If I have a lodestone – a spiritual magnetic north – it is here, in this little country church a mile or so away from my grandparents’ home where I would come to spend most summers growing up. I love this place, this beautiful land in the Appalachian foothills, rolling pasture lands, wandering Black Angus cattle, green in the way Ireland is green. My memories are deep and woven into me in the complicated ways of love.
I went away, but always came back, even after the people I was related to, one by one took their places beneath the headstones. I read off the carved names and hear my grandmother’s voice saying them. They lived “down the road a piece,” or “over town.” It was a place where around a bend in the road meant a different world, but it was all linked by a party line that was the quickest means of knowing who might need a cake to be brought, or the rest of Sunday’s ham. I learned community here, the simple caring of showing up and then showing up again.
I travelled the world with my family as a teenager living in a university town hours away. I came of age surrounded by the struggles for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. I learned activism and resistance and how to form an argument but that was all a foreign language here in this little church. Something different was going on here, something more primal and direct. It wasn’t idyllic, of course. I overheard the grownups telling their stories. I learned about social climbing in tiny rural communities, and rivalries, and judgments and worse, too, though I rarely wrung those stories out of my mother. But the hymns became part of me, cracked voices singing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”
So this morning I found myself there, by design as it was Sunday and yet still taken by surprise to see cars in the parking lot and the door open. They had already started and I had to get myself in a proper frame of mind. Six or eight people were sitting in the pews hearing a report from convention. I had barely adjusted to the light and the accents when I realized they were talking about the issue of gays in the church, which was being addressed on the national level. The man giving the report was patient and compassionate, the people in the pews were struggling. I kept my face impassive; I wanted to know how they would handle this and all the while wondering how my own grandfather would have handled it and I didn’t know. They touched on racism in the same way, the man reporting that the church wants to be inclusive and the people in the pews not quite there but hanging in.
Once my mother told me about the process that would happen every year of planning where to put things in the garden, whether to put the beans in with the corn, for instance. ‘Did you have squash, too,’ I asked. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘we had pumpkins running around in there.’ ‘You learned that from the native people,’ I said triumphantly – corn, beans, and squash, the Three Sisters.’ ‘Oh no!’ she said, shocked. ‘The Indians were all up in the hills and we hoped they would stay there.’ That’s the way it was, at least in my family. My 23 and Me test showed all British Isles, with a touch of German, which was my grandfather. They were isolated, a little white enclave, not mixing with Indians, African-Americans, or Irish.
So here we were in the little church of my childhood, hearing how the people today are struggling to grasp diversity and inclusivity. The report ended, there was a general shuffling as the speaker left and one of the men in the pews moved a chair to lead Sunday School. (This is a circuit rider church, always has been. The lay people have to take responsibility.) We were greeted with great warmth when I said I had grown up there and my grandfather had built the lectern and there was a little plaque that said so, and I had gone to Sunday School in the little rooms in the back, and a lot had changed but there was a lot that was the same, too.
The day’s lesson was a reading from Paul in which he tells the Romans in no uncertain terms that they must lead non-judgmental lives or suffer the consequences and everybody got it. They knew that, in light of what they had talked about from convention, they were being challenged. The discussion went on a long time, with anecdotes and storytelling and laughter and everyone, including us, having something to say. And maybe I wanted them to be more liberal, but they weren’t. What they were was open, and honest, and wanting to be good Christians and good people and knowing they didn’t always get it right but, as one man said at the end, ‘I learned something this morning.’ I loved them then because they were willing to wrestle with it all and they came from a base of compassion – you don’t know what peoples’ stories are and it is dangerous to make assumptions – and they had shown up.
And then we all went up and admired the little plaque on the lectern that no one had noticed before, and they got my email and they plan to send me pictures – ‘It’s her church!’ – and I realized how familiar it smelled and recognized it was the country air blowing in through the open windows.