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In My Opinion
Lynn Paris

Church Shopping

It took almost four years, but we’ve finally found a church, right here in College Station, TX, that feels like a perfect fit. A church with a pastor who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers and a doctrine that isn’t fundamentalist. A church whose members aren’t all right-wing conservatives. A church that doesn’t just preach love and compassion but actually seems to practice it. A church WITH a social conscience and without exclusivity.

I had begun to think that was impossible. After leaving the church we joined almost as soon as we arrived here, the church we attended for three years, we felt lost. We knew we had to leave, for many reasons. It wasn’t growing; it was stagnating, its members still arguing about the same issues we thought would be settled within the first few months.

We joined that church with high hopes; they had just moved into a brand new building and were full of talk about growth and change. The people we met were warm and friendly, and seemed genuinely thrilled to have us join them.

But they didn’t want change, not really. Whenever anything began to look like change, the forces of maintaining the status quo took over. Which would have been fine, except that they were losing members. People would come, and like us be welcomed with open arms. But unlike us, most didn’t return after two or three weeks. We stayed, out of loyalty to the friends we’d made and a sense of guilt about leaving while they were in the throes of financial problems, infighting and low membership.

Eventually we found the distractions of the cliques and the petty disagreements and the lack of resources or will to do any kind of service or outreach in the community too overwhelming. And when we had Sunday school classes and talked about social issues, our gut reaction always seemed to be on the other side of the consensus opinion. Christianity, at least in the south, was obviously synonymous with ultra-conservatism. We no longer looked forward to attending church; it was becoming a chore.

Ultimately, however, it was the doctrine of the church itself that tipped the scales. It took us awhile, but we were finally forced to admit that we clearly were not fundamentalists. We just weren’t buying it. We’d been wrestling with doubt and questions way too profound for anyone there to be able to answer; they couldn’t even talk about them. We knew we were in danger of losing it all, of losing our faith, and we weren’t ready to do that. It was better to leave.

But we were confused. With hundreds of churches from which to choose, we decided to shop around. Surely we’d find a place that could accommodate people like us. People who, for example, didn’t hate Obama. Or believe that every other religion was wrong. Or believe that they could cure homosexuality. Or, at the very least, a pastor who didn’t insist that the earth was 6,000 years old.

In light of all that, it might seem somewhat strange that our first stop was the Catholic Church. We never thought it would be the answer, but we’d both been Catholics once so we knew what to expect. We knew we’d get the anonymity we needed to try to rekindle those feelings of awe and reverence we feared we were losing. We knew we could get lost in the crowds of devout worshippers and bask in the familiar liturgy, recite the familiar prayers, kneel and pray and listen to the sounds of the heavenly voices in the choir, and maybe reconnect with God. We went about four times, around Christmas, and it was lovely, peaceful and stress-free.

But it was not what we were looking for, at least not for the long term. We knew we would never be able to deal with the pope and the saints, the rosaries and hail Mary’s . . .it just wasn’t us. So we got serious about looking for a new church.

And we tried about six. Each seemed promising for a visit or two, but each in the end was a disappointment. Great worship band, but an environment, strobe lights and all, that seemed more nightclub than church. Pastors who, when I questioned them, couldn’t say with conviction that they believed the earth was billions of years old. A church where every member was white, good-looking and under the age of twenty-five. A church where the pastor shared an inside joke with the congregation about not really wanting to pray for Obama after the health reform bill passed. All, in the end, filled with the same fundamentalist right-wing ideologues we couldn’t seem to escape.

Just when we were beginning to accept that this was all we would ever find in Texas (you’re not in California anymore!) we tried one more time. Some might wonder why we didn’t just stay home, and I have to admit we considered it. But there’s something about going to church, taking time out of your weekend to worship with others, to acknowledge your shared humanity in the presence of a higher power, that becomes addictive, like AA is for alcoholics. It’s like a shot of humility and grace that gets you through the week, striving just a little harder to be better. Besides, going to church in Texas is like breathing in other places; you just do it.

At any rate, I had spotted another church on the web and liked the way they described themselves. Inclusive, affirming, committed to social justice and service to the community, all grounded in the belief in a loving and compassionate God. A bigger God than the one who seemed to be worshipped in the other churches—a God capable of welcoming all—those who were spiritually mature and those with questions and doubts. Families, couples and singles, straight or gay. All ethnicities, all ages, all colors.

And that’s exactly what we found. The most eclectic, authentic and interesting group of people we’ve met since living in Texas. A pastor who is deeply spiritual and devoted to serving God, and whose sermons are informed by their lack of hypocrisy. Members who are warm and friendly, but not desperate to have us sign up. By the third week we had volunteered to join about twenty members to serve at a local food pantry for needy families. A simple thing, a couple of hours of our time, but something we’d been missing since we left California. These people were practicing their faith, not boasting about it.

The bonus was the lunch we shared afterwards, when we sat and talked politics and current events without having to censor our feelings or bite our tongues. They were open and respectful of each other’s views, whether progressive or conservative. And, yes, there were actually real progressives—people who were thrilled when Obama was elected and believed that health care reform didn’t go far enough. People who disagreed with just about everything that ever came out of Sarah Palin’s mouth and never watched Glenn Beck. These were intelligent, well-informed, politically savvy, church-going, God-loving LIBERALS—right here in College Station.

For us, that seems like a miracle.

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