Blocked Exits and Holy Ground

Post Author: Austin Crenshaw Shelley

three traffic conesFor the fourth day in a row, I was leaving the church building after dark. As my three children and I made our way to the back parking lot after a long day of Bible, Music, and Art Camp, I was feeling guilty. Guilty that we were out past my toddler’s bedtime. Guilty that my kids had eaten pretzels and leftover corndogs from the church refrigerator for supper. Guilty that it had taken me all evening to set up for the next day because I hadn’t lined up any volunteers to help. Guilt weighed me down more than the sleeping three-year-old in my arms. As we trudged across the asphalt toward the car, I was dreading the hour-long commute home and kicking myself for making my kids pay—yet again–for being preacher’s kids.

So when I approached the parking lot exit and saw the tall orange cones that were blocking our path, I might have uttered profanity under my breath. In my exhaustion, I had forgotten about the repair work that had been done to the pavement that morning. I begrudgingly swung the car around, driving slightly recklessly, the way you do when you are grumpy and tired and in an empty parking lot that’s just begging for you to break the rules and exit through the entrance. But when I made the turn at the back of the lot, my headlights landed on two moving figures. I was startled. Who in the world would be hanging out behind the dumpster on the back corner of the church’s property at nine o’clock in the evening? For a few seconds, I suspected violence.

But as I searched for my phone to call for help, I realized that the people in the corner of the lot were praying. Nestled there between the new garden that our camp kids had built the day before and the church’s garbage dumpster were a Muslim couple who were praying. Their bodies bowed and bent nearly in unison, the man’s motions leading and the woman’s a split second behind. I don’t know nearly as much about Islam as I should, but from what I could now see in my rear view mirror, the woman was wearing an abaya, hijab, and niqab—full body, head, and face covering. I felt fascinated and nervous all at once. I pulled the car into the farthest parking spot away so that the couple wouldn’t feel stalked. I decided I would wait there for them to finish praying before I restarted my car (which is probably the very definition of stalking). I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help but admire the gracefulness in their movement and the beauty in their dedication to prayer.

Just a few minutes later, the couple got up, turned, and began to walk in my direction. I got out of the car and met them part way. I introduced myself as one of the ministers at the church, thankfully remembering just in time not to extend my hand for a handshake. (Some Muslims, out of respect and modesty, will not touch a person of the opposite sex who is not a member of their immediate family.) I could see only the eyes of the woman, but I could tell she was worried. I wondered if she was bracing for the possibility of being asked to leave. But her eyes softened when I offered a standing invitation instead. I told them I hoped they would always feel welcome to pray anywhere they pleased on the church property. I said that if they were ever made to feel unwelcome, they could say that all the ministers had invited them to share this holy space—and then I rattled off all my colleagues’ names so that the couple could use them in just such a situation.

The encounter was awkward at best. My heart was racing. I had good intentions but no guarantees that those intentions would be favorably received. I was anxious and kind of blabbering. But the man was entirely calm. He explained that he works at the hospital next door, that he and his wife often come to our parking lot to pray, and that they liked the new garden—a sure sign they pray in the parking lot enough to know that the garden was new. I thanked the couple for meeting God next to the garden, thus marking the space as holy ground. We wished each other a good evening.

When I turned to go back to my car, I could see that my older children’s eyes had been fixed on us as we talked. The entire encounter had been a holy moment—an in-breaking of the Spirit in an otherwise exhausting day—and my children knew it as well as I did. We drove in silence for a while and then talked at length about the importance of interfaith dialogue, the shared origins of the Abrahamic faiths, and our call to honor every person as a bearer of the image of God.

The garden near the dumpster is holy ground to me now. When I water the plants or drive past it on my way to a parking space, I think of the praying couple—of the woman’s kind eyes and the man’s gentle explanation. I hope and pray that they truly feel welcome any place they pray, but especially on the church property. I give thanks to them for showing my own children what a commitment to prayer looks like. And I give thanks to God that the hour was late, the exit blocked, our hearts broken open and turned toward each other.

Austin Crenshaw Shelley is the associate minister for Christian education at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. A graduate of Columbia College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Austin enjoys gardening, writing, and singing Hamilton lyrics at full volume with her husband and three children.

Image by: Ette07
Used with permission
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