I've been bad-mouthing organized religion since the late '70s, when my father had a spiritual epiphany on our living room couch and announced that he wasn't going to church anymore. My mom had always been a member of the Drinking-Coffee-Alone-in-My-House Church, so that was the end of that. But then, last March, in a perfect storm of personal calamity, my marriage imploded the same week that my best girlfriend and I broke up. The events weren't directly related, but it was colossally bad timing. I was in dire need of people who would be nice to me for less than $125 an hour. So off I went to church.
I had a hot tip on a groovy Christian service and arrived just in time to line up for what I thought was the pastor's greeting. The draw turned out to be boxed coffee. The pastor was on stage, fronting the band, wearing a Madonna-esque headset. (The other Madonna.) I wanted to dig it, but the clapping seemed off. After the final singalong chorus of a prayer that could've been titled "Jesus Is So Awesome," I sneaked out with enough time to catch the 10:30 a.m. show -- er, service -- at the next spot on my list.
Walking into the calm, airy, Methodist sanctuary, I felt a comfortable pat of recognition. Stained-glass windows, check. Slippery varnished pews, check. I sat in the far back, on the aisle and on edge, waiting to be bored. But when the sermon began, I listened. And each time the minister mentioned how much I was truly loved or how I should forgive myself, or worse yet, love myself, I burst into tears. I was a wreck, my mascara a mess.
Each Sunday, I tried a different church. And always, I cried. The "Peace" really did me in. It's like a roving, glassless toast among parishioners: Shake hands, say, "Peace"; shake, "Peace"; until all navigational points are met. Without fail, I crumbled into hysterical, Mary Tyler Moore sobs with my raggedy tissue in one hand, a limp shake in the other. I barely choked out, "Puh-huh-eace." I stopped wearing mascara.
On the third Sunday, at my fourth church, a bald, black Episcopal minister said, "Good morning, saints!" and I melted. She had a formidable presence, an affable warmth and cowboy boots under her vestments. She also seemed to truly love her job. The real clincher came at the "Peace," when an older woman across the aisle gave me a hug instead of a handshake. Between the organist's easy, breezy, Ray Charles style and that perfect hug, I felt I had found a community, a jumping-off point that just might keep me from jumping.
I blubbered through Communion, then hustled to beat the minister to the door but was too late. Instead, I got caught in the line inching toward her. Upon reaching her, I wiped my eyes and looked up. "Thank you, Reverend," I said.
She took my hand and said, "What's going on?"
I started crying for the bazillionth time that day and stammered, "I've asked my husband to move out."
"Are you safe?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
She turned my program over and pointed to the page. "That's my number," she said. "Call me."
I met with the good reverend later that week. She asked me about my current situation, gauging my level of safety (high), competence (adequate) and sanity (mezzo-mezzo). I told her that I didn't think of myself as churchy and detailed my reservations about organized religion. She listened, nodded and occasionally agreed. I told her I wouldn't be taking the Bible literally and would be thinking of Jesus as a very enlightened and wise man. She was okay with that, too. She had beautiful hands, with long, slender fingers and an impeccable manicure with deep burgundy polish. She wore chunky gold rings and overstated earrings, and her voice was round and rock-steady.
We spoke about how important a sense of humor is to any religious organization. She said hers may have cost her the bishopric of a Southern state not known for levity. I told her how tired I was of crying, then started to cry. I apologized, and she said, "You must keep crying until it's all out."
She was right. I'm all cried out. And now I enjoy her sermons. Sometimes she quotes "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and sometimes Thurgood Marshall. Once, she even brought in a live sheep. I listen at 8 a.m. with the express-service crowd, then my son arrives for the Small Fry Service, where he takes collection and sits on the floor with the reverend, asking questions such as "Where's the Mother in 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'?"
I take what I need and leave the rest. And each week I'm reminded to be grateful and accepting, to love and forgive myself and others, and all that old-time churchy stuff. I wear mascara again, and I have been, in my own way, saved.