I’ve written before about that fatal first week at my undergrad school, but I skipped over an important part. I don’t know what I expected when I trudged down the hill to the chapel on Sunday morning, the second day of my college experience. I guess I had some kind of guilty conscience, or just force of habit, or…I don’t know what. It’s not like I was eager to be at church, not after an adolescence in a Southern Baptist congregation leading the charge on the fundamentalist takeover (which was just about complete by 1990), but I threw on something presentable (presumably not jeans) and picked up a Bible and trudged into the chapel…
…which was tall, and brick, and round. Largely monochrome stained glass at the four compass points, red and blue and yellow and green (their significance would be explained later), and a round altar in the middle with a round wooden rail around it. The whole thing was a circle. And the chaplain explained that this was an unusual day for them, and service was usually held on Monday nights at 6 PM. The service was liturgical, my first real experience of that other than a Christmas service long ago at the Episcopal day school where my brother spent two years beating the age requirement to start public school. I suppose it was Methodist, broadly speaking, but denominations never really got brought up – I assume a Methodist school had a Methodist chaplain, but the words were never spoken.
All I knew is that everyone was welcomed to come up and take communion, which was patiently explained as “take the bread and dip it into the cup” for those of us brought up on shot glasses of grape juice and tiny dry squares maybe four times a year on fifth Sundays. And a surprising number of people were crossing themselves, something I had noticed and been aware of in the wider world but which was definitely not a Baptist practice. And the chaplain was welcoming. There was warmth, there was reassurance, there was empathy for the anxiety and uncertainty about stepping off into a wider world, and I think that’s where I first heard it said that “college IS the real world. It’s just not the WHOLE world.” And the closing hymn was a slow acoustical rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, which was about the last thing in the world I would have expected.
It was the first church service I’d been in for years that didn’t feel wrong somehow. None of that weird dichotomy of somehow being both a persecuted minority and a silent majority at once, no hellfire and brimstone, no thinly veiled political subtexts. And I told the chaplain after, in a typical blurt of the age for me, that I’d been held prisoner of war in a Baptist church for years and this was the first time I could remember feeling better at the end. And I promised to be back the next night when regular service resumed. And I was. I made that a priority my entire first semester, and while everything else slowly sank into the abyss, I had that one moment a week where for about 45 minutes I could feel welcome and feel like I belonged.
And then, the Honors Program classes moved to Monday nights, 5-8 pm. I went to my academic advisor for only the second time ever and she suggested disinterestedly that the Easter season would probably mean a different liturgical calendar so I might not miss that much, and I was not yet at a point where I was willing to tell my academic advisor “you don’t get it”, and so I missed Chapel in the spring semester. I also missed the Dean’s List in the spring semester. Every after, I tried to shape my calendar to avoid those Honors seminars on Mondays from 5-8 – and ironically, there was also pushback from other students because most of the fraternity and sorority pledge meetings were Mondays at 7, so I think it budged eventually – but attendance at Chapel was spotty and irregular, and I definitely needed those nights when they would randomly do an extra service at 11 PM by candlelight.
In four years at that god-damned school, nearly everything seemed calculated to make me feel like I was less than everyone else. The only thing that ever said to me “no, you aren’t less” was Chapel at 6. It stands out in my mind that I didn’t need that at grad school, because – for the first year, anyway – I felt as though I belonged and I was welcome at Vanderbilt, so I didn’t need a lifeline or a refuge in the same way. There would be times over the decade following that I would feel compelled to slip off to church, as often as not by myself, and it was almost always Episcopalian. But when I went through my whole conundrum of seeking out a church in 2006 or 2007 or so, I didn’t settle on it – or on anything, really. And only in the last couple of years did I get it: I wasn’t looking for a faith community, I was looking for an identity. Church in the 21st century had become another attempt at belonging, a search for an adjective I could make apply to myself.
As useful as that might be – and I think there’s a non-zero chance that deep down I am quietly Episcopalian – I don’t know that I actually want church as something to belong to at this point. I need to be able to drop in at noon on Thursday, or 6 PM Monday, or whatever, make some kind of contact with the divine and feel commonality with other people and be affirmed as a human being, and then slip out the side door quietly. Maybe the old Baptist impulse of “this is between you and God and nobody in Rome or Canterbury or Houston or Nashville has any part of it” is too much to overcome.
But the fact that it’s still not easy for me to talk about – or even to type about – itself seems like a significant and complex piece of information.