Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“Barbara dear — and after all these years”

We have been talking about “small churches” in my Sunday school class. Really, “small churches” and their friendships and foibles are the weekly subject of this column. All churchgoers in Marshall County fall into this category. We have no “big” churches here.

One problem that small churches have is how to welcome members who come back after being inactive for a significant period of time. The reunion ought to be joyous, and it usually is, but when everyone knows everyone and all about their business, there can be an awkward moment right at first. Getting past this is what I want to write about this week.

This is a humorous story, and it is a true story. When I served in a big church in Chicago, a fellow parishioner and I discovered quite by accident that we each had kinfolk in the small town of Charleston, Illinois, downstate. Moreover, both sets of relatives were members of the same church in Charleston, Old First Presbyterian, on the north side of the historic courthouse square.

But as it happens, my friend Karen’s sister and her husband were inactive, while my Uncle Bill and Auntie Fran were quite active — indeed, pillars of the church.

Karen and her sister were part of the “sixties generation.” They had dropped out of the church years before, and each, by a different route and through different circumstances, had found their way back to an active faith.

Karen was living in Chicago, where she had begun a successful graphics design business. She was prosperous enough to afford to locate her business at a prominent Michigan Avenue address and had some of the biggest firms in the city as clients.

But something was missing, and after her husband died of cancer, Karen had begun attending the Fourth Presbyterian Church, sitting in the shadowy back pews, and pondering whether what the preacher was saying might, after all, be true.

Karen got involved in our church’s tutoring program, and soon she was so busy “giving” that she was quite willing to let her questions about the fine points of the church’s theology go unanswered.

I knew all this, and as Karen told me about her sister and brother-in-law who lived in Charleston, she explained that they, too, wished to become active once more in their old hometown church. The trouble was that they felt silly coming back after all these years.

Much time had passed, and they could hardly recall the issues that had caused them to drop out. Those things weren’t really important anyway. This was the church where their mothers and fathers had belonged, where their parents’ wedding had taken place, and where they had gone to Sunday school and youth group.

So Karen and I hatched a plan. I asked for a Sunday off, and we rode the train to Charleston to visit our respective sets of relatives. Then on Sunday, Karen, her sister and brother-in-law would come to church, with the “excuse” for coming that particular day being that they could meet Karen’s minister from Chicago. The scheme was finalized and was, we thought, foolproof. After all, my title at the Chicago church was “Minister of Evangelism!”

Karen’s sister was a little antsy about “what people would say.” Actually, she dreaded it. You know how small churches are — everybody knows everybody and all about their business. Too much, it seems at times. You are glad when they come pouring in if tragedy happens, but there are other times when the communion seems “too close.” Like the time when you and your spouse chose to “live together” before the wedding — or the “concern” the church people expressed about your gay brother who went to live in New York City — well, you get the picture.

So Karen and I did all we could to smooth the way. I made a phone call to the Charleston church’s excellent minister, Susan Reichtenberg, and asked her to pass the word to everybody just to pretend as if Karen’s relatives had never been absent, and I made a special point to ask my aunt and uncle to do the same. Everyone was to be cordial but nonchalant.

In return, the “prodigal couple” had resolved to start back attending every Sunday thereafter.

Eleven o’clock on the Sabbath day arrived, and events seemed to be unfolding just as we had hoped. The service was lovely, and the church fairly beamed at the presence of familiar and well-loved faces sitting once more in the family pew.

Then the service was over, and it was my aunt and uncle’s turn to greet my friend Karen and her sister and husband. Then it was that I heard my elderly aunt saying, “Hello! Barbara and Frank—dears. It is so wonderful to see you here. And after all these years!”

Small churches — you’ve got to love ’em!

Some people delay their homecoming for years dreading the “awkward moment” of their return, and that is silly. Let it happen, and then get on with things. My friends in Charleston are certainly glad they did. They’ve been right there ever since!

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