People come to church for many different reasons—the music, the mini muffins, just Sabbath school, just the sermon.
Personally, I come for the people.
When I was a girl growing up in Guam, my favorite part of church was greeting time. Every week I would try to make it all the way around the sanctuary. Could I hug and kiss all the aunties and uncles and shake all the hands before the organ started the Doxology?
I’d start down the left side of the church where the locals sat (that was my side). Auntie Justa, who’d tell me I was getting fatter. Uncle Charlie, war veteran, with faded tattoos on his forearms (the only person in church with tattoos). Lovely Auntie Lucy. I’d skip stern looking Mr. England. Soft and kind Auntie Bit Bit. The benevolent bachelor uncles, always sitting in the very last pew in their Hawaiian shirts. And then around to the missionary side of the church. I didn’t know them as well or feel as comfortable around them, but I would still Handshake and Happy Sabbath my way through and dash back to my pew as the organ began the intro.
I still come for the people. And believe me, if La Sierra had a four minute greeting time here like we did at home growing up, I’d be all over that.
‘They say’ that people paste on a fake cheerfulness at church and hide the uglier truth of their reality beneath the ubiquitous “I’m fine, thank you,” or a plastic, “Happy Sabbath."
But it simply isn’t true.
First, I would like to posit that smiling while you’re struggling is not a sign of being fake. Plain common sense tells us that it’s not usually the best choice of action to begin weeping in the coffee line.
Second, some situations are better suited than others to emotional vulnerability. People carry their lives with them wherever they go and most of us are just waiting for a safe person in a safe moment to allow these things to be seen. To allow ourselves to be seen.
I sit in church and look out over the faces, and all I see are real people and their real stories.
I was in the room when that well-loved baby made her rather traumatic entrance into the world.
Up there in the praise team is the beautiful young adult I’ve known since she joined my children’s choir when she was in second grade. My first memory of her is when she complimented me on my pretty dress, fashion compliments from a 7 year old.
He was worried that he would die in surgery and leave his family behind.
There’s the boy who plays on my son’s soccer team. I remember when he was a baby in leg casts due to a birth defect. Now look at him run.
Here’s the girl I connect with every Christmas Eve. Her mother was killed in a car accident on the corner of Sierra Vista and Riverwalk—they were on their way to church so that she could sing in my children’s choir for our Christmas Eve service. I was there when she was loaded into the ambulance.
This one lost her husband a while back and I’ve been watching as she is slowly moving from the dark cloud of recent grief to a more animated life. I watch her out of the corner of my eye and see how she takes strength from worship.
This one told me about the abortion she chose to have and doesn’t regret.
This one holds his grief and hope over his child’s disabilities always close to the surface. Tears fell down her face the first day their child helped collect the offering.
There’s the dad who yells on the soccer field. And the basketball court. And the softball field.
She is a wonderful conversationalist, warm and funny and intelligent. And she sits by herself every week, year in, year out.
There is an elderly couple I’ve never talked to, but I see them in the transept on Sabbath morning. In the afternoon, I see them in the neighborhood going on a relaxed Sabbath drive, with their dogs looking out the car windows.
That glowing new mama is nurturing an unborn baby already diagnosed with a serious congenital problem.
It was years before I found out that this family lost a child before they moved into our community, a quiet history held close.
I see those who are missing. People torn away by crises. Children who have grown up and grown away and we don’t know if they’re ever coming back. Elderly swallowed up in retirement/nursing homes close to their children, but far from us.
When I lost a baby to miscarriage, I didn’t enjoy the overtures of kindness and support that came from the community. I resented that there was a reason for people to bring me flowers or offer appalling words about “God’s will." But my tragedy opened a door previously sealed and women began to come out of the woodwork with similar stories of loss. Women in their 70s and 80s talked about multiple miscarriages and babies lost at term more than fifty years ago. It was a club I never wanted to join—an underground community that you can join only through loss—but my very membership became the only way to access the comfort of being drawn out of isolation and into shared experience.
The longer we are here at La Sierra, the more I begin to understand the interconnectedness of the community around us. Levels and layers and connections that have been lying right under my nose for fifteen years, influencing everything. Families split and stitched together in different configurations. Divorces and deaths, decades past. Happy, transformative stories of help given in time of need.
It’s all here at church. Heartbreak and happiness. Life and death. Struggle and serenity. It’s all here, if you have eyes to see it. Joy and pain and everything in between is shared in whispers during Sabbath school, in the hallways outside the bathroom, sitting in the cafe. It is precious, precious.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the life of his saints.
Why do you come to church, you ask? I come for the people. I say it with self-deprecation, realizing that “to worship” or “to serve” would be perceived as better answers. But I’m not apologetic. I think of our Lord Jesus, who did come to worship and to serve. And I think that if I were to ask, He might also answer, “I come for the people.”