In preparation for communion, a group of about ten men makes its way to the front of the gym; the pastor introduces the men as church elders. They wear suits and stand shoulder-to-shoulder like a band of benevolent gangsters. In a well-choreographed routine, each takes a basket of bread and a section of audience and oversees the distribution. The mounds shrink as baskets glide down each row, handed quickly from one person to the next. Soon, everyone has a hunk. I hold mine, thinking we might eat in unison, but I realize the little boy next to me has already eaten his. I pop mine into my mouth.
I’m watching the kid for clues on how to do things. The tray of wine passes, and I follow his lead as he quickly drinks his. Surely it was grape juice, though I didn’t hear mention of nonalcoholic options or gluten-free alternatives like at the Lutheran services. Perhaps these folks have stronger digestive tracts and less checkered pasts. I can feel that tiny sip like a measure of warmth traveling down the center of my body.
The kid has noticed me checking him out. His actions have become more pronounced followed by a pause and a glance to see that I’ve mimicked him; he is the scientist and I’m Koko the Gorilla. A few moments after communion, he sends his arms into the air and turns to face me. I consult my program. We’re at something called “Commissioning” where “God blesses and sends his people.” It says, “The congregation may raise hands.” I put my arms up and the kid looks pleased. For the length of a hymn, everyone holds the classic pose of surrender, but somehow I feel like the criminal.
At the end of the service, the golden-ringleted mother of my aisle-mate family tries to engage me in a bit of polite conversation. I can sense her struggling between a duty to be welcoming and an apprehension of newcomers. She says she moved here from California and I tell her that’s one of the states I call home, too. This does not seem to reassure her. I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for this religious elephant between us, she and I might be friends.
She and I say an awkward goodbye and I wander slowly toward the exit. I see no open invitation for fellowship, no table with cookies and coffee. Now that they aren’t here, I sorely miss those treats. I have a feeling that members of this congregation will break off and gather in private living rooms, creating “invisible churches” of their homes.
Calvin liked to point out that not everything is as it appears: there is the church you see and the church you don’t see. I think he meant to highlight an ambiguity—a person associated with a religious institution is not necessarily more indicative of God than an “unchurched” person. It depends on the person. Just as we can never know for sure who is saved and who is not, the walls themselves assure us of nothing. But among members of this congregation, Calvin’s concept of the “invisible church” seems to take on added meaning: so much of what they do operates on a parallel track to the larger community, happening in isolation, out of sight.
Driving home, my mind wanders back to communion. How did it make me feel? It happened so quickly. Was I empowered by it?
Actually, what I felt was the opposite of what I’d normally consider empowerment—it was vulnerability. For a moment, the barriers that keep me standing alone dissolved. Briefly, I let myself be one of many. It made me hopeful because even if I am a None, and even if they aren’t sure whether I’m in the saved pile and I’m not sure whether they think slavery is okay, we can look past our differences and honor the basic humanity in one another. It’s such a loving gesture, a gesture worthy of Jesus. I feel lightheaded from the sheer wonder of it. It’s not until I get home and look again at my program that I see in fine print: all communion-takers are to be baptized and current on church membership.
It’s their rules I violated, but I’m the one who feels like crying.