Growing up in a fairly irreligious family, I have had little exposure to church. I can count on one hand the number of services I’ve attended (excluding funerals). One was an Easter service in San Francisco, which we took our grandmother to toward the end of her life when she stopped driving. The other was at a friend’s church, which was the sort of place where the kids didn’t go to mass and instead learned bible stories through cartoons and art activities. I planted a fern in a cup with some clay and rocks (something to do with the creation of the Earth? I truly don’t remember) and called it a day.
My elementary school and middle school both shared their campuses with churches, but that was about as close as I got to religion growing up. In middle school, the nuns at the church hated us because we called a dilapidated crucifix statue on campus “Creepy Jesus.” In short, I have had almost no real exposure to religion despite the many churches around Marin county that I’ve driven past countless times.
I wanted to combat this, not because I plan to practice a religion, but because I want to, at the very least, be exposed to what it’s like to attend church. I may not have picked the best time for this, seeing as the pandemic has drastically changed the way people attend services. I looked up websites for various churches in the area and found that most were doing all their worship over Zoom. I emailed the pastor at the church I had shared my elementary school campus with–the Christ Presbyterian Church–and asked if I could attend their Zoom and ask her a few questions. She remembered me from a nature camp the church hosted that my sister and I had attended years ago, and welcomed me to join the meeting.
It started at 11 a.m–and it turned out that the Zoom was actually the last in a partnership between Christ Presbetyrian and another church. The first thing I noticed was that I was one of the only people under the age of 50 or 60. I was immediately interested that there was one other kid my age–literally, the only other person besides the pastors and pianist who wouldn’t qualify for a senior discount. The service opened with piano, and then the pastor started talking. Most of the service was dedicated to discussion of the partnership between the two churches.
I also had a separate discussion with the reverend, Linda Lane-Bortell.
“Marin County is a place where people keep religion at kind of an arm’s length. That’s why Christianity is on the decline, people equate it with the religious right, with extreme Republicanism, and they say ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that.’ But those people don’t really represent what’s best about Christianity, just like the people who crashed into the World Trade Center don’t represent what’s best about Islam,” she told me.
She noted that her church is quite liberal–there’s a stained-glass pride flag in their front window–but that they aren’t unorthodox. She also pointed out that I really did not need to email and ask her whether I could join their sermon, as the point of a church like that is to have open doors.
“People don’t think that way anymore. You go to the YMCA, you gotta be a member, you go to the theater, you gotta have a ticket. People don’t walk by and know we have an open-door policy…church people want you to just walk in. They might get so excited that they smother you!” she said.
I also chose to attend a Shabbat at local synagogue Rodef Shalom. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to stay for the full service or to interview any of the personnel. I did, however, quite enjoy it. Most of what I saw of the service was comprised of singing, but sadly I didn’t manage to write the names of most of the (beautiful) songs, as I don’t know Hebrew and wasn’t sure how to write the names. At one point, though, the cantor stopped singing and spoke about an Israeli songwriter Naomi Shermer, whose name I did get down. I had never heard of her before, but she was clearly an extremely influential figure in Israel and in songwriting in general.
There was, also a small portion of the service dedicated to Israel itself. The rabbi acknowledged that while people may have conflicting feelings about the country and its politics, what it represents is a dream of peace for the Jewish people. Even as someone who does have strong opinions about the Israel-Palestine conflict–which would probably be inappropriate to get into here–I couldn’t help but be moved.
The sense of community as Rodef Shalom was perhaps even stronger than at Christ Presbyterian, mostly virtue of the fact that there was more discussion of the personal lives of people attending. In the Zoom chat, people shared things they were grateful for in their lives, and names of people they wanted to be blessed by a healing prayer.
Attending these two services gave me a good bit to think about, but not much to write about. It’s hard to articulate the feeling of being opened to this world for the first time. Again, I do not plan on practicing Christianity or Judaism, but of course, I was still affected. I would suggest for any atheists or simply non-practicing people to try opening themselves to the world of religion.