She sits on the left hand side of the pulpit mindlessly rummaging through her phone paying bills, making her grocery list and reviewing her ‘friends’ statuses. The sermon is mindless and a repeat from a sermon she heard a week ago. She’s begun to dread ‘Praise and Worship’ which feels more like a cattle call than a jubilee. That’s when Henry’s parents come over to sit beside her. Damn.
“Emma! Emma!” Mrs. Henry’s mother is waving and doing that whispering hollering thing people do in polite society.
“My name is Ericka,” she reminds them.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Henry’s mother looks genuinely embarrassed. Mr. Henry’s father looks bored.
“Its okay,” she assures her not taking her eyes off the latest Facebook post.
“How Malaik?” She asks.
Malik is the very first black kid Mrs. Henry’s mother has ever met in her life. She’s made it her life’s duty to make sure she keeps up with his going’s on.
“His name is Malik. He’s fine,” she is bored. It shows. A heavy sigh escapes her lips and she rolls her eyes when the call for offering is suggested.
More of the shouting whispering, “We’re going for ice cream after. You and Malik should come with?”
Only if death doesn’t take her before the benediction. Sure they’ve already shared this invitation with Malik, she agrees not wanting to deal with a tantrum on what she has declared her easy Sunday. Mrs. Henry’s mother looks over her shoulder at her phone. Ericka quickly clicks back to her Holy Bible app.
“Those phones are just amazing!”
“Yep.” Face forward is an invitation for Mrs. Henry’s mother to just shut the fuck up.
Being a cynic has become Ericka latest ‘thing.’ Having been raised in the church her entire life she attends because its what you do. You go to work, you feed your kids, you sleep, you go to church. It’s how she was raised. So even though she’s bored shitless, playing on her iPhone Sunday after Sunday she shows up relatively on time with Malik. She drops him off at his class. He’s in 3rd grade this year and then goes to sit on the left hand side of the pulpit and wait for her sentencing to end. It’s predictable, though not enjoyable.
They’re singing. ‘Who are these fucks murdering the Lord’s prayer?’ Ericka wonders. She use to sing in choirs. She knows the standard hymns forwards and backwards. Literally, its a talent she has to be able to sing Amazing Grace backwards. It thrilled her ex the first time he heard it pitch perfect coming from her bathroom shower. “Me like wrench saved…” has an entirely different meaning than its original version.
Ericka sings along, hoping she can get the ‘tenor’ on stage on pitch. She fails.
Mrs. Henry’s mother leans in, “You have a lovely voice,” she whisper hollers.
Ericka cannot stand Mrs. Henry’s mother. Its the main reason she’s never even bothered to learn the woman’s name. It’s nothing again Mrs. Henry’s mother, Ericka doesn’t like many people. Its her other ‘thing’ which goes along with being cynical the not liking people. Its pisses Malik off. At 9 he admonishes his mother, “You’re just bitter, mama. You need to get over it.”
What she’s to get over gets left out of the details. As an artist Ericka enjoys her life. She spends her nights designing for this really funky graphics company. They don’t require her to ‘do office’ so she gets to ‘phone it in’ or email her assignments. Its the best gig she could ever have dreamed of and because she does actually believe in a Heavenly Father, she’s sorta grateful to Him for showing her the way to such an awesome occupational set up. Her friends laugh at her because for the most part they think she’s on the brink of homelessness and living off some dude because what artist actually has a 401k?
They just don’t Jesus, Ericka thinks and laughs to herself. Apparently its an inappropriate time for laughter though because Mrs. Henry’s mother gives her ‘the look.’ Church folk, Ericka huffs and rolls her eyes.
Everyone is asked to stand. Its seems odd that they’re standing given this is the part where sinners come up to be place on the path of righteousness. But Ericka stands and that when she realizes it’s Holy Communion. Shit.
Holy Communion takes about an hour in this place. At this point she curses the day Malik was asked to service by his BFF Marcus. They were playing in the back room when Malik comes running out huffing and puffing like some kind of fool, “Marcus said we should go to his church! There’s a slide and they have clowns and it sounds like fun! Let’s go Sunday!” Not feeling the holier than thou attitude of her home church Ericka was completely ok with trying out the megabrick tower situated so conveniently off the interstate. They probably have air conditioning was her only thought.
Turns out they really did have air conditioning – a luxury her in the hood synagogue turned Baptist worship station lacked. They also had cup holders and coffee dispenser in the lobby. Oh, they had a lobby. Something else they had that Ericka actually like was diversity. They were diverse as a family. Ericka’s mother was Italian, her father a Jamaican and Malik’s dad was from Cuba. She liked going to a church where everybody looked different even if they all talked the same. It reminded her of their family, in a way.
And Malik loved the place. It was like some kind of Jesus themed amusement park complete with cotton candy on rainy days. She’d tried at her father’s request to get him back to Baptist Central but he wasn’t having it. She smiles at the memory of their conversation about Malik’s church home of choice.
“Why I can’t go where I want to go, PawPaw?” Malik was adamant.
“Church is about family. It’s about community. What kind of community you tryin’ to be in, Malik?”
“Well I think community and family are what you make them. Anybody can learn about Jesus. And anybody who loves Jesus can teach about Jesus,” sure his argument was sound Malik nodded at his grandfather and went into the kitchen. It was a dismissive move he’d learned from the very man who started the argument.
Throwing up his hands, Mr. Lawrence acquiesced.
She’s in line now behind Mr. and Mrs. Henry’s parents. Holy Communion in a mega church was a logistical nightmare. This should so be optional, Ericka thinks. She was hopeful that being in an nondenominational spiritual environment (that’s what the pamphlet said) she’d be able to skip some of the rituals she found so boring in the church she was raised in but here she stood patiently waiting to receive a dry wafer and thimble of grape juice just like everybody else.
Some begins singing ‘I know it was the Blood,’ but its the orchestra (yes there’s an orchestra) chimes in, Ericka huffs, “They are taking this too far.”
Without thinking she joins in on ‘one day when I was lost…’ Mrs. Henry’s mother turns to smile her approval. Ericka just keeps walking. After receiving her communion kit she moves with the herd back toward her seat. The pastor prayers and a ‘deacon’ (she doesn’t know what their called hear) recites scripture. Then they are instructed to partake of the body and blood of Jesus.
Ericka partakes more out of habit than conviction and counts the moments till benediction. That’s when the Pastor announces a special testimony will be presented by Sister So and So. Ericka returns to her phone prepared to shut down and remain shut down until the last Amen is sung but there’s something about this woman coming on stage that is eerily familiar. Ericka stills her hand.
“I want to share with you all about how I came to Christ,” she begins. “But the truth is I’m not your run of the mill Christian.”
There’s murmuring in the crowd. She raises her hand and they settle.
“I believe in Jesus and can quote quite a few Bible scriptures if you put me to the test about it. But that’s not important. Not really…”she pauses and glances over the audience making sure to make eye contact with a few spectators. “I’d been in church my whole life. I went to service. I sung in the choir. I was even baptized when I was 7 years old.”
Ericka stares at this woman transfixed thinking she’s telling my life story.
“But I never felt anything,” the woman hangs her head. “I never felt like I was a part of anything. I felt like God loved everybody and maybe He even loved me but if I died tomorrow I didn’t believe Heaven or Hell for that matter was where I would end up. I felt so…disconnected…so disillusioned. Even now after you all have taken part in one of the most sacred rituals in Christendom I can tell you just want this service to end. Because as ‘saved’ as you are, you don’t feel any different from the you you were before ‘salvation’ came to you. Am I right?”
Involuntarily, Ericka nods her head.
“Why do you think that is?” the audience is silent. “Relationships are a two way streak. Did you know that?” It’s like she’s teaching a 1st grade class.
“We are all so willing to say ‘God do this…God help with that…God fix…God save…God be…’ It’s a one sided relationship. And we stick Jesus in the middle and wonder why our lives our insides remain so hallow so full of grocery lists and to do’s. We’re living but we aren’t alive. We aren’t happy.
“Like I said I won’t to tell you about how I came to Jesus but the truth is I didn’t come to Jesus. My life change when I learned how to let Jesus come to me. Sounds crazy don’t it?”
Ericka nods her head. Mrs. Henry’s mother fidgets in her seat.
She continues, “One day I was sitting at my dining room table crying. Nothing in particular had happened that day. It was just a regular day of living but my heart was heavy and even though I really needed to get dinner ready for my family I sat down at the table and put my head in my hands. When I started to weep it took me by complete surprise. I asked myself ‘what are you crying about? Your children are healthy, you have a husband who loves you, a job that provides for you, and a home that keeps you safe and warm. Why are you crying?'” She pauses and looks out at the audience again. Ericka swears she’s looking right at her. “I didn’t know why I was weeping. I couldn’t explain it to myself. Couldn’t rationalize the tears running down my face or the reason why my chest felt so closed up. I just couldn’t figure it out. So I started to pray,” She nods and asks, “Have you done that before? Have you ever prayed just to help clear your head?”
Some affirms they have. Ericka can’t remember the last time she prayed.
“Its the first step I learned. My prayer was simple because I’m not a very religious person. I don’t have all the pretty words Pastor has or the stewards. I just opened my mouth and what came out was, ‘God I don’t know you. I don’t know if you’re listening or not. I don’t know why I’m not happy. I don’t know why I’m sitting here crying but right now I willing to open my heart and believe that you’re real and that you love me and want me to be happy. So I’m just gon talk to you and see what happens.’ And I did. I talked to God. I talked to God like He was one of my girlfriends. I told Him about work and the kids. I talked about my husband and how I was tired of fixing dinner every night. I complained and cried and had to blow my nose more than a dozen times. I poured my heart out to God and in that moment when I opened my heart to the possibility that God was listening…I started to feel like I was finally a part of something real.”
Ericka considers her words. So much of it rung true for her. She had been spending her life just going through the motions. Working because work is what you do. Going to church because church is what you are suppose to do. She wasn’t in any kind of a committee relationship even her friendships were fly by night. Only her commitment to raising Malik was real. She’d never considered that perhaps the reason she was going through a phase in ‘cynicism’ and ‘dislike’ was related to the fact that she wasn’t open. Ericka took a personal inventory.
“Having a relationship with God requires that you be willing to open yourself up to the possible that God is in fact listening and interested not just in what you want and need but in you. God is interested in you. And if God is interested in you maybe other people are. Maybe you really do have a purpose. Maybe there really is a design for your life that’s bigger than you imagined it. Maybe there’s something more to you because you are a part of something more,” she takes a breath and the look on her face is pleading. “You deserve to be a part of something bigger and better. You deserve to be happy and to have a life that is full of joy. I know I sound like a self-help shelf. But that’s my testimony: I cried and poured my heart out to God and as a result I became a part of something bigger than me. So now I’m asking you…what’s possible for you?”
She thanked everyone for listening and returned to her seat. The sanctuary was silent. Pastor broke the silence by asking everyone to stand for the benediction. Ericka remained sitting. Mrs. Henry’s mother reached for her hand and when Ericka didn’t respond she rested her hand on Ericka’s shoulder, her vibrato drowning out Mr. Henry’s father’s solid tenor.
When the final amen is sung, Ericka realizes she has started crying. Mrs. Henry’s mother hands her a tissue. Ericka stands to thank her and mentions, “I never did catch your name.”
“I’m Sarah and he’s Mike.”
“Well let’s get the kids. That ice cream won’t buy itself.” Ericka laughs leading the way.