Welcoming the Stranger

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Recently I have been sorting through old drawings and came upon the same folio I find every couple of years. I open it, the small pages slide over each other as if clamoring for attention, and memory opens in me.

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The drawings were made at a tiny Baptist church I attended over twenty years ago, several years before I began to attend an Episcopal church. It was around the corner from my home and studio. One day I heard joyful singing that pulled me in. A ten-year-old boy was playing the drums, a woman was playing an electric piano, and the pastor played funky riffs on his bass guitar.  The small children sat in pews like peas in pods and shook tambourines while they watched their parents pray, sing, dance, laugh and sometimes cry.

The pastor was my father’s age and a communications professor at a mostly white college. He was black, as most of his congregation was, and had been raised Episcopalian on an island in the West Indies, while many of his parishioners had been born a few blocks from the church. Some of them, especially the ministers, had been addicted to drugs and incarcerated. Now they were pursuing Jesus with the same fervor with which they had once pursued sin, some joked.

The pastor and his wife discussed things I had rarely heard discussed, much less in church. They joked, teased, and expressed frustration with each other in front of us. Now I realize they had a pact to show us how to wrestle in God’s presence in community—how to pray, live, and love—while fighting the temptation to give up.

The pastor seemed to perceive me. I thought I must remind him of his students. It seemed he perceived them, their lack of direction, their insecurity and inability to wrestle with relationships, with themselves, and with God. The pastor seemed to turn all the people God sent to him around in his mind, studying and marveling at each one’s unique attributes.

I, the artist who had a gallery down the street, did not know what to do with my hands or my mind during the church service. I wanted to be there, but I thought I knew I would never fit in at any church. Here my whiteness made it obvious I was not trying to fit in, and this was a relief. One day, I asked the pastor if he thought it appropriate for me to draw as others sang. “Do it,” he said. He had wanted to be a painter when he was young. Young, foolish and macho, he said, he decided being a painter would not make him look tough. He gave it up and now he regretted it.

On Saturday mornings, the pastor brought artwork to my gallery for me to frame. His support showed me that my ability to believe God wanted me to be an artist was a blessing. When he answered my questions about the city beyond my artist enclave, he gently reflected more of my privilege to me. I began to feel the weight of it as I kept drawing and listening in church. I had never before sat with women who wept over siblings killed in Vietnam, or who were dying of AIDS.

The pastor and his church taught me to struggle against my own isolation. When a story of shame surfaced in church, they told it and prayed. But I learned Jesus was a stranger to me when a prison inmate I was assigned to write to revealed she had killed someone. I was ashamed I could not bring myself to write back to her. I did not tell anyone, even though they would have taught me how to open my heart.

But I learned how to persevere in church-going by watching how the others insisted, Sunday after Sunday, that they all belonged exactly where they were. I belonged with them there too, when I chose to show up. Being invited to be myself, with pencil in hand, made it easier to show up.

As I look at these drawings I think, thank God for each one of them who accepted me for what I was. Thank God for their skilled and elaborate worship that ran its course through glory and human weakness like a psalm. (I think that, along with Shakespeare, their worship prepared me to fall in love with Anglican liturgy many years later.)

May more churches welcome artists, who often don’t feel they belong, like the people in these drawings welcomed me.

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And we welcome you to join us! A Cathedral Homecoming Celebration is being planned for Sunday, September 15, 2019, to bless and dedicate our new floor and garden space, to launch the new Cathedral brand, and to announce the 2019-2020 Cathedral Arts program. A picnic on the grounds with music by The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and a brass quintet will be a part of the celebration at 11:30 am, preceded by a special service of thanksgiving at 10:00 am.