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New old church with room for friends


A year ago I changed churches. For many years I had been a member of the nice big church about six blocks from my home. Some Sundays I was a Communion minister. Once a month I walked the halls of the nearby Baptist hospital carrying little pieces of bread to patients who saw with the eyes of faith that what I brought them was far more than bread. For more than 10 years I have been a member of a small Christian community based at the big parish.

I had heard about St. James, a much smaller congregation a few miles closer to downtown -- about its service to its neighborhood, its community dining room, food pantry and thrift store. But I was never tempted to visit.

Then my friend Joan was named its pastoral administrator, and I attended her installation. Even with the 10 or so friends and relatives who came because of Joan, the church was only about half full. It seemed so different from my big, crowded church.

Hey, I thought, this is a place where there would be room to bring a friend. It felt comfortable. There was a friendly scramble at the Sign of Peace, when people moved around the church, shaking hands, smiling, hugging and sharing bits of news. That’s easier when pews aren’t packed.

And the smaller church has marvelous acoustics. Even half empty, when the choir and the congregation sang, the sound bounced off the walls, and the church felt full.

And when they sang and prayed and milled about, there were all kinds and colors -- a glimpse of God’s diversity. That’s something I want in my life.

It seemed to me that I was being called out of one church and into another. I talked with my pastor and friends at the church near my home and signed on at my new church.

Because there’s room and because my new church has a special spirit and a real need, I reach out to friends and family and invite them to come to church with me. Some smile and say probably not. But some have come to see what I’m so excited about -- including members of my small Christian community. That group is still a home base for me.

One Sunday in late summer, Diana, a friend, came with me to Mass. I could tell she liked it. After Mass Joan invited Diana to come again and told her about the class for people interested in exploring the idea of becoming a Catholic Christian. That was rushing things, I thought, but Joan doesn’t hold back.

Next time I saw Diana she said she wanted to come to church with me again. “When does that class start?” she asked. “I’ve been thinking about it.”

Later, just sitting with the wonder of it, I asked myself what I could tell Diana about the church. I decided I could tell her that the church is about Jesus, who is the son of God, as we are daughters and sons of God. I would probably tell her I don’t know how being a child of God is different for Jesus from what it is for me, but maybe it is. I would tell her that Jesus is holy and generous and loves the world and its people so much that he found a way to stay with us so that his life and love didn’t end with his death.

And I would tell her that he said, “You will do greater things than I.” To me that says that Jesus knew there would be people who would love with a love as strong, courageous and miraculous as his own. A recent example for me is the priests in East Timor who died defending people sheltered in their church (NCR, Sept. 17 and 24).

Diana was surprised that it takes so long to become a Catholic. Classes started in September and run beyond Easter. Inquirers and their sponsors from St. James meet with inquirers and sponsors from two other mid-city churches. I offered to be Diana’s sponsor. That’s how I’ve come to be spending every Thursday evening with a group of people most of whom I didn’t know until recently. Diana hasn’t yet come to the Thursday night group and will soon start a job where she works evenings and won’t be able to come. She comes to Mass with me on Sunday, and we’re going to a chili supper with bingo at the church this week.

One Thursday evening a young single mom who is returning to church asked me, “If your student doesn’t come, will you be my sponsor?” So I’m accompanying Heather on her journey to Easter, when she will be confirmed.

When I moved to Kansas City many years ago, one of my friends at the big church near my home was Tom Blackburn, who wrote for NCR. A rule he lived by was, “You gotta leave room for the Holy Spirit.” I hope I’m doing that.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999