I was usher last week at the 10:30 service. Raoul was on the list, but he didn’t show. So I picked up a pile of bulletins and planted myself in the narthex. Nobody gets by me without a hearty “Good Morning” and a pamphlet with a lamb on the cover.
“Usher” is one of those problematic words. Logically, it should come from the verb “to ush,” so that anybody who ushes is inevitably an usher. But no: the word descends from the Latin “ostiarius,” or door-keeper. Nobody ever ushed. At best, they “ushered.”
That’s what the etymologists say. And they are wrong. I do not usher; I ush. It’s a whole different game.
The parishioners dribbled in, and the service began; I stayed in the narthex. It’s useless to sit down before the first reading: one or two families inevitably make a two-wheel turn at speed into the parking lot ten minutes into the service, smoke streaming from the tires of their Honda Odysseys. Ten years ago it would have been Volvo wagons, but times change.
And in fact that happened. Once the latecomers got settled and the first reading began, I stood in the back of the sanctuary and counted the house for the attendance records.
Thus proceeds another Sunday service at St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church. Presbymethertarians are a hearty bunch, much given to good works, social reform, affordable housing, traditional worship, and pancakes. They’re nuts for pancakes, in all shapes and sizes. Where else can you sit down to a church breakfast of spherical pancakes? Only Presbymethertarians have the technology.
In some ways, St. Bob’s does amazingly well. Pastor Biff is known around town as a mover and shaker for social justice projects. Badly-needed housing for seniors is a-building at the back of the campus; forty-odd units of it, thanks to an alliance with a housing non-profit. There’s a million in the bank from the land lease payments. We also help Habitat for Humanity
St. Bob’s compassionately-religious preschool runs at capacity. With another few churches, we fund high school scholarships and capital projects for three villages in El Salvador. We hold frequent pupusa lunches to raise funds for this mission. The pupusa is a traditional Salvadorian dish, a sort of stuffed…. pancake.
And yet, as I counted the house last Sunday attendance was disappointing — as usual. What heads I counted were mainly gray, white or balding, and filled fewer than half the seats.
Every year there are fewer and fewer of us. If you ask him, Pastor Biff will blame it on the housing market. St. Bob’s is a sort of Frankenstein congregation, assembled by refugees from three failing churches fifteen years ago. Back then, the pews were full of young families: what every church wants to have, people who’ll grow old with you, stay with you for decades. But then housing prices surged wildly around here, and the young Presbymethertarian families couldn’t buy. So they left town.
That’s part of it. But I also think that what Presbymethertarians want to sell, not that many want to buy unless they’re already invested in the church traditions.
There Pastor Biff would disagree. He thinks we have a great deal to offer. Last Sunday he preached to us to invite friends to St. Bob’s, to see what we have and perhaps decide that it’s what they want.
But I can’t think of a single acquaintance that I could sell that to, who isn’t already committed to a spiritual community. Hundred-year-old hymns? Elderly metaphors for forgiveness and hope from a civilization of shepherds and farmers? The Lamb of God? The Perfect Sacrifice? Forgiveness of sins? By whom? And group hymn-sings and Saturday work parties and all sorts of unknown traditions that get in the way of getting the kids to soccer practice or, frankly, of the time you need to collapse and rest up for the week to come? How does church help that? What do we actually offer that will benefit them?
And I’m not sure I have an answer. There is community support; a few parishioners did come by the hospital when my wife was ill recently; that was good. More came from the arts and crafts group that she leads, however. And yet that group meets at the church, which gives its space freely. So the issue is complicated, isn’t it?
And on top of all that — these days, St. Bob’s neighborhood is now heavily Latino. Most of St. Bob’s parishioners have to come from five or ten miles away; they never lived nearby. Presbymethertarians descend from lands of snow and axes and spherical pancakes; the neighbors do not. The spiritual traditions are way different. Pastor Biff and the church council know that things have to change, and they’re casting around for ideas. But they’re not sure about how to move forward while staying who they are. They’re not sure what to offer, or even what they can offer. Resources for change are slim — and manpower. And not everybody wants change. But they have to find a way to include more people — make them want to be included — or St. Bob’s will be an empty building one of these days.
I was thinking about this as my wife and I were driving back from doing some chores at St. Bobs this past Saturday. As we got near home the traffic turned heavy. Very heavy. My wife said: “I forgot, it’s the Women’s March! We[ll never get home!”
Yes, we had a Women’s March in our town, too; it’s a college town, well-educated and prosperous, and women (and men) were going to march in protest against the Trump administration. And as we got closer to home the sidewalks grew crowded with marchers headed toward the rally point. Like the town, they trended older; they trended well-educated and well-to-do. They trended liberal. Who I did not see there was the 20 percent of the town that is Latino. Nor did I see signs of the old-school blue-collar townies whose families have been here since way before the local university brought the academic crowd. Many of them voted for Trump.
The townies and the Latinos have a lot in common, though they wouldn’t think so and there’s much low-key racism around here. Townies and Latinos are both pushed economically, many of them. Talk to a Latino service worker for awhile and you’ll find yourself talking to somebody who hasn’t had a day off in two months, or works 12 hours a day. They have to, to survive in this expensive patch of paradise where there is at least reliable work.
Talk to a townie, and you’ll find somebody wondering why they’re struggling like hell to make it in the town they grew up in, or, if they’re older, why their kids couldn’t make it here and had to leave. They don’t know who to blame, so they blame liberals.
I was glad to see the parade. I’m not glad to see the mistakes of the election being repeated. At least by people who identify Democrat or liberal.
Our town is a beautiful place. The educated class, the liberal class, wants to preserve that beauty, and the rights of all to be themselves politically and sexually. They are not as concerned about affordable housing; not when the rubber meets the road. Certainly not in their neighborhoods, where their personal lives might be affected (or property values). Some well-connected group always shows up with reasons not to build affordable housing or high density housing in a particular place. Pollution; traffic; bobcats (once); something. Meanwhile, the people who keep the town running try to get by with low pay and stunning rents. Latinos and townies both.
I look at the videos of the demonstrations country-wide, and the vast majority of marchers are well-to-do and white. Not always on stage; plenty of color and diversity up there for the TV cameras. But in the crowds, it’s the old comfortable liberal crowd who thinks that the world will be oh-so-much-better when everybody’s like them. And isn’t talking to people who aren’t like them. Isn’t reaching out to them.
I’ve got news; they have to, here in town and nationwide. They have to talk to the townies. Talk to the workers. Talk to the minorities. Make their lives easier now, right now, top priority, or you will not have them with you. And you will lose the heart of this country again and again and again. It’s no longer enough to be the lesser of two evils. Your ideology is outdated, your traditions hearken back to solutions that no longer work for everyone, your prescriptions don’t address the problems of the people who abandoned you. You are too comfortable.
The Presbymethertarians at St. Bob’s at least know that they have to change to succeed; empty pews are a great motivator. What do you need to change, happy marchers? Get uncomfortable with your own assumptions, or you will lose again, and the nation with you.
It’s early, though. I have faith in you. You will learn. Rally the faithful around yourself, as you have. And then reach out to everyone else.