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A Tale of Two Churches

For various reasons I now live in two cities. My wife and I have our home in South Bend, Indiana, and I work in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We usually spend about three weekends a month in South Bend and one in Grand Rapids.

When I left a congregation after sixteen years as pastor, my wife and I found ourselves attending Holy Trinity on our South Bend Sundays. It’s a little Episcopal congregation about five minutes from our house. Despite its miniscule size, it was the only Episcopal church in the area that could be counted on to have a liturgy on Epiphany (Sunday or not), All Saints, the Feast of the Annunciation, and practically every major saint’s day you could name (along with a few you might not recognize). The part-time rector spends her Saturday nights on the graveyard shift as hospital chaplain and arrives at church just in time for the 8 a.m. service.

On our Grand Rapids Sundays we happily attend a thriving church with a unique identity and mission. A Reformed congregation dedicated to excellence in liturgical worship as well as preaching, music, and, not insignificantly for us, weekly Eucharist, this church attracts nearly a thousand people every Sunday.

The South Bend congregation tops out at about thirty-five worshipers on a really good Sunday. It pays the priest per diem for leading the liturgy and preaching. The roof leaks in a hard rain. Since there’s no organist, a man who leads a local shape-note singing group starts a hymn or chant by coming in with his perfect pitch on the first note. He’s soon joined by the sometimes rousing voices of the little congregation scattered among the pews. When the “lead singer” isn’t there, a young graduate student plays the wildly out-of-tune piano, plinking one note at a time while we struggle to follow along—just as off-key.

People who evaluate congregations by taking their pulse and temperature with statistical arm cuffs and demographic thermometers might conclude that one congregation is clearly a failure, the other a shining success. But they’d be wrong.

Here’s a snapshot from a recent Sunday at Holy Trinity. The procession (which begins about five minutes late) comes down the side aisle from the vestry to the front of church. The crucifer leads the way. He’s a young man who suffered some kind of brain injury, and he walks haltingly, sometimes gripping the top of his sagging sweatpants through his crisp white alb. He’s followed by the candle-bearers, two African-American sisters about 8 and 10, looking like little angels in their white albs. They’re acolytes in training. (Training has its hazards. The younger one, wanting to do her job of illumination properly during the gospel reading, tends to hold her almost-gutted candle dangerously close to the sleeve of the priest’s chasuble, causing an adult nearby to gently pull the candle back to an upright position.)

The girls are followed by a dreadlocked middle-aged professor of art history holding the gospel, with the priest bringing up the rear. There are a few smiles, but for the most part this ragtag procession is solemnly aware that with their entrance the divine liturgy begins. As they turn the corner and process down the center aisle the lead singer intones his do, re, mi and settles on the proper beginning note for the opening hymn.

The two acolytes in training tend to be a bit wiggly. During the sermon, one spins in her seat behind the pulpit. A gray-haired woman quietly walks from her pew and sits beside her while the priest, unaware, continues her sermon.

At last the congregation moves to the front rail for communion. The frail, bent woman in the pew behind us takes my arm as we slowly make our way to the front, where she stands so insecurely that I give her many sidelong glances just to make sure she remains upright. A 97-year-old whose long white beard makes him look like Moses walks slowly and unsteadily from the very back row where he has probably sat for decades. Always last, he eagerly reaches his hand to receive the bread and wine as though his very next breath depended on its nourishment.

This is not a picture of ecclesiastical “success.” With its small numbers, aging demographics, and oddly proper worship, most would judge Holy Trinity to be a dying congregation. Yet it is a faithful community, strangely and wonderfully bound together by ties of tradition, neighborhood, accident, and love. After the service this unlikely amalgam—old and young, black and white, professors and factory workers—eats homemade baked goods and drinks weak coffee properly served by the shaky hands of an old woman.

It seems to me a picture of heaven.