I got up at 8:30 this morning to make a coffeecake. This is not normal behavior for me. Typically you’ll find me in bed well past 10 am on Sundays, particularly during the winter months when there’s no farmers’ market to attend. But I had promised to bring a sweet thing to church for the post-service coffee hour and so I was up, baking.
This particular task actually served two purposes, as I’m also writing about coffeecake for this week’s Weekender column over on the FN Dish and so needed to make Ina’s sour cream version to photograph. I try to arrange this kind of doubling up whenever possible, so that I can get my work done without the temptation of a giant confection taking up residence in my kitchen for an entire week.
I’ve been a member of the First Unitarian Church here in Philadelphia since my first month in the city. In just a week or so, I’ll have been here for ten years, so that’s a good long time. However, it’s been years since I attended the Sunday service with any regularity. Last year, I think I went all of twice. This year, I’ve not been even once.
There are so many reasons for this. Life is far busier than it once was. I married someone who has no interest in organized religion of any stripe. I started valuing the ability to go to the farmers’ market more than I felt a need to go to church. I don’t really enjoy the services under the leadership of the current minister.
Most vitally, church for me has always been about the people more so than a need to feel spiritually fed or re-inspired. In recent years, all of my close friends have moved on or moved away. Without them, all that was left was the experience. When those moments of grace occur for me in a sanctuary, I do feel grateful. It’s just that they are fleeting, precious and rare (and truly not limited to a church). With my many human tethers gone, I lost the ability to go week after week, in the hopes of capturing that feeling that happened with such mysterious infrequency.
Despite all this, I still maintain my membership. I pledge each spring and send money on a monthly basis (though I had to cut back this year after being laid off). And when I’m asking to participate in a way that doesn’t require long hours of committee meetings or full Sunday morning attendance, I do my best to say yes.
My continued but distant involvement stems from the time I served on the search committee for the current minister. Included in that group of seven was a woman named Billie Penn Johnson*. She was in her seventies and had been a member of the church for far longer than I’d been alive. Over the course of our search, several times she reminded us that a church is not the minister. It is the people. Throughout all the times when I’ve felt tempted to break up with this creaky, dysfunctional church, I remember her words. And so I stay.
This morning, when the coffeecake was finished baking and cooling and I’d taken all the photos I needed, I cut it, arranged the slices nicely on a pair of sturdy paper plates, swaddled them in plastic wrap and walked the two blocks to the church. As so often happens when I carry cake through the city, passersby grinned at me and asked for slices. Nothing makes city dwellers to friendly as the sight and scent of a freshly baked sweet.
I snuck into the sanctuary mid-service and put my plates down on the refreshment table. Standing near the door were three women that I’ve known since my first days at the church. Suddenly, the people merged with the grace and I remembered how good church can be. They all grinned and gave me hugs. One motioned to give me an order of service. I indicated that I wasn’t staying; she smiled and shrugged. Another was calming her hiccuping baby. He grinned with his whole face and lunged for me. I planted a kiss on his cheek and squeezed his mama’s hand. Then I slipped out.
I got more from those few moments greeting without speaking than I would have from the entire service.
*Billie Penn died on December 15, 2011. I didn’t start this piece as an intentional remembrance, but here we are, nonetheless.