When I try to think about how I found my way into this place, I think all started after reading a few book written by Episcopalians. I didn't realize they were Episcopalians when I started the books, but by the end I really found myself identifying with their stories. They seemed like the kind of people I would hang out with. I thought to myself "I think I'll check out one of those churches one Sunday and just see what it's like." I just kinda stumbled into the place, like one stumbles into a coffee table in the middle of the night. I didn't show up because I wanted to read a lot during the service or because I love organ music, though I've come to enjoy those both. I started showing up week after week because it felt like a safe haven. It's the only place I've ever stepped foot into that didn't seem expect something of you. There was no push for me to beat my personal beliefs into submission in order to believe exactly as the rector did, no push for me to pray a prayer which my life depended on, and no push for me to start volunteering or anything. Not to say that the volunteering portion is bad, but I believe I've heard all of these things for so many years that I almost feel like I'm being pecked to death by a chicken every time I'm asked to do something.
There are a lot of things theologically that I haven't exactly gotten nailed down. Things like heaven and hell, what all salvation is entailed of, and who all is involved. I'm very slow to say who's "in" and who's "out" these days. There are parts of the Nicene creed that I have a hard time believing. I haven't gotten it all figured out. Never once have I been "rebuked" for not believing exactly as others would have me to believe. It appears that the Episcopal church is pretty welcoming of diversity of belief. Never once have I been forced to get it together or get out. There's an openness there that is refreshing. I would feel comfortable bringing by gay friends and straight friends there, in addition to my Christian friends, Muslim friends, Jewish friends, and Atheist friends, because I know they would all be welcomed and accepted just as they are.
I was in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago and decided to participate in an 8am Eucharist service before we started the rest of our day. Every church is a little bit different, so there were definitely cues that I had to pick up on such as "is it socially acceptable for me to sit during this part of the prayer or am I supposed to kneel?" Or "am I using the kneeler correctly? I think I may have it at a bad angle. My leg is hurting. Let me slide it forward just a little bit," which then caused a loud screech against the cement floor of the chapel.
I didn't really bring church clothes with me on the trip, but my church in Wilmington is rather informal, so I had hoped for the best when I walked in. There were probably 8 other folks who showed up. There were older folks there, both black and white; some dressed nicely and some dressed down. There was me, in a hoodie and jeans, and then there were two guys who appeared to be homeless. They were napping in the chapel when I walked in and one of the guys kindly handed me a bulletin after I blindly walked past the stack of them on the way in. I was happy to be in a diverse room of people. As we were waiting for the service to begin, the silence of the place washed over me. It gave me permission to lay down my arms and discard any kind of mask I wanted to put on. In a way, it was like the silence stripped me of my false identity, left me naked, and allowed me just to simply be. The silence in each Episcopal service I've attended has affected me in the the same way. It's disarming and peaceful in equal measure. As we went through the service we read the creeds, prayers, scripture passages, and then the pastor preached a sermon on the sovereignty of God in the context of the Big Bang. It was the first time I hadn't heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting. It was a beautiful sermon, which went a little long for my taste, but beautiful nonetheless. When it came time to pass the peace, because it was such a small setting we all got a chance to look each and every person in the eye, shake hands, and say to one another "God's peace."
Then it came time for Eucharist. We were invited to kneel around the table together while the rector came around and fed us each the bread and wine. Whenever I was kneeling and chewing the piece of bread, I started to tear up because something about this moment just felt right. I thought to myself, "I'm at the same table as the middle aged black man in the nice suit and the older white couple and the homeless guys. We're all kneeling. We're all being fed. We're all eating the same bread and literally drinking from the same cup."
I think that's why I can't manage to pull myself away from the Episcopal church right now. Everything is centered around this one moment where people of all ages, gender identities, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and backgrounds are welcome to come to the table and receive the elements. Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It's a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.
I've started crossing myself, walking the labyrinth at my church, and reading from the book of common prayer when I'm not sure what to pray. The ancient practices and prayers are beginning to slowly but surely draw me back to the heart of the God I fell in love with 7.5 years ago, except in a different manner than I ever would have expected. I'm finding that God is much more inclusive and full of grace than I initially thought.
I'm not sure if I've found my home or if I will have moved onto something else in another couple of years, but what I do know is that this place has been beautifully restorative to me and I'm ever grateful for it.