Your grandmother and I have moved around quite a bit, Vera, principally because work opportunities pulled us away. We were reared in rural central Pennsylvania, but we’ve spent our adult years mainly in Pittsburgh suburbs, the Mechanicsburg, Pa. area, Philadelphia and its suburbs (West Chester), and the Front Range (Boulder and Loveland, Colorado). We’ve lived in different neighborhoods and belonged to various groups. But there is one that stands out. There is one that proved to be the hardest to leave. There is one I miss the most. And the reasons why might be relevant to your life.
The one that stands above the rest is North Hills Community Baptist Church (NHCBC) in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. It’s an American Baptist Congregation. It was near our home. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh at the time.
Our association with this congregation had an ominous beginning: when driving to the church the first time, we were intercepted by a 90+ year old man who pulled right out in front of us, causing an accident. He was headed to the Russian Orthodox Church across the street. Fortunately, no one was injured.
You’d think we might have taken that as a sign to avoid the Baptists down the road, but we didn’t. We tried again. This time we were successful.
We were hesitant to check out this group because, after all, they were Baptists. It’s hard not to think of Southern Baptists when you hear that word, and we most certainly didn’t want to associate with them. Their theology and doctrine were perverted in my judgment. But I was assured that the American Baptists were different — something closer to my Anabaptist upbringing.
And that proved to be the case. These American Baptists in the North Hills proved to be a reasonable lot. And to our delight, they proved to be a whole lot more.
Tom met us at the door. Tom was enthusiastic, warm and friendly. I later learned he unwittingly chased a coworker of mine away when she visited. He was too engaging and intrusive for her taste — a little over the top. Some people prefer anonymity. They just want to slide into the back pew and leave unnoticed. But there was no sneaking past Tom. Tom thought a church was a family.
I had thought of a congregation as a faith community. I suppose I hadn’t previously thought of a church as a true family. Perhaps it’s because I had never been associated with a congregation quite like NHCBC.
Theology was important to me. I didn’t want to affiliate with a group that distorted the gospel (as I discerned it, of course). But I learned that family (trusting, honest, meaningful relationships) trumps theology. NHCBC taught me that. (As an aside, I suspect it’s why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [Mormons] has grown so much in my lifetime.)
I was a stubborn learner. Until the day we moved away from Pittsburgh and departed NHCBC, I don’t think I got it. Indeed, I don’t think I really got it until our last day at NHCBC. There I was, standing on the concrete walkway that ran from the building to the back parking lot, sobbing. It was then I realized what we were leaving — rather, whom we were leaving. It was then I truly understood what my church family meant to me. It was then I felt the difference between a community and a family.
The remarkable thing about NHCBC was its honesty, authenticity and energy. People weren’t afraid to express their doubts. They didn’t pretend they were perfect, “saved” (vs. the “unsaved” or “damned” frequently mentioned by other Christian groups) or, for that matter, better than anyone else. Moreover, they didn’t engage in the self-delusional belief they had all the answers to life’s mysteries. They didn’t get hung up on doctrine or “right” thinking. They were comfortable wrestling with the questions and living in the unknowable.
They weren’t afraid to talk frankly about things of importance. There was no fear someone would get angry and pout. They were secure. And open. And genuine. That’s hard to find.
I have no desire to be part of a group that says one thing or acts one way outside of church and another when inside the building. Part-time piety turns me off. You didn’t have that at NHCBC. You don’t have it at all congregations, of course. But you encounter it in many churches. You can have it.
We also played together at NHCBC (softball, bowling, etc.) and laughed together. Laughter is undervalued. I’m convinced it’s good for the soul. We should spend more time laughing. At NHCBC, we laughed — a lot.
We also should spend more time being honest with each other, without airs or masks or projections. That’s not entirely achievable, I suppose, but when you get a taste of it, like I did at NHCBC, you come to appreciate its value.
None of this is to suggest NHCBC was perfect or that its people were perfect or extraordinary in any way. They weren’t. Yet the collective turned out to be quite extraordinary notwithstanding our individual and collective imperfections.
I still miss NHCBC. Since then we were never able to find a place quite like it. There probably are others. And perhaps some of the churches we’ve attended since then were such places to other people. Perhaps circumstances simply didn’t allow for the same connection we had with NHCBC. I don’t know. But what I do know, Vera, is that, if and when you become part of a family like NHCBC, hang on tight. Don’t let go lightly.
I’m not saying I regret leaving. Who knows what life would have brought our way if we had stayed in Pittsburgh. Yet I do know that I’ve had some amazing life experiences I wouldn’t have had if we had stayed in Pittsburgh, and we’ve met some wonderful people. Some are dear friends today.
So, no, I don’t regret moving. But I’m not sure it was the right decision.
I suppose we can never be sure. It’s impossible to know how our lives would have unfolded if we had taken the other fork in the road.
I tend not to worry about such things. I tend not to have regrets or to second-guess my decisions. I can point to what appear to be mistakes, yet I’m never certain they truly were because each experience provided something unique in my life. Who knows, perhaps even the painful experiences have value.
I haven’t been attending any church since we left Virginia and moved to Colorado. I suppose it’s a trust issue primarily. In the South, I learned it was risky to trust people, especially ones who professed to be part of your community. The part-time piety thing reared its ugly head again. I decided that, if I can’t trust you, I certainly don’t want to worship with you. Or work with you.
But I don’t think being burned by a mere handful of church-goers is the sole reason for avoiding organized religion. I also have come to think attendance at religious services is nonessential.
Moreover, I’ve come to think it can be harmful — not that it is harmful per se; rather, that it can be quite damaging to your well-being. In other words, I’ve acquired an awareness of the hazards of religion — an awareness that was lacking in my youth. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that later.
I also suspect I’m recoiling from the ugly version of Christianity that’s so visible in America today. If Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are the face of Christianity, you can have it. So, at least for me, being on the outside of what many Americans believe is Christianity is a whole lot more appealing than being on the inside.
So here I am: sitting out organized religion for the time-being. Whether or when I return is anybody’s guess. I’m sure I don’t know.
Despite all my misgivings about the current state of the church in America and my uncertainty about the future, I suspect that, if I lived in the North Hills of Pittsburgh today, I might be attending NHCBC. A dear friend is the pastor. And dear friends, whom we rarely see nowadays, still attend. And my fond memories would probably pull me in. Whether current reality would match or exceed my fond memories, I have no idea.
What I do know is, there is something life-enriching and life-sustaining about spending time with honest, open people who don’t pretend to be (or try too hard to be) perfect but who merely seek to do the right thing, are forgiving and understanding, are trustworthy and dependable, and desire to make their communities and the world a better place, not only for their friends and biological families (in other words, people like them or who like them) but also for strangers, the poor, the outcast and those who simply need a helping hand.
If I had to choose one word to describe NHCBC at the time, I suppose I’d say it was sanctuary. Everyone can benefit from having a sanctuary.
When I teach business courses at the college, I remind my students that incentives matter.
What I’ve learned about life is that real relationships matter and sanctuary is precious.
The good people at NHCBC helped teach me that, Vera. And, for that, I will be forever grateful.