For reasons that I cannot fully explain, the place I currently-and far too infrequently-worship is a contradiction to much of my life. If you want to make the hypocritical Christian joke here, that is more than fair and you will get no argument from me on it, and as long as it’s good natured I would chuckle along. I am a poor example of the faith in a multitude of ways that we will not delve into here.
Country would be a good descriptor to begin with of this small church. Tucked in a bend in the road of an unincorporated town, it’s old fashioned by modern tastes both in design and function. The congregants still sit in pews, and the more modern music and worship styles have barely managed a beach head in this particular outpost of Christendom. Piano and hymns are still the order of the day for the most part, but on occasion something from newer than a quarter century ago makes its way in and is tolerated admirably by the folks who really can’t stand it, but are far to polite to say so. There is a stubbornness to holding tradition that is equal parts frustrating and admirable. Sing the songs, pay your tithe, hear the preacher, fix your current issue with divine help, and back into the world you go. Unless, in the greatest of Baptist traditions, there is a meal to be served afterwards, in which case the pot luck dinner-the supreme tool of community building-is rushed to with as much haste as semi-rigid propriety will allow. But the people are big hearted, kind, giving, and the type of people you want your children around. To me that trumps a particular preference in worship style.
But there is something very, very modern at the doors to this throwback church, by design unseen by most and known only to a few out of necessity.
Most noticed a while back when the outside doors were locked once service started, restricting access to a single point of entry at the very front of the building. Most folks disliked this because now a tardy attendee must do another of those small church traditions; the loud opening of door and walk of shame down the center aisle while all stop to crane and see who it is. This mild ritualistic humiliation is usually accompanied by a joke from whoever is manning the pulpit at the moment at that persons expense.
Little do they know such a scene is for their own good.
For you see, those folks that stay at that door all through service glad handing worshipers, smiling and greetings, handing out bulletins, and giving directions, have an all together different purpose in working the incoming crowd. While the pastor may be the spiritual shepherd of this flock, this church has found it prudent to have some very earthly sheep dogs at the doors.
North Carolina does not restrict concealed carry in places of worship like some states, and is also open carry. The dozen or so men and women who rotate at the front door of church are all military or police experienced in one way or another; licensed to carry, thoroughly trained, and more than capable. More than one has combat experience. All volunteered, knowing full well that the law does not provide any special protections for them if the worst should occur. In Germany, synagogues have long since had constant police protection, and armed Polizei making their presence known outside is a normal thing. In our country while the larger places of worship have police as both traffic control and security, the vast majority of religious buildings have little, if any, security.
When things like the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting occur, inevitably my thoughts drift to those folks at the doors of my own place of worship. I’m glad they are there, doing over watch while we can (or at least try to) think of spiritual things absent of worldly problems. Not everyone has the option or inclination to do so. In this, one of the largest military communities in the country, there is an awareness for security that is probably heightened from other areas.
But maybe within that is why my thoroughly worldly and modern self finds a measure of peace in such anachronistic place. The therapist probably would point to how it calls back to my childhood; small country church, salt of the earth people, simple. That sort of idealist memory is of course untrue, but powerful. They were burdened people then just as we are now. Or perhaps an expert would point out that before my own life experiences with people, sickness, war, and a dozen other things changed and shaped my current worldview this is how things were and I’m somehow wishing them to be again.
That might all be true. But I think mostly, it is for a few moments on a Sunday the ritual of religion can meet the inner need of my own soul and this physical place helps the two offset factions coexist. I’ve studied theology both academically and personally for twenty years now, and there are a lot of big words and concepts I could do a deep dive into here, but that would just be unnecessary words for my benefit more than the point calls for. My own search for and issues with the Almighty seem to have led me here. And I try in my very poor, very inadequate way to explore them in this jarringly old fashioned place. Because of my own issues I still glance at the doors, and size up people I do not recognize, and fidget, and my mind wanders.
But I don’t have to look behind me.
Someone is back there doing that already. It’s a small blessing. But in struggling with faith on the margins, you take all the help you can get. There will be a debate on this shooting, like the many before it. I have plenty of policy and secular opinions on that. Midway through service on any given Sunday, however, I count it a blessing that me, my family, and my church have capable people focusing on the world that is so we can pray and strive for a world as it could, and should, be.