There was a death in our parish not long ago. An old woman named Helen, who lived alone, died after a brief illness. When I first heard that she was in the hospital and then that she had died I was surprised. I’d given her Communion only a few weeks before. Helen was very close to a little girl, Grace, who loved sitting next to her, sometimes on her lap. Grace is the youngest of four sisters, and it occurred to me that this would probably be the first death she had experienced. At the funeral home she put a small photo of herself under Helen’s hands. I know that Grace’s love for her was very important to Helen, as Helen’s love for her was for Grace.
Sometimes the value of the church in the life of its people seems to have little to do with religion as we ordinarily think of it. Quite apart from any particular Christian teaching or sacrament, it is clear that without her involvement in the church Helen would have been deprived of something she plainly enjoyed and benefited from, and the same is true of Grace. A young Korean told me that many of the young immigrant families he knew in our part of Queens joined one of the many Korean Christian congregations so that they could be part of a larger community, and not be so alone in a new country. This was certainly true of a number of Albanians who began to come to services at the parish I served for ten years; the increase in attendance was dramatic after the fall of communism in Albania. Some of those who came were Muslims who wanted to be with other Albanians. (The last decent statistics, taken before the advent of Communist dictatorship, showed that 70 percent of Albanians were Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox, and 10 percent Catholic.) They came for the services, but what really mattered was the coffee hour afterwards. Quite a few drifted off after they had made some friends and contacts; and quite a few of the Orthodox stayed on and became deeply involved with the church.
One of my low points, as pastor, was an annual flea market. The week before the dreaded weekend, our church hall was filled with women pricing the donated goods, and quarreling over whether this particular lamp was really worth ten dollars, or whether this ratty purse shouldn’t just be pitched. When the whole thing was over it was left to me to clear out the detritus, all the old VCRs, unwanted vases, spavined couches, all the unsold leisure suits and two-toned shoes and maroon sport coats.
But I came to appreciate something about even this ordeal. It performed a kind of reconciling function. It deepened relationships within a community which needed this to happen. Newcomers from Albania, raised under a regime that encouraged suspicion and distrust, worked together in a climate where they could safely become friends with one another and with the Americans they were coming to know. Many American members of the congregation at first considered the newcomers a mixed blessing. They added new blood to a congregation that had been dwindling-the church had been half-full on a typical Sunday when I first arrived there, and was full every Sunday when I left, an increase that had everything to do with the immigrant influx.
But these people, after years of communism, were not, in some ways, like their Albanian parents and grandparents; they had been raised in a dreadful place, a society where any honest discourse was risky and religion was crushed; they knew little about Orthodoxy. “They aren’t like us,” some of the second-generation Albanians told me (and I often thought, “Thank God”). The flea market, bane of my life though it was, brought together members of the whole community, often with their children, in a common work that let them get to know one another in a low-key, often pleasant way. The easy humor that can happen in that sort of atmosphere dissolved some barriers, slowly at first and, with each new year, more rapidly. It wasn’t the kingdom of God, but it was a beginning. It was one of the many things that can bring a small community closer together. Others involved the ordinary aspects of parish life: deaths in the community, the occasional parish dinner where we gathered around some feast, or the coffee hour following liturgy.
It is easy to say that this need for company and community is the main reason people join churches. It is also too easy, from a more pious point of view, to overlook the fact that the company which people find in church is a major reason they are there, if not the major reason. I think the truth is more complex, and that we need to see the spiritual depths of what we find in community to begin to appreciate what the church meant to Helen and means, and I hope will mean, to Grace, and to the Korean and Albanian immigrants, and to all who join churches looking for something that may not be one simple thing.
Any pastor knows that the church exists as something like a series of concentric circles. At the center of the church are those people who are there because they are serious about belief, truly committed to Christian belief. Then there are those who believe the church makes sense, as much as anything else, and since it was good enough for their parents or for some good friends it is good enough for them. Then there are (especially in ethnic parishes) those who go to the Orthodox or Catholic church because that’s what you do if you are Russian or Greek or Italian or Irish. There are, at the outer limits, seekers, and people who are alone and simply need the company.
It is important for the church to meet all of these people wherever they are, hoping to bring people in the outer circles closer to the center. But just as Jesus met Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and the doubting father (who wanted his son’s cure more than anything else, even authentic faith), we have to see that even the tentative approach is holy, that the desire to find something, even something as simple as human companionship, is a sign of the need we have to be one with others, something that at its heart brings us into the mystery of the Trinity. It may be hard to see the coffee hour as something that has to do with the mystery of the Trinity, but there is a sense in which, if you can’t find it there, you won’t find it anywhere.