When Mom and I walk into church, Shailene Cousins catches sight of me and loses it. I seize up when she locks onto my arms.
“Girl! Haven’t seen you here in a long time.” She raises an eyebrow. “Looks like your momma finally got some sense into you.” Her voice bounces off the cramped foyer’s walls.
“Ha! Oh no!” Mom says. “You know I can’t reach this child anymore. College does that sort of thing. But she has it all figured it out. She’s doing very important work.”
“And what do you do, Isabel?”
“I mainly volunteer at the public defender’s office whenever I’m home. Clerical work, usually. But I’ll be doing real work there over the summer.”
“Oooooo! Lord, I can see it now! Campaign ads with your name plastered all over them!”
Shailene howls with laughter. Mom bites her lip and smiles.
“Yes. Well, I already know not to stand in her way. But, by some miracle, I got her to join me on a Sunday morning.”
Mom’s birthday was three days ago. Normally, we’d celebrate with a rare dinner out. Maybe a movie, if we could agree on one. But this year she asked me to go to church with her. She asked, but it might as well have been a sweet-sounding mandate.
“We take what we can get.” Shailene says it like she’s wise. “I’m not letting y’all go. Come join me with Martin and the boys!”
The pew feels rigid against my back. Mom’s on my left, thumbing through her Presbyterian hymnal. Sometimes she stops on a hymn she likes. Her lips trace out the words. I study her and can barely understand the soft sounds she makes, like she’s murmuring secrets to someone invisible.
The Cousins family is on my right. Shailene, Melvin and their two boys, Terrell and Denzel. Denzel whispers something to his mom, and she covers her mouth to keep the laughter from bursting out. Melvin strokes the back of Terrell’s head, who then points at the art in one of the windows. His dad’s explanation makes his eyes bug out with wonder.
I’m focused on Shailene’s costume instead of the Gospel reading. She’s in an aggressively purple church suit and a church hat larger than a parasol. She has a violet dress under the jacket, with a crest of sequins curving above her chest. Light breaks through the stained-glass windows, glinting off the disks on her dress. She glares so brightly you can’t look at her without squinting. And how is she not burning up in that thing? The shade from the upstairs balcony barely keeps me cool.
My eyes return to Mom, and I start when I realize she was looking at me first. She rubs my shoulder and squeezes gently. I offer her a sheepish smile, but her beam melts it from my face. She doesn’t look at me like this very often. I don’t make time for moments like this anymore. When was the last time we’d spent this much time together in silence?
My life is constantly moving. I’m at the public defender’s office. I’m chopping watermelon at the downtown soup kitchen. I’m working the children’s help desk at the library. I don’t spend too many hours in the house. Mom smiles whenever I walk out the door; I’m grateful that I always have something to return to. She wants me to stay a while, but I can’t stop moving. So she recedes.
My stomach wrenches when Pastor climbs up to the pulpit. His dark, flowing robes sweep across each step. I listen to the rustling in the audience fall silent. Pastor surveys us all: mothers nudging their kids to sit up straight, all of us waiting as the large fans stir the only movement in the room. His stare grazes my face, but I feel like it’s locked onto me. He clears his throat, and every head leans forward. The booming voice blares down on us.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Lord, I have a question for you all today! A simple question, but believe me, it’s a crucial question worthy of address. Would you like to know my question?”
“Yes, Pastor!” they all say.
“My question is: If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”
They’re all quiet, the sounds of their whispers like mice.
“You! Yes, boy, you!”
A little kid rises, legs shaking.
“Tell us all. If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”
Pastor’s beckoning the kid now, his golden rings flashing more brightly than the gold strips running down his chest.
“I—I would ask G—God to… stop all gangs.”
And they all shout praise in unison. Choruses of “Amen!” and “Yes, Jesus!” ring out from every corner of the hall. Folks even start clapping. The kid is overwhelmed. Mom lightly claps herself, before flashing me a knowing grin. I look back at her blankly. I remember why I don’t like being here.
“To stop all gangs,” Pastor repeats, emphasizing each word. “Well, I come with great news for you, little man. God’s goodness will guide you towards realizing that goal. Stay with God! I’ll say it again. Stay with God! Folks, we face difficult, complex, intricate problems each and every day. Little problems. Big problems. A fever. Gangs. A mortgage. ISIS. Our economy. Police violence!” That last bit strikes a chord with the audience. Every auntie in here hums in accord.
“And during this turmoil, I’m here to tell you that you can always put your trust in God. But God’s timing isn’t our timing, nor should we expect it to be.”
“Mmm!” they all go.
“We have to wait. Sometimes we have to pause.”
“And some people don’t like to wait for God.”
“Some people get impatient, try to force God’s hand!”
“Other people may look for reassurance and security elsewhere! But hear me clearly! Aside from God, there are no solutions that can really give us peace!”
They all erupt with affirmation. I remember why I hate being here.
Fake. All of it is fake. This man, who speaks like he’s possessed but reads off flashcards, is fake. These people, who act like angels today to pay it forward for the week, are fake. I can’t stay in a place where they tell me to wait. To just wait. This isn’t a place where people can afford to wait. Weathering the storm won’t fix anything. Faith won’t produce results. I’m on my way to producing those results one day.
There’s so much that I can do. A real community in need of help exists outside this building. Sure, I’m one of its success stories, but that’s not enough. Our schools will still be underfunded. Our streets will still be crawling with drugs. Our heads will still be bowed as too many police patrol the neighborhood. How many times have I heard that story — someone rising above all the forces stacked against them? It’s tiring to always need to be overcoming. There’s so much that I need to do.
I run my counter-sermon while Pastor finishes his, like I used to when I was dragged here. Raucous applause accompanies his departure. Mom’s eyes bore into me. Her face grows cold as she watches me roll my eyes and smirk. She takes her hand off my shoulder and opens up her hymnal. Her thin fingers tighten around the binding. They almost tremble.
The rage bubbles up and tears in my chest. You can’t escape into here and forget what’s all around us. I love home just as much as she does, more than she does, clearly. Why doesn’t she get it?
The choir members open their hymnals and begin a melody. It starts low in volume, but soft and airy. “His name’s above all names. / He deserves all our praise. / Won’t you rejoice with us / and our God we trust?” The sopranos all maintain notes so high they’re ethereal. Rich background baritone rounds out the sound. Then, like a wave, everyone raises their voice and joins in with bursting passion. Claps intersperse between the staggered lines and bellows. People in the audience stomp their feet like marching soldiers. I stand there in the center of it all, but I stay quiet.
Mom sings with the rest of them, louder and prouder than she has ever been with me. The distance between our shoulders may as well have been cavernous. They all sing, unabashed, and I can’t match the depth of their feeling. I just stand and fruitlessly observe them all. Why don’t I get it?
I remember why I hate being here.