel welcome there with all I have to offer.” And I did put church on the back burner.
For a while I attended and even joined the First Baptist Church of Asheville, a nice middle-of-the-road Baptist church. But then the minister let me down (ala Bill Clinton). So I stopped going there. And a precious part of my life was missing.
When we moved up here I visited the Church of Our Saviour because I knew one of the members (the sister of one of my seminary friends). I went sporadically last year, enjoying the warm, friendly atmosphere, enjoying the new type of service, finding peace in the words of the ancient church. Then I started going more regularly, thirsty for what I had missed during those years away from the church. Then I was asked to supervise Sunday afternoon coffee hour goodies and cleanup. Then I was asked to be the treasurer on the vestry. All the time I was never asked to become an Episcopalian or join the church, just that I be there!
And so I asked myself why it was that I was there so often, when never before have I willingly gone to church “eight days a week & twice on Sundays.” I realized that our priest, Mother Paula, while being thoroughly traditional in many ways, had a broad interpretation of Christ’s welcome table. Everyone is welcome. Everyone. White, black, man, woman, gay, straight, alcoholic, tee-totaler, everyone. We are all affirmed and prayed for, by the congregation as a whole. And it’s not just welcoming words from the priest--everyone at church welcomes everyone else. During the service we “pass the peace of Christ” and we all go and hug or touch everyone in the sanctuary as if we mean it. And we do! I feel Christ’s love in that sanctuary, in a way I never have since I was a teenager in a church that hadn’t told me yet that I wasn’t welcome behind the altar.
Because of that I have decided to join the church. I know it isn’t necessary. I know that I am giving up my heritage, a heritage that, while it rejected me, also brought me to Christ. But I would rather start a new heritage in church, than contemplate my old heritage sitting in my living room on Sunday mornings. I am so glad to have found my way again. The least I can do is join the people who held the light before me.
I love you Mamaw, and I hope that you are happy for me. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow, and of all those strong women (and men!) on both sides of my family. I’m doing this because of you all.
|Mamaw outside church in 1986|
My grandmother never really said anything to me about my letter to her. In the end I think the fact that I felt passionate about church was good enough for her.