In visiting various churches throughout the summer I was surprised by many things. Different traditions, different demographics, different scriptural interpretations. But nothing was more shocking or outlandish than the complete absence of Coffee Hour nationwide. For those of you who were not raised with such a tradition, Coffee Hour is the social time immediately following the service. Everyone goes to another part of the church (usually referred to as the Parish Hall) to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a selection of cookies and treats brought in by whatever group of parishioners had signed up to bring treats that week. Growing up, this was an absolutely crucial part of church to me. Coffee Hour is the time when I talked with the other people in the community. It was when little kids sold wrapping paper for their school fundraisers, and when everyone got to enjoy a store-bought cake decorated to celebrate whatever birthday or anniversary was just around the corner.
At my current church, Coffee Hour sometimes takes on a life of its own, featuring such feasts as chili cheese dogs or sushi or red beans and rice. But even the smallest Episcopal congregations I’ve visited in my life manage to put together a nice loaf of banana bread and a coffee percolator. But I went to churches all across the country and found nothing. The entire summer I went to exactly one Coffee Hour, and it was at the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.
When every day involves a journey of 200 miles, it can be hard to find time for church. After my Saturday in Portland I knew I wanted to attend a Sunday service, but I was also in a hurry to get to Acadia National Park. I woke up early to pack up my campsite, and I started down the road. My plan was to drive until about 9:40AM, then start looking for church signs. Most churches have their main service between 10AM and 11:30AM, and I figured eventually I would see a sign for a service that started in 5-15 minutes. That’s where I would go to church.
It was 9:45AM when I saw a church with the main doors open to the street. There were bells ringing and an usher at the door. A small sign pointed to the parking lot. I figured it wouldn’t get any easier or more obvious than this, and I pulled into the lot. I threw a skirt on over my shorts, which had become my standard practice at unknown churches. I never know what kind of place I’m walking into and what the dress code will be, but I know most people won’t take issue with a young woman in a skirt, so long as it covers her knees.
Three different people greeted me as I walked in and took my seat. The building was sparsely decorated but full of small touches. There was an instrumental prelude, and an old man with a box of matches waddled up to light the candles at the front. I saw on the front of my program that I was visiting the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, which is part of the United Church of Christ. A few gathering words were spoken, followed by a hymn. An older woman carried a notebook up to the front. She had short, brown hair and red-rimmed glasses. She performed a solo for the congregation, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” She had a lovely voice, but it seemed strange to me because of my previous association with the song. I’d only ever heard Lauryn Hill sing it. In comparison to the emotional, gospel tone of Ms. Hill, the woman in the red-rimmed glasses seemed so rigid, so clear, so proper. I imagined my grandmother singing a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and smiled.
After the sermon there was a second solo, followed by the closing hymn. I went downstairs to attend my beloved coffee hour, and found the parish hall filled with brownies and blueberry muffins. I stuck up a conversation with a little old lady whose voice was high and delicate and reminded me of a famous actress, though I wasn’t sure which one exactly. Her eyes got wide when I told her about my journey, and she pulled another person into our conversation. A few seconds later she ducked away, and soon the gossip was spreading through the whole room and people kept coming up to me to hear my story.
And that’s when I experienced another first. I tend to get asked a lot of the same questions when I tell my story. But one of the first people I spoke with during Coffee Hour at Second Congregational managed to ask me a question I had never heard before:
“What can we do to help?”
I was so surprised I didn’t have an answer. I still didn’t have an answer a few minutes later when a completely different parishioner asked the same thing. Eventually I suggested that they take my card and contact me if they knew anyone I could stay with on my way back towards Seattle. They smiled when I explained that I hadn’t heard of their church at all before today, and that I simply stopped because they were starting the service when I happened to be driving by. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came back out I saw a pair of women loading up a collection of brownies, cookies, and muffins into some tin foil. They handed me Ziplock bags full of extra veggies as well as some cheese and crackers, insisting it was the least they could do.
I have met some wonderful people on my journey. I’ve been invited into the homes of complete strangers. I’ve had men I didn’t know stop to fix my tires. I’ve had families give me a chair to sit on and a beer to drink. I’ve experienced some fantastic examples of humanity on my trip. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so genuinely welcomed as I did at Second Congregational. And it all comes down to that one question: What can we do to help? We would all do well to make such a sentiment central to our lives, and I think churches have a duty to do so. It has been pointed out that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. I have never felt the benefit of being a non-member so strongly as I did in that little basement parish hall in Maine – a place I only found because the timing was right.