I pulled the car over to the curb and berated myself. Late again. Lost again. But, not in that fun “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria” Sound of Music sort of way. At 36, the charm of being “A flibbertigibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!” had worn off.
Six months earlier, I had left the west coast and arrived in Buffalo without a plan, a job, or essentials. I had packed for a ten day visit. The days, weeks and months rolled by and here I was, late again, lost again, busted and broke. I was living at my grandmother’s house and my ride was my her sedan.
On New Year’s eve, I made a resolution to “get to know God a little”. In the movies, isn’t this where God enters through a window if not a door? Church like my grandmother didn’t charge admission so it was within my budget. My first unsuccessful attempt to meet up with God had been my grandparents’ South Buffalo parish, Catholic church. Now, I was in the hunt to find a church with a more liberal sensibility. A friend had suggested St. Joe’s. It really didn’t matter if I arrived there this morning or not. Who cared? There were lots of other churches and other Sundays to get to know God. And yet, here I was sinking deep into my core of inner negativity and self-recrimination.
I had quit smoking a year before but my grandmother was still working on her sixty-five plus year habit. I choked on the stale stench of stubbed-out cigarettes.
Ashes escaped the tray. Trapped. I turned my head to see where I was. I had inadvertently parked outside a church. A freestanding black board with white letters said: Sunday Service 10:30 am. I wasn’t late, I was 15 minutes early.
Just go. Just go. A Church is a church is a church is a church.
But what denomination? I got out of the car and stood in front of an enormous 19th century red stone church. Built later, the churches on the west coast were less imposing, not that I frequented them. When I had said to myself that I wanted “to get to know God a little”, it was with the understanding that I didn’t know God at all. I knew far more about Zeus and company from my English Lit classes than I did about the God that inspired people to build this kind of massive structure. Prior to my resolution, I attended Catholic mass a few times with my grandfather who was a Lector and then a few other Christian churches for weddings and funerals. I spotted a Celtic cross in an adjacent courtyard so I guessed I was in Christian territory but I couldn’t be sure if all these buildings were part of a campus or independent from each other. The service I was about to walk into was a mystery.
I didn’t care. I wanted out of the car and out of my head.
The church was cavernous and dark. A black man in white robes ushered me across a red carpet. I would come to find out that white robes were common to this religion but in the moment, I wondered if I had stumbled upon a monastery. The man was bald with a care worn face but his grip was strong and spirit exuberant. He took my hand and in that moment I felt launched.
I fiddled with the stubby pencils, red books and donation envelopes shelved on the back of the pew in front of me: The Book of Common Prayer – never heard of it.
A very tall, imposing man, dressed in priestly garb, took his place at the front of the altar. He welcomed us and made a point to say that communion was open to all, no exceptions. I thought to myself, ‘He couldn’t mean me. Just these other people who come all the time’. Despite the preacher, it was suddenly again expansive and hollow around the smattering of people sitting in the pews. A large choir had assembled on the altar, more choir than congregation. This man and his singers seemed ready to rock with all the enthusiasm of a first album tour – large venues with small crowds.
This was Trinity Episcopal Church and within a year, I had a job there. I managed the bookstore and on Sunday, I greeted people as they walked into the sanctuary.
On that first day, I didn’t realize it but I had been delivered into and received sanctuary. Contemporary civics lumps sanctuary with politics. Sanctuary came into early language to denote places of holiness and eventually the word came to mean immunity from punishment, refuge and protection. Now, we have sanctuary cities. They “limit how local law enforcement can cooperate with federal immigration agents” (NYTimes).
For many Christians, sanctuary is simply a place. Episcopalians call the space around the altar sanctuary. I am still the secular, agnostic woman I was 17 years ago, but when in that church, I enjoyed the bounty of a Christian embrace. Here is a place you can bring problems – traumatic, insurmountable, or criminal. You don’t seek sanctuary because everything is aces in your life.
I needed sanctuary from myself, from that woman trapped in a car whose depression, anxiety and self-doubt threatened a hostile take-over during moments as innocuous as getting lost on the way to church. Sanctuary doesn’t care who you are, where your journey has taken you or what sins you may have committed. Sanctuary is there for anyone who needs it.
It was at Trinity where: I managed a bookstore; squirreled away in the back pews and wrote; brought my new fella; gave reflections on Sunday evening; partook in communion; read and sold books on faith; walked down the aisle to be married; miscarried, not once but several times; napped when I was pregnant; played on a blanket with my newborn, quit my job to stay home, became a vestry woman; asked the leadership to write recommendations so we could adopt. It was Trinity where: my husband came to tell me about my grandfather’s death; my ex-husband informed me after 20 years he had finally quit drinking; my grandmother poked around White Elephant sales; sermons lifted my spirits. Sometimes I contributed and sometimes I didn’t; I made friends and sometimes lost them. My baby played Baby Jesus at the Christmas eve pageant; my boys were christened; rectors came and went; and then I left. Every so often, I return.
I was not surprised to hear the rector of Trinity Matt Lincoln and the pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s Rev. Justo Gonzalez II announced that their respective churches will shelter refugees or undocumented immigrants seeking protection from the Border Patrol or Department of Immigration. Lawyers say that while sanctuary is not a legal protection, immigration and law enforcement officials apprehensive regarding the optics, are reluctant to haul people out of churches in handcuffs.
One is not meant to reside forever in a church sanctuary. It is a temporary home in a public space designed to help you regroup, find peace, knowledge and the strength to walk through your days. Sanctuary is a designated spot for nourishment, community love, kindness, rest and maybe God. Seek it when you need it; usher in people who seek it; protect the right to have it.