I drove up and down Highway 31 for almost an hour before picking a church. There were a lot to choose from, but none of them were jumping out at me. Eventually I turned down the road to Eden Bible Church because I’d never been to anything that called itself a Bible Church. Besides, something about the nearby Church of Christ building made me nervous.
I was greeted at the door of Eden by an older man, the kind of man whose jokes might be offensive if he wasn’t so damn charming. I took my place in a pew and couldn’t help but notice the family sitting behind me: One woman in her 40s or 50s and seven identically dressed boys. The age range of the boys was about six to thirteen, and all of them were wearing lavender dress shirts with dark purple ties.
“Where are the girls?” I asked their mother.
“Didn’t have any,” she said with a shrug and a smile.
An usher handed me a crisp, 9×6 folder made of quality paper. It was their welcome packet, and it was full of information about the church and its activities. There’s an “Over 55” luncheon for seniors the forth Friday of every month, an evening service at 6PM on Sundays, and every Wednesday is Family Night. The back of the worship bulletin had a prayer request for their missionaries, and listed 13 people in 7 countries. My favorite was the L.A.D.I.E.S. F.E.L.L.O.W.S.H.I.P. of Eden Bible Church, which is easily the longest and most obnoxious backronym I’ve ever seen. It stands for: Learning And Doing Inspiring Embracing Supporting Friends Enjoying Love Laughter Of Women (who) Share Hearts In Prayer & praise. It sounds a bit like something I would have come up with during an improv game.
Then of course, there was the Sunday School Program.
“Children are important at Eden Bible Church and their training begins early.”
Reading that line in the welcome packet sent a shiver down my spine,. I’m a Sunday School teacher myself, and I just can’t bring myself to think of teaching as training. Training is what soldiers and athletes do. Education is what you get from teachers. Even so, reading their program guide made me jealous. Eden Bible Church has five Sunday School classes, plus two more for adult education. Their classes start at 9:15AM, almost two hours before the regular service. Kids are split up into groups with no more than a two year age range, just like you might have in a public school. When I was growing up, my church used the one room school house approach to pedagogy, and I consider it an accomplishment that my current congregation has the resources to separate the kids into two age groups. At our church the 12-year-olds aren’t sitting through the same lesson as the toddlers. At Eden, they aren’t even sitting through the same lesson as the 10-year-olds.
After church I met yet another woman with seven boys, though she informed me that six of hers were adopted. I couldn’t help but look for the fathers in both cases, and never managed to find them. Everyone at the church was very kind, very welcoming. After the service they wished me well on my trip, and I continued my drive up through Michigan.
The people of Eden Bible Church fit so neatly into so many stereotypes I would like so much to believe. I can tell myself that their church must offer a simplified, straight-forward message that keeps people coming back, unlike my own denomination whose primary features are the muddy mystery of the divine and a consistently declining population graph. I can pretend that even though they have a much stronger and more established education program, it’s probably more rigid and didactic than my own. I can imagine that my own inclination to remain childless is a much choice than the decision to have seven boys – adopted or not. I can be proud to live in the heart of a modern city, rather than in the pinky of the Michigan mitten.
And in thinking all those things, all I manage to be is the arrogant, liberal stereotype I assume they want me to be. And of course the assumption that they want me to be an arrogant liberal is just another stereotype I have of them. I suppose my training began early, too.
Such is the vicious cycle of The Other. Were I to stay in town for a few more Sundays, maybe catch an adult Sunday School session or crash the potluck lunch, I would probably change my tune. In traveling, I run the constant risk of learning just enough to make myself feel smart, while not discovering how much more there is to know. It makes me second-guess every conclusion I draw. I am constantly asking myself: Was my experience authentic? Do I know enough to draw a conclusion? Will others find my thoughts arrogant? The fear is always there. “You’re wrong,” they’ll say as they shove contradictory evidence back in my face. And I’ll sheepishly back away, because I know that I leaped before I looked. As one of my favorite novels once taught me, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s a long, hard swim back.
Thinking about it now, I wish I would have known about Eden Bible Church’s extensive Sunday School program ahead of time. I could have asked to sit in on a class. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so envious of the program if I had been there. Or maybe I would have coveted their personalized lessons even more. I sometimes wonder if jealousy isn’t at the heart of all pre-judgments. It’s not just about Eden’s philosophy or their language, it’s the fact that they’re doing so well with it. It’s the same with any group or interest. You want the things you love to be successful, because that means you were right to love them in the first place. Sometimes we have to admit that at least for now, what we love doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that the success of another doesn’t detract from our own interests and pleasures. It takes constant, conscious thought to cure ourselves of jealousy-based prejudice.
Or, I suppose, it just takes training.