Last Friday, I spent the morning drinking really bad coffee from a Styrofoam cup with fifty women who are older than me by at least 25 years. I’d been invited to present the Bible lesson to a meeting of Church Women United, an ecumenical group that has been gathering “church women” for fellowship, prayer, and advocacy since 1941.
I go to far more of these kind of events than most 32-year-olds I know. I’ve come to expect the bad coffee, the cinderblock walls and homemade felt banners of the church fellowship hall, the program that goes on a little too long.
I can usually see the invitation coming (“I’m in charge of the fall program and I wondered if…”), and I take a deep breath and try to remember my calling.
Generally, I say yes because I have come to care deeply about the person doing the inviting. In this case, it was Vivian, a saint of the church who took me out visiting shut-ins when I was new in town, and whose increasing heart trouble in recent months has forced her to cut back far more than she would like.
I was glad to say yes to Vivian, but I will admit that I was not particularly looking forward to it. “I wouldn’t go to this thing if it weren’t my job,” I grumbled to my husband over breakfast. “I wouldn’t even encourage anybody else to go.”
For one thing, it was supposed to be my day off. I tried to take a day earlier in the week to make up for it, but really only managed a few hours one morning. More than the trespass on my time, however, was the fact that I had to dress up. If I have phone calls to make or a sermon to finish, at least I can do it in my tennis shoes, with my hair in a pony tail. But this was the sort of event you dressed up for, even if you weren’t the guest speaker, so I pulled out slacks and a jacket and blow-dried my hair, which meant it was most definitely work.
On the way there, I got stuck at a train crossing. (Another sign, perhaps, that I was entering the domain of another generation: who gets stopped at train crossings these days?) Despite my suspicion that the event wouldn’t start on time, I fretted as I watched the train lumber slowly by. But I was right: it hadn’t started when I finally arrived, 15 minutes late. Also as expected, I was the youngest person on the room, and there were the cinderblock walls and the terrible coffee (paired, however, with an unexpectedly lovely spread of bagels and fruit).
I was the first speaker, when we finally did get going, and the theme of the day was Shalom. I led a lectio divina reading of Isaiah 11:6-9 and told a story or two from a sermon I’d preached a few months ago, then sat back down and resisted the temptation to slip out the back.
Greetings were brought, from the pastor of the host church (the only man in the room), a city council member, and the president of the chapter, who stood at the podium with a camera and took a picture of us. “I just want to capture the moment,” she said. Then, a speaker from a local organization told how her experience dealing with her son’s drug addiction led her to start a shelter for homeless youth, and the women collected an on-the-spot offering of over $500 for the shelter.
My friend Vivian gave a presentation using a pile of Oreos to illustrate the 502 billion dollars the United States spends on the defense budget, and suggested that if we could just spend one Oreo less, we could fix our schools. “Amen!” the women said, almost in unison. Flowers and plaques were given to two women who had done “outstanding work” in the area of human rights, (but, endearingly, no one elaborated on what the women had done to earn the honor). We sang a song that no one knew, and then “Peace Like a River,” which everyone knew. At the end, we got up, bumping folding chairs and tables, and formed ourselves into an awkward circle around the outside of the room. We held hands, in that church-camp sort of way that only church people do, and we sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Not everybody knew the words to that one, either, and it was hard to hold the song sheet and your neighbor’s hand, so eventually, someone at the front started calling out the next line, and we responded: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me… I sang my heart out, too, because I love to sing even though I’m pretty terrible at it, and I’m always standing by myself during worship so I can’t blend in. But here I was in the midst of all these women who’ve been singing for Jesus for more years than I’ve been alive, lifting up their prayers for peace in a world that’s far too broken.
The days are numbered, I think, for events like this. I’m sad for these faithful, passionate women who have led the charge for justice and kept the church running, all while baking muffins for Sunday’s coffee hour. I’m very aware that I might not be a pastor now if they hadn’t gotten together in fellowship halls twice a year, held hands, and sung “Let there be peace on earth.”
But the truth is, I’m still not likely to go unless they invite me to speak, and I’m still not likely to invite a friend. None of my friends could go to something like that on a weekday morning, anyway, and Saturdays are all-too-precious family time. Plus, there’s just something so old-fashioned about the whole experience – the Styrofoam cups, the paper handouts, the hand-holding sing-along – that make it hard to imagine this group passing on to the next generation.
Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe when women my age are retired and our kids are grown, we’ll be glad to have something meaningful to do on a Friday morning. Maybe this is just the kind of thing that older women do. Maybe those of us who spend our lives in the church will still want to sing those good old songs. We’ll see.
In the meantime, though, if they ask me to speak again, I’ll probably say yes.
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