Sunday, October 26, 2008

Eccentrics need church, too

I've known for a long time that big institutions --or really anything that seems to be really, really popular-- give me the heebie-jeebies. Big churches, big apartment complexes, popular music or TV shows, sporting events, shopping malls... if it smacks of The Herd, I generally run in the opposite direction.

I've gotten a lot better about this as I've gotten older --I will tolerate popular music playing in someone's car and even dance around or whatever-- but it is still fairly well ingrained in me to resist inclusion in The Majority. This is particularly obvious in my choice of churches, church being my primary, if not only, chosen community in my private life (I don't belong to civic clubs or sports teams or anything like that). I'm profoundly grateful for both Convergence and Common Table, my churches and the source of most of my community outside the workplace. They are both small groups, hardly more than 30 people on a really well-attended Sunday service, but that small size is comforting to me.

I used to think it was possibly narcissism on my part that I chose little churches, an expression of my wish to be a big fish in a small pond, and so I started pushing myself into bigger churches 11 years ago... the Roman Catholic church, the Episcopal church. Most of the time, though, I found my small community in the music ministry, and if that wasn't a spiritually rich place for me, I became discontented and empty very quickly... and then I left, largely unnoticed.

I started mulling over the topic again this week because of the Artist's Way group that I facilitate on Thursday nights at Convergence. This is the second such group that I've facilitated and it's already become a homey place for me, just three weeks in to the 12 week session. I'm always tired on Thursday nights and if I think about it, kind of overwhelmed by what people need from the book and the group. I know what I needed from it the first time I participated in the group, and I know the book and the discussion was really enough to get me committed to writing and singing again... but I'm always worried that it won't work for other people. However, once I get to Convergence and folks start to arrive, the frantic feeling dissipates, and the comfortable feeling of being in a small community of folks who are a bit on the outside, trying to figure things out, takes over.

Work was hard this week, and as a result I was in a particularly zooey mood at this week's group. I really felt the value of being around forgiving folks who could appreciate each other and me without being weirded out by my sense of humor when I'm tired and emotionally drained. I had a similar feeling the next night at the Common Table jam session held at Pete's house, where I continued my role as Vocalist and Automatic Lyric Generator. We were a cool, kind of rag-tag bunch... Ben on djembe (I think that was a djembe) and acoustic guitar, Stacy and Jen and Matt also on acoustic, Tim with the Largest Collection of Harmonicas I've ever seen in my life, and Pete on djembe and keys and techno loops and all kinds of craziness. Erin, Common Table's resident Poet Laureate, sat on the floor pouring out poetry and occasional snatches of song about trying to find beauty in the sterility of Northern Virginia suburbia. Jackie, Pete's wife, made us monkey bread and brought us coffee and water and poured wine and even John showed up and made wisecracks in the corner, which I suspect is his art form.

I was wiped, still, from work, and had already had a beer at my usual Friday happy hour at Rocklands. The lyrics came, though, as did the melodies, and everybody just rolled along with the jam, each doing their thing... a little patchwork quilt of folks from all sorts of different backgrounds, come together in a community around the common love of music and the desire to praise God through our creation of something new. I took my belt off so I could... well, so I could belt, and laid back on the couch, closing my eyes and just singing away like I was another instrument. It was blissful.

The Friday before, there was a different sort of jam session at Pete's. I was, again, Vocalist and Random Lyric Generator, but the musicians were professional musicians of Pete's acquaintance who attend much larger churches. I could feel the tension between what they were used to and what we did at Common Table. They are both superb musicians so the improvisational bit didn't phase them, but I think they thought that our exercise of re-writing the lyrics to a popular praise song as a congregation (well, the congregation gave ideas and I wrote lyrics on the spot, which was really unnerving) because we didn't like the real ones was arrogant. I didn't think it was arrogant. The words to the original song left me totally cold. I couldn't worship to those lyrics. So why not customize them?

Which brings me back to my point... there are people for whom being on the outside is "cool", and there are people who just ARE on the outside. I don't have a problem with folks who want to be a part of large churches, or who like being considered an "average person", but I'm literally incapable of that. I think that the communities I've chosen are made up at least partially of folks like me, who have always thought in their own way and found conformity to the expecations of the majority to be almost physically painful, a contortion of the spirit and the mind that is impossible to sustain for more than a short period of time, and even then awkwardly.

I had a couple of confirmations of the legitimacy of my outsider-ness this week. The first was from a childhood friend who found me on Facebook (ahh the wonders of Facebook!) and who has been chucking me random memories she has of me. One of them was when we were in the fourth grade. I had gone from the little private church-run school that K. and I had attended together since kindergarten to the public school up the street that year because my folks could no longer afford the church school. I hadn't seen K. in a while so I invited her to spend the night. When she arrived at my house, she remembers that I was sitting outside with two pairs of glasses on... one with googly eyes on springs, and one with a big nose and fake moustache. She was running late, so God only knows how long I'd sat out there waiting for her, but I know I would have taken pleasure in any consternation I could have caused in folks passing by. I was NINE, and I was already pulling this shit.

The second confirmation was the totally improbable series that The Guardian (a UK newspaper) ran on my hometown of Roanoke,VA, of all places. This British reporter, Gary Younge, lived in Roanoke for 3 weeks to report on the election in small-town America. I found out about the series through my friend in Cairo, Egypt, whose parents are from Southwestern Virginia and how had been following the series with great amusement. I was stunned when she told me about it (also via Facebook) and immediately went to the website.

The outsider-confirmation piece of this is how Mr. Younge characterized folks from my hometown. He summed Roanokers up as "friendly" and "eccentric". Among the experiences he had was one of talking to a guy dressed up as a Viking who was wearing an Obama pin. Apparently, Mr. Younge was the only one around struck by the fact that the guy was dressed as a Viking... well, he thought he was. Knowing folks from Roanoke, they had a reaction, it was just a minimalist one... a raised eyebrow, an almost imperceptible shake of the head, and a quick aside comment to their buddy. For some folks, it would be only the brief raised eyebrow, and the thought "crazy a--hole"... then go on about their business. I know if I'd seen a guy dressed as a Viking when growing up, I'd have thought "huh, guy dressed as a Viking. Weird. Better cross the street" and then gone on about my business. It's only now, having lived outside Roanoke for a long time, that I would be like "Holy s--t! That dude's dressed like a VIKING!" and want to go up and find out what the was up with that dude. I've been conditioned now to find eccentricity "interesting", but I think growing up it was just part of life.

One of the women interviewed for Mr. Younge's piece described Roanoke as historically being very isolated. Surrounded by mountains, off the beaten path, originally named "Big Lick" due to a large area of salt deposit where animals used to go and lick the salt (and promptly be killed by hunters, I'd imagine), and only really prosperous when the railroad was built through it, she described an isolationist mentality in the place. I agree with that. There's a natural tendency to view the outside world with a certain amount of suspicion, but with that a certain tolerance of eccentricity among residents, or at least the willingness to ignore it.

DC is the last place in the world for someone who is truly eccentric. I think the difficulty of my adjustment here was partially due to that. If I could walk around wearing google eyed glasses on springs, I would probably do that at least a couple of times a year... but absolutely no one would laugh and they just might call the cops. I keep threatening to wear my red feather boa to work, but alas, only my life-size cardboard cutout of Fabio --given to me as a going away present when I left Roanoke, of course-- wears the boa on a regular basis. There is a real lack of appreciation for Zaniness up here.

I don't know that I could wear the boa to either of my churches, but I do feel a true sense of community there. We're all a little on the outside, all searching for a place where we can be comfortable with our ways of looking at the world, with our literal inability to support the status quo. I value the friendships I have in these places tremendously, and give God praise that He really does love all of us and gives us church, where we can thank Him for our diversity, our eccentricities, and His Amazing Grace covering it all.


Mike Croghan said...

We're blessed that you live out your oddness with us. :-)

Also, Dude, c'mon. You could totally wear Fabio's boa to church.

Eric said...

Thanks for explaining some of what attracts you to these two churches. Well, you mention two variables, eccentricity and church size. As a DC area native, in my opinion we have a lot of eccentrics here, but they often suppress these characteristics to project status. Just going to middle school, I met children, whose parents obviously spent a lot of money on them, who would harsh on you if they thought you had bought something at K-Mart rather than JCPenney or something. It seems more in the spirit of the early Christian church to worship with eccentrics/outsiders/what have you. Do you remember Robert? But as to maintaining a church's size at 30 or so, I'm not sure what a church would do. It could encourage growth so it could fissure into smaller, friendlier units; if it chose not to grow, it could be indifferent to the participation of "outsiders"; have very strict membership criteria; charge for parking. A church can decide it doesn't want to grow. Or it can decide to limit itself and not become a megachurch. It's possible that the limit on growth of these "creative churches" is that creative people are in the minority to begin with; and that too many creative people at one church is tantamount to "too many cooks." I myself don't really feel I belong to any church right now.

-Eric G.