“I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was”

I managed to fall behind in the first weeks of a new job — or I succumbed to the sin of procrastination — so now I’m finally posting about a church visit in January.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Grace Baptist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

“How many of you have brought your Bibles?” Pastor Charles Whitfield asked those of us crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews.

Two hundred Good Books went into the air. (But not mine. I’m used to Bibles in the pew, not in the purse. But a sweet woman to my left pressed hers on me, and she shared her husband’s.)

“Oh, it’s good to see so many Bibles here today,” he said and beamed.

And there you have a key difference in Christian worship, between those churches in which they have Bibles in the pews but don’t really expect you to take them out (Catholic, Unitarian), those in which the Bible is there so you can follow along during the Scripture readings (Lutheran, et al) and those in which you bring your own, preferably in a personalized cover and with bookmarks bristling.

Grace Baptist Church is one of two churches within a quarter-mile of my house. I’ve walked or driven past it at least two thousand times in the past 10 years, but I’d never gone in. Maybe I was put off by the “Baptist.” Not my people. Could not ever be my people. In this I share the prejudice of many in my particular corner of liberal Christianity, a prejudice that deserves a lot more scrutiny than I can get into today. But we will return to it.

And maybe I was put off by the knowledge that the church had been there for 50 years with the same pastor and by the glimpses of gray-haired congregants going in. Never mind that my church — like many churches — has plenty of gray-haired congregants. God willing, I will be a gray-haired congregant someday, too soon. But surely Grace Baptist was a sleepy, boring place to visit. Surely.

So of course I got kicked in the prejudice.

For one, the service was packed. I later learned the congregation was on its second sanctuary in the same building, having outgrown the first, but even so, we filled every inch of the pews and spilled out into the lobby. My seasoned-journalist count came to about 200 in the pews themselves, and that would not include the 25 or so choir members arrayed behind the pulpit. I’d arrived 10 minutes before the 11 a.m. service, not realizing that the 10 a.m. Sunday School advertised on the church sign was not all that optional — everybody had come to that — so I had to ask politely at several pews before I found one that could shift enough to find me a seat in the middle. So much for sleepy.

For two, Whitfield — who has been the pastor of Grace Baptist since 1956, before I was born, so do the math — had the fire of a platoon of younger men.

After crooning approvingly over our Bibles, he directed us to Romans 1. Now, Romans 1 doesn’t get read much in my liberal Christian church — too much punishment of idolators and too much fulminating against “males (who) gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” (I think this passage of Paul’s gets misread, but never mind.) We’re too “open and affirming” to sanction such talk from the pulpit. I braced myself. I was really liking this worship service — from the baptisms to the fine choir to the friendliness of my pewmates — and I didn’t want to start hating it.

It is really something to hear someone read Scripture well, someone who knows the text so thoroughly he makes it both conversational and poetic. I wonder if the letter sounded as natural to the church in Rome in its original Greek. And then Whitfield stopped on a sentence I hadn’t expected. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel!” he read, and repeated. And he was off. What is there to be ashamed of? he demanded . Why shouldn’t we share the good news we’d found? Why should those of us who’ve found salvation in faith in Jesus Christ — who have embraced that gift — be ashamed to bring that gift to others? “Amen!” called out a man two pews ahead. “Amen!”

But what of those of us who think we’re not good enough to spread the gospel? The work doesn’t need perfect people, Whitfield promised us. God will make us who we need to be. “I say, ‘I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was,'” he  thundered.

“Amen, amen!” went the congregation.

I wonder if that isn’t the power of the evangelical churches, and why they grow when the old-line (what gets called “mainstream,” even as the numbers dwindle) Protestant churches don’t: They give their members a purpose, something to do. You have been saved, now go spread the word. Your role is clear.

Later, during coffee hour — no, not a single person asked if I saved, though many people came up to talk to me — I met a woman who had grown up in Grace Baptist, then had moved to Florida. A bad marriage and a couple of babies later, she found herself in metro Detroit, looking for work. She found a job with a bank and was assuming she’d have to move to another suburb. Then, suddenly, the bank called her. Could she work in Birmingham? Did she know the town? And so she found a house a couple of blocks from her childhood church, and brought her kids to where she’d been raised. “I think the Lord made it happen,” she told me. Her daughter, now a lovely young woman, smiled beside her.

Not a bad way to find a church.


Do you need a hug?

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Unity Church of Royal Oak, Royal Oak, Michigan.

Unity Royal Oak is the huggiest church I’ve seen. No sooner had I walked in the door than a dapper older gentleman in a plaid suit greeted me with a huge smile and open arms. “We hug around here,” he told me. Then he pointed to the pastor, who was coming down a ramp out of the fellowship hall to the entrance. Another hug. There were maybe 40 members at worship that Sunday, and I think I was hugged by 30 of them. I ran out of time for the other 10.

Do you miss the counterculture?  Unity as a Christian movement dates to the late 19th century, but its ethos feels a little 1970s commune: We are all children of God, perfect in every way, let’s join hands and sing, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” (Which we did, swaying, at the end of the service. Too bad I didn’t remember the words.) It’s hard to not like a church that likes you, really likes you, so easily. Not even my self-defensive cynicism could keep me from being charmed.

But if you stand on formality — of any kind — Unity Royal Oak wouldn’t be your place. Even the sanctuary has the genial air of a studio in mid-project, tidied for company. We sat in theater seats, not pews, in the nave, and the sanctuary had no altar, no cross and no image of Jesus, though a huge print of two plump and dreamy angels guarded the piano in the corner. There were some candles and baskets and mirrors scattered behind the lectern and propped against an impressive carved console table, and a ladderback chair here and there. I couldn’t help it; I looked around for a macrame plant-hanger. (Sorry.)

Pastor Chuck Hancock had been deconstructing the Lord’s Prayer over several weeks, and this Sunday he got to the phrase “give us this day our daily bread.” Hancock doesn’t sermonize so much as muse in a stream of consciousness, and he threw his musings out to us. What is “bread”? What do we need? Why do we lack faith that God will provide? Why do we feel guilt? Etc.

Musing and questioning make for a great meditation, but it drives the journalist in the pew nuts. How am I supposed to summarize this? Somebody give me the points and subpoints. So I sat, twitching and irked, and then Hancock said something like, “Why do we not understand that everything we have been given this day is exactly what we need and that we need nothing more?”


After the meditation, the musings and the peace-singing — and many more hugs — we repaired to the fellowship hall and kitchen for tuna casserole, croissants and fudge cake. I was in the coffee line behind Donna, a fellow church-seeker. She said she’d gone to a Unity church a few years ago with a friend, and then fell away. “I’m not sure why,” she said. The people in Unity churches are so warm and welcoming, she said. “Like the Mormons. Those are really nice people, too.”

As for John, who drives in from Dearborn, Unity “just makes sense.” A friend of his, Frank, praised Hancock, whose Bible studies and lectures had impressed him. “He’s really funny,” Frank said, “and really deep, too.”

I’d noticed that the congregation was more integrated racially than any other I’d visited, but there were no children or teenagers. And no, there wasn’t a Sunday school class, though there is a weekly discussion course on “A Course in Miracles.” The Rev. Cathey Jo Tomilenko leads that, and I made a point of finding her among the diners. Would it be all right to join that group weeks from now, after my seasonal job was over?

She seemed delighted. “Of course!” she said. And then, yes, she hugged me.