The Terrible Importance of Coffee and Cakes

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.

The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes

When I explained to my Tallahassee host that I was trying to visit a different church every Sunday as part of my cultural exploration, she asked, “Have you been to a UCC church yet?” I shook my head no, and Currie concluded, “Great! You can come with us tomorrow.”

Chopping VeggiesI knew that the United Church of Christ was a fairly liberal organization, which was confirmed by the rainbow flag on their sign. Currie, her mother, and I all arrived at church and were greeted with the smell of boiling veggies. The church kitchen is only a few feet away from the front door, and I saw half a dozen women inside chopping and measuring. Currie explained to me that about once a month they provide the food for a local soup kitchen, and the parishioners all help prepare the soup before and after service on that day. They call it “Onion Sunday.”

Currie began introducing me to people, explaining that she was hosting me through Couchsurfing, and that I was in the middle of traveling the country. She loved to tell people about my visit to the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, which seemed to fascinate everyone. I met a woman named Nancy whose professionally friendly and calm demeanor I recognized instantly as being indicative of a clergy member. She would be leading the service.

I met several more women and sat down with Currie in the worship space. It was a bright, modern, yet cozy room with chairs instead of pews and a band set up in the corner. At this point I had met only women. As more people filed in I did an informal headcount. The gender ratio was 6:1 in favor of women, many of whom were clearly couples. It seems judgmental to brand any congregation as a “lesbian church,” especially considering that they clearly had men there as well. Still, it was a clear and defining characteristic, and seeing as out lesbian women are a numerical minority within the existing minority of homosexual people, it is at very least statistically interesting. I couldn’t help but think of my friend Markie from college, who always seemed to take delight in any social situation where she could identify complete strangers as fellow lesbians. She had a field day with the Hunger Games midnight show crowd.

The band began playing the gathering song, and lyrics accompanied by relevant stock photos appeared on a screen next to the cross. Rev. Nancy welcomed the group and added that she was a bit nervous. Her partner was traveling and would be arriving home the next day. She asked for our prayers for safe travels. The week’s scripture was read, which was the very appropriate story of Mary and Martha. After the sermon another woman got up to say a prayer. She rustled through a few papers on the podium and then looked over to Nancy, indicating that she couldn’t find the prayer she was supposed to read. The congregation chuckled quietly as Nancy went over to look through the papers, sure that the prayer was there somewhere. As the humor level in the room grew, Nancy threw up her hands and gave up on the written prayer entirely. “Many people come here saying they were turned off by organized religion,” she said. “And we’re anything but organized.” Everyone laughed and Nancy opted to do the prayer herself, extemporaneously.

As soon as the service was over I watched as Currie darted up to the front of the room. The worship space was decorated with several quilt panels. There was a set of three near the front of the room depicting the sun shinning down, and one of the panels had been pushed over just enough so that the rays of light no longer lined up correctly. I had noticed it myself, but it had been driving Currie crazy. She ran up to fix it, which seemed appropriate. She had been the one who quilted it, after all.

Currie asked if I wouldn’t mind sticking around to help with the soup, and I said I’d love to. Together we set to work chopping several pounds of squash and assisting in the proper assembly of the church’s food processor. By the time the last squash was done everything else had been completed, and the soup had only to cook for a few hours before it would be ready to serve.

Food ProcessorFor the most part, my day at UCC seemed very ordinary. Unlike some of the churches I’d visited, it reminded me a lot of my own experiences in the Episcopal Church – the decorations made by parishioners, the jokes when things went wrong, the community meeting together to make a huge amount of food they weren’t intending to eat. The congregation was welcoming and friendly, yet still seemed to represent one specific group. I happened to be relating the story to an openly gay man I met later on my trip, and he explained that in his home town of Washington D.C. he belongs to a church with a lot of other gay men, yet for whatever reason they can’t seem to attract or keep any lesbian couples. However he knows of another church in town that has a thriving lesbian population, but doesn’t have any gay male couples in the congregation. It’s strange to think of this level of homogeneity being created in a subgroup that typically devotes huge resources into societal diversification. But we’re all human, and maybe deep down we still have that ancient savanna need to create our own tribe. As much as we want diversity and know that it is healthy and helpful, it’s also a lot of work. It’s hard to be around people who are different – people who won’t always agree with you and won’t want to do things the same way. When individuals go looking for a new community they are looking for somewhere they belong, not somewhere they stand out.

The church I go to is traditionally Japanese-American, and not really on the beaten path of my normal week. I ended up there when they needed to hire a new sunday school teacher at the same time I was looking for some part-time work. It was just a coincidence. But I believe I can say with absolute certainty that I would have never happened upon the church on my own. And if I had, I probably would have taken one look around and decided I didn’t belong. I would have been wrong, because I do belong there, and I like the people there. And if I’m not careful, I will seek out a community of people who are just like me. But that way leads to an unfounded certainty of conviction. It leads me to believe that my world view is universally accepted as true, and those who would say otherwise are simply crazy, stubborn, deviants.

I’m not knocking the women of this particular UCC congregation for seeking harmony in each other. They deserve it more than most, since the outside world is so likely to provide them with disagreement. But it’s important to remember that no one is above comfort-seeking. No one is too enlightened for simple conflict avoidance. We are the amalgamation of the people we spend the majority of our time with, and it’s easier to be with those who would reenforce that which we’ve established in ourselves, rather than fight it with something new and different. One man described it to me as “The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes.” If there is no one around to question the way we see the world, it is likely that our view of the world will stay the same even as the world itself changes. The women at UCC have no choice but to encounter conflict in their lives, but they have found a small section of their week in which they can be who they are and think how they want without trouble. Certainly a few hours of peace a week is an acceptable trade off for one’s sanity. But I think most of us have the proportions swapped, and would do well to let go of a bit of comfort so that we may make way for a little conflict. It’s our best and only insurance against becoming the crazy, stubborn, deviants we claim to abhor.