Finding Your Church

   by Carla Sarett

For Ruth

Sometime in the fall of 2001, after 9/11, I went to a technology forum on "e-learning" in downtown Philly.  Business had slowed down, and I was up for something new.  There's not much to learn about e-learning or at least nothing you can't sum up in few sentences, but it got dragged out into one of those all-day affairs that made you want to scream.  PowerPoint after PowerPoint, endless coffee breaks with stale muffins and dry cookies, followed by the much dreaded workshop exercise in which you're forced to pick a "buddy." 

Jeanine was the buddy I picked, and the exercise was to form a friendship—you had to promise to make an appointment in the next week or so.  I'm a good sport, so that's what I did.  We met the next week to have the usual espresso or, in her case, water.  Jeanine was out of work and on a tight water-only budget.  From what I could tell, she had about as little interest in e-learning as anyone on the planet-- OK with me, since I was sort of lonely.

Over the next few months, we became friends, or the version of friendship in which you get together, go to movies, and so on.  Jeanine was single, twice-divorced, and in the habit of telling all about her relationships. She loved talking about sex, and she talked enough for two, which made life easy. 

She'd had bad run-ins with Internet Men who, I learned, are kind of a revolving door on the Main Line. It seems they pop up every few months to get a new dating flurry going, since they have no intention of not dating, if you get my drift.  Jeanine had run into some crazies that way, or at least that’s how she described them, and being married, I had no other data sources-- men who'd make love on her bear rug and never call, men who promised to show for dinner but didn't, men who were phobic about parties.  Apparently, there were many "losers" on the Internet.   

 I'm a natural problem-solver so I figured there had to be a better system for date-generating.  I mean, if one system isn't getting the right outcome, I told Jeanine, you change the system, no?

I told her that if I were single, I'd join a church. Of course, I'm Jewish, so it wouldn't exactly be a church, but, in her case, a church, with church picnics, church support groups, church meetings, church services.  Churches were where you met fine upstanding people, the sort of man your mother wanted for you, with solid jobs and friends and family obligations, not shiftless Internet men.  The more I talked, the better it sounded.  Why, every woman and man should join a church! 

Really, I could have made a poster for churchgoing, I was that enthusiastic.

Naturally, what I meant, although I hadn't said so, was that Jeanine should join the same type of church her parents had attended-- whatever that was, Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist or Episcopalian (which was a lot of Main Liners were, and which was, I believe, Jeanine's "true" religion in Michigan, where she'd been raised.)  Made sense-- she'd get warm cozy memories of mom and dad singing hymns or drinking egg-nog or whatever Christians do to practice their religion-- I knew Jeanine was not Catholic, and of course Catholics are a different thing altogether, altogether wonderful.  I never grew up with religion but I figured that if I had, I would have warm cozy memories, maybe, of Jews singing on Hanukah, if that's what they do, although I wouldn't know.

 So, that's the kind of church I had in mind-- the church you knew, that you were part of, the church that belonged to you.

But Jeanine had peeked at the Episcopalians and decided they were too hide-bound, fuddy-duddy. Now that I think about it, perhaps she meant that the Episcopalian men were all taken or too old or ugly or fat.  Jeanine’s a trim woman in her late 50s, a runner, and in the market for a trim fellow who'd hike and run and kayak, rise early and scamper out in the freezing cold-- that would be Heaven to her. So, perhaps she'd rejected the Episcopalians on those grounds.  Perhaps, she’d surveyed the church population so to speak.  I've found out since that lots of Main Liners roam around, trying to find the church with the best sermons, the perfect ambience, maybe the ideal architecture or music program...who knows? 

Apparently, memories of mom and dad have nothing to do with finding your church.  You can belong to any church you choose, I guess.

Finally, Jeanine opted for the Unitarian church, which was not far from where we lived, although not as close as the Episcopalians or the Lutherans or the Catholics. And she took to it immediately. Her evenings became filled with the dinners and the groups I'd imagined.  Jeanine adored going to church, too. Now, she had something to do Sunday mornings, after her morning run, of course.  

Soon enough, she was nagging me to join her Unitarian church, although she knew that I am an out-and-out atheist.  Others label themselves agnostics, but I have no doubts about a godless world--I'm not a doubter, no way. But unlike other atheists, I adore religion. It pleases me to think of people praying and hoping and believing that the next world will be better than this one.  You can't blame them-- this world's hard enough. 

Well, I said, if I were to join something, it would be a synagogue, right?  I'm Jewish, or at least sometime in the past, someone in my family was Jewish.

Tons of Jews who are Unitarians-- I think most Jews are Unitarians, Jeanine insisted.  Besides, your mother is dead now, and it wouldn't matter. 

I needed to stick to the point, since dead or not, I wouldn't do that to my mother even if she hadn't ever been inside a synagogue. 

If most Jews were Unitarians, then there would be hardly any Jews. You see what I mean?  Not that there are tons, but there still are Jews, right?   Perhaps you mean most Unitarians are Jews?

Jeanine laughed--obviously I didn’t get it. There’s no conflict between being Jewish and Unitarian, she said. Besides, you love Bach, they have a great organist, you should hear him.

But, I was stuck on the whole "no conflict" business. Aren't you a Christian, I asked?  

That's when I learned about Christianity on the Main Line. 

Sort of, Jeanine said, but I don't believe in the whole heaven-hell, Jesus-resurrection thing.  I mean, the whole Jesus returning thing just doesn't work--it's not where I am.  I'm spiritual, just trying to be spiritual.  That's the whole point of Unitarians, they're spiritual.  It's about politics, the war in Iraq, helping children in Africa, global warming--you know what I mean?

So all these years that I'd been missing religion: that's what I'd been missing.  

But what about redemption through love, I asked, isn't that what Jesus is about? 

No, no, she said.  It's about being a good person.  Like you, you're a good person, so that's why you should join a church.

I had thought churches made people good, but to Jeanine, it worked the other way around -- good people joined churches. 

Funny thing is, I'd been dead-wrong about her dating problem.  Turns out there weren't any available Unitarian men, at least ones who wanted a woman twice-divorced with no money.  Seems the Unitarian guys were looking for younger richer women who could have kids or contribute to the family finances. Perhaps, come to think of it, that's what the Internet Men were looking for, too-- not a bad hypothesis.  So, I hadn't really solved any problem and the church was hardly a church at all-- more like a debating team or a social club.

Which reminded me of another conversation I'd had with a woman-- her name was Edith--who did attend an Episcopalian church, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.  Her father had been a minister, her brother was a minister, her grandfather had founded a religious college near me.  Obviously, a woman who’d been raised with religion, prayer books, rules, rituals-- the kind of woman who knew what Easter meant.  I didn't have to explain the resurrection to Edith.

But Edith fretted about my absence of belief.  She was a great fan of Graham Greene, and was infatuated with the idea of faith, that you had to give yourself up to the idea of faith or else.  I have to admit I have a soft spot for Graham Greene so I enjoyed our chats on Sunday afternoons when other people might have been returning from church. 

Edith would argue that it was impossible to prove atheism. But to me, just look around and it's obvious there's no divine plan.  I mean, if there were a plan, why would it involve millions of kids in the Congo having their limbs hacked off, and a whole world ignoring them, not even mentioning them? What's the plan, that the kids die suffering, but then sometime later, someone writes about it or mentions it in a Sunday sermon? 

Edith would say, it's men who create suffering, that's not part of God's plan. 

So what's the plan part, I asked-- I get the suffering part, I get the evil, what's the plan part? 

Then I stopped myself. Edith was alone, her life was miserable, she'd had many surgeries, she was broke, her dreams of success were fading.  I'm the last person on earth to tell Edith that there's no divine plan. I wouldn't dream of it.

But to my surprise, one day Edith announced that she'd lost her faith-- not that she'd become the kind of atheist I was, no, she’d never stray that far.  But, she no longer believed that she would see Jesus when she died.  She wasn't sure there was anything beyond this, anything beyond the world she knew. 

I'd expected a great sadness, but Edith wasn't sad. You see, I saw her life as miserable, but she didn't.  She looked forward to growing older. She'd make a grand old lady.  She could become a curmudgeon, sarcastic, funny.  She looked forward to spending her days re-reading Graham Green, watching old movies, listening to Bach. 

So, that's a good thing to keep in mind-- because all the suffering you see in this world, even kids without their limbs, isn't what it appears.  People get used to all kinds of misery and find their way to happiness, to the pursuit of happiness. 

I used to sit in Horn and Hardart, mid-town Manhattan, where lots of tiny old people ate.  It was long past the glory-days of Horn and Hardart, when you could pop a quarter in and get a delicious slice of apple pie-- how I loved that!  But it was still a gathering place. The old men and women must have remembered how it was, decades back, before Starbucks, when people ate tuna on rye toast, with a little slice of apple pie after, and a steaming cup of coffee.

My favorite thing in life is to listen to other people when they don’t notice me.  Don’t ask me why it’s such a pleasure to listen, not to have to speak.  You don't have to figure out how you’re supposed to react.  You just take it all in. 

And one day, during my lunch break, I sat next to a trio of old people-- two women, one man.  (I'd made it a point to sit adjacent to them to make eavesdropping easy.)  When I say old, I don't mean decrepit. Far from it, they were glowing and well-dressed. One of the women wore an elegant purple suit of wool boucle, with tasteful gold jewelry—maybe she was visiting the Morgan Museum after Horn and Hardart. The man was strong, broad-shouldered--handsome with grey bushy hair.  I didn't sense that he was married to either of the women.  

They were exchanging the usual coffee-shop gossip about grand-kids. All of the kids were great, I was relieved to hear-- they were going to Ivy League schools, Alan was studying to be a doctor, Jill was getting married. And the grand-parents, they were great, too-- happy with their pies and their friends and their stories.  I couldn't imagine a happier, sweeter group of people: they are the people you want to meet when you're in a big city like New York, the people who make you feel safe.  For a moment, I had a wish that I could stay there with them forever!

As they got ready to leave, I heard one of the women mention a movie-- something serious, grim, it had been well-reviewed, I knew.  Her friends nodded no, they wouldn’t see that. They’d seen enough grimness in the camps.  They'd lost their parents, they'd lost everything—they'd seen enough of the world to know what it can be like.  So, no, they wouldn’t see that film. They wanted to laugh, have a good time. 

One of the women, the one with the gold jewelry, caught me listening, and she didn't mind.  She knew immediately that I was Jewish.  She would have known that even if I'd called myself a Unitarian. I was about to cry, I couldn't help it--tears were welling up and I could feel my face getting red and puffy.  I couldn't help imagining the family I might have had in a different sort of world. 

The woman looked at me with a hint of a smile, prodded her friends.  That’s what matters, enjoy life, she said.  

The handsome man added, you only go around once.

But of course, they weren't Christians and they didn't have to worry about the Resurrection.

Copyright 2013 Carla Sarett