I knelt there beside his prone body, his mouth was open at an awkward angle that matched his position on the ground. “God, help me, God help me” he managed to squeeze the words around his tongue, his eyes rolling back into his head out of pain… or perhaps it was fear.
An upsetting start to the evening. It was my church’s 30th anniversary (arranged by me) and one of our well established, much beloved members was having his second stroke, right on the doorstep of the venue. I stayed with him, holding his hand, admonishing him to breathe, going through the list of things we’d learnt in first aid training earlier that week.
I closed my eyes and prayed. Mostly for show because I hoped it would give some comfort to his frantic partner who was fretting as the ambulance arrived.
The rest of the evening was far less eventful. People had already complained about the fact that the venue was upstairs. People complained that the food arrived too late, people complained that the steak was too tough, people complained that it cost too much, people complained that it wasn’t all that formal, people complained that it was too noisy, people complained… well, they complained in general.
I have found that working for a non-profit organisation is a far more thankless task than I could ever have imagined. The only reward for doing a good job is that people seem to give you more work to do, and no matter what kind of job you do, people still complain. When asked if they would like to help out, the complainers quickly retreat to complain from a distance.
I don’t go to church for the “fellowship”, or for the social experience that some people get out of such things. I don’t know if anyone notices, but despite the fact that I arrange my fair share of services, I sit in a pew all on my own. Although I may occasionally be the first to arrive and the last to leave, I seldom take part in supper. I don’t know why, I guess I am just a little antisocial still.
I have phases where I decide I will just stop going to church. They can find someone else to be treasurer and handle all the filthy money people drop into the offering bags. Someone else can obsess over the music for next Sunday, someone else can feel constantly on the back foot as they try to appease the myriad of conflicting factions. Many times I have had to confess to friends “no, I can’t do X, I have to do Y for church”. It doesn’t win me many friends in the gay community and as for friends in the Christian community… well, to be honest, there aren’t many of those any more.
I mean, why did I bother after all? No one really cares and it’s not like anything I ever did made a difference to anyone anyway. Most of the church members would turn up just to say hello to old friends whether there was a service or not and all this running around doesn’t seem to impact at all on the lives of anyone but a select few. “Besides”, I added bitterly to myself, “it’s not like you’ll find anyone here yourself, no one your own age ever comes to church anyway…”.
It was these thoughts that clanged morosely around my head as I set out the cloth and lit the candles. I had arranged the service rather casually as usual. I have come to the conclusion that no matter how much time and effort I put into a service someone always complains. If I do it at the last minute without too much effort, I get the same number of complaints as I get when I spend all week agonising over the words of every single hymn.
As it was, someone still found cause to complain that I had missed out the patriarchal wording of one verse of a hymn I had painstakingly reworded. “Uh, and one little adjustment, if you could please sing ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’, I would be most grateful” I announced at the start. Hopefully that would appease them (it didn’t but I did try).
During my announcement, I spied an elderly couple in the back of the church. No more elderly than our usual congregation, but still fresh faces. Visitors. I am always glad when we get visitors, because I like to show them hospitality before they disappear. Make a good impression and all that. These people looked to me as though they either belonged to the morning congregation from St. Matthews or perhaps were genuinely from out of town.
There’s usually this uncomfortable moment in the service when the visitors realise that (OMG) this is a GAY CHURCH and they make a discreet but deliberate exit from the building. Sometimes in an angry huff, sometimes more than a little embarrassed. I watched them through the service, but nothing, no reaction, even when the preacher clearly identified himself as gay, along with the congregation.
I invited them up to the communion and they followed. As I held the bread and wine for them and the administrant prayed for them together as a couple, I saw just the hint of moisture in the wife’s eyes. I say wife because they were surely husband and wife. They even stayed for supper (our rather grand way of saying tea and biscuits).
We got to talking: they were visiting from a very small town in Texas and had decided to see some of New Zealand as a part of their trip around Australia. They loved the country and as this was their last day in the country, they had decided to pop into our church for a service.
I was very nearly taken aback. Two Texans from a small town, travelling the world had ended up in my little church and, despite the fact that the preaching and the liturgy quite clearly indicated that we were a gay church, they had stayed to the end and decided to spend time with us.
I gave the wife a hug goodbye and shook the husband’s hand. He took mine in his firm grip and regarded me earnestly with his piercing eyes.
“You know, I just wanted to let you know that I think what you do here is a Good Thing”.
I nodded mutely. There was not much to say. It was clear that in his own way he had just then accepted us, accepted who we were and what we believed and maybe, just maybe, he would take that message back home with him.
That’s why I can’t stop coming to church.