The pews are packed this Sunday. Four needlepointed signs, the size of postcards, signal the status of “reserved” on the front rows of the sanctuary, the assigned seats for the families of five babies and one toddler who will be baptized this morning. Hung with green yarn, the small signs mark the wooden pews, like school bus numbers around the necks of kindergarten students.
My 10-year old daughter Annie Sky and I settle into the familiarity of the space at our church in Asheville, NC, taking off our jackets, opening up the hymnal, scanning the bulletin for news.
Behind us sits Lupe Perez, a hospice nurse married to Monroe Moore, an events coordinator and stay-at-home dad, with their three children, adopted as babies. Last year, CBS News featured them on a show about the modern American family. Lupe recently dyed the top of his black hair in a firehouse red color and shared a selfie at the salon on Facebook.
In church, Lupe knits, much like Anne, the social worker who runs 100-mile races, and Amanda, a science teacher whose son wears a compass around his neck today.
My observations of the secular seem sacred in this space– where I sit with my daughter facing stained glass windows, altars, and acolytes. In this pew, I can pause and inhale the quiet around me, as Annie Sky’s small fingers loop around mine.
I haven’t been to church in several weeks, choosing instead to sweat in a 105-degree room with other Bikram yoga devotees on the Sabbath. But this Sunday feels like a homecoming, even though I left my teenage daughter in the bunk bed she shares with her sister, walking away from one battle and winning temporary peace in return.
With running shoes that illuminate each step, a three-year old named Benji with light cocoa skin races around the sanctuary, in and out of the pews, as his wearied mother chases after him in her pointy black heels. She is probably in her late 30s, and I recall from Facebook posts that her spouse died of cancer three weeks ago. People smile in deep empathy – and some seem to smile with their whole bodies, as if they are reaching out to hold her up.
But she can’t keep up with her son, whose baptism was scheduled before his other mother died on New Year’s Day. In front of the altar, she finally grabs him and ushers the child back to the pew.
In the air, I sense relief: No one wants to restrain a child whose mother has just died. But no one wants to watch the remaining parent face another losing race.
During the baptismal service, we repeat words from the Book of Common Prayer while babies squirm and wiggle in the arms of their parents and godparents in front of the church. Our millennial priest with three young children himself, asks us: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
As a collective we respond: “I will with God’s help.”
And next to me, during communion, a young woman locks eyes with the mother who lost her spouse, the mother who struggled to capture a toddler to anoint him with oil and water. When the service ends, I turn to her and say that I am so sorry, and I believe she must be a friend of Benji’s mother.
Her eyes are misty and without thought, my eyes well up with tears too. We hug a long, drawn-out embrace, the kind usually reserved for close friends at birthday parties and farewells in airports. Tears run down my face, and I make a joke about church being the last place where you can cry without concern.
“I’m worried,” she says, her whispered words forming a deluge, as if the thoughts had been waiting behind a wall. “I think that she has a strong community of support. But it’s so hard, especially once her son is asleep at night, and she is alone.”
We don’t even know each other’s names, but she needs to share – and I need to listen. I need to be here in this moment, and there is space to be present right now.
As we talk, my daughter shoots me a look that says, “Why do you always cry in public?” She is a teenager in training, learning from the best, her 17-year old sister.
But I smile at her, because at 50-years old, I can cry any damn place I want, thank you very much.
And so I wipe away my tears with the sleeve of my hoodie, content in my own emotional skin. As the organ plays the postlude, I hug my new friend again and say goodbye, knowing that we may never see each other after we leave this sanctuary.
Outside the cathedral, in brisk 30-degree weather, congregants drink weak coffee and sip strong lemonade, while eating Mint Milanos and Fig Newtons. Adults replace their nametags on a wooden frame that holds the plastic laminated cards until next week. Huddled in a group, the teenagers stomp their feet to stay warm, holding up cell phones free at last after an hour of hibernation in their pockets.
Today we come together, bearing witness to each other in one place and time. Next week, any one of our lives could be changed forever. And I return home to face the mundane – a teen who won’t get out of bed, a young child who needs to be fed – sheer luxuries in a world in need of daily grace.
Mallory McDuff teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her two daughters. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, Sojourners, and more.