It’s a few days before Easter, and I’m contemplating my annual trip to church.
My older daughter once told a friend that we go to church once a year. The friend replied point-blank: “I can’t believe you guys only go to church on Easter,” Sydney recounted.
“Well, right, but did you tell her we don’t miss an Easter, though?” I joked. But even that hasn’t been true for several years now.
This puts me in sizable company. A 2013 Gallup study found that while 56 percent of Americans said religion is “very important” in their lives and an additional 22 percent called it “fairly important,” only 4 in 10 people had self-reported attending services the previous week. Weekly attendance has ranged between 40 and 45 percent since the early 1960s, the study said, but it has averaged 39 percent since 2008.
There’s a word for people like me, I found out from Facebook. “CMEs,” or Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter churchgoers. Opinion about these drop-ins was mixed.
Some questioned our motives. Some said that going on holidays was better than never going. “Going once a year is only good if the spirit leads you to continue worshipping in His house, otherwise stay home and continue your couch and TV ministry,” one person wrote.
I headed to the Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills, Md., hoping Pastor Tony Lee might share a word on the subject. Turns out, he shared several.
“One of the things I talk to the church about is that, for us, Easter is our great celebration. Easter is the church’s Super Bowl,” Lee said as we sat near the pulpit. “We’re celebrating the resurrection of Christ, so, for me, anybody who wants to come to that party is welcome.”
Lee has seen the online memes making fun of people who go to church only on holidays. And he has heard the grumbling of God’s regulars who worry that they won’t get a seat because of the Easter influx. “Sometimes we get so caught up in religiosity we miss the blessing,” Lee said. This may be the one day where people who always say no to church say yes.
I told Lee that I haven’t been to church, but I talk to God, I meditate, I see the divine in ordinary things, and every Sunday, I listen to Music Choice Gospel on cable.
There is a blessing for those who get their church from TV or streaming on their laptops, Lee said. But then he spoke to the thing that has felt truest for me since I was a little girl: There is also the spirituality that comes from being in community, he said. That’s about getting out of your silos, even if it is a silo with God, and being in fellowship with the person next to you — “grappling with people who are also grappling, and trying to get it right.”
Once a month, his parishioners give dollar bills to everyone who has had a birthday that month, and not long ago, they gave all the birthday dollars to one 95-year-old church mother. Watching children scrounge in their pockets to give this old woman a quarter and a hug as she cried was a blessing, Lee said.
I nodded because I felt blessed just to hear the story.
The church celebrates marriages and graduations, Lee said, but not just for high school and college. “I’m talking about truck-driving school and cosmetology graduations, amen,” he said. “Anything you had to study for, we celebrate you moving forward.”
Lee told of members praying with people as they’ve had to disconnect their mommas from a ventilator. And when they come back to church that first Mother’s Day after their mothers are gone, the congregants know to give them extra attention.
He told stories of how people come to church drunk, and they find a place for them. How as a younger man he came to church after drinking a fifth of Thunderbird wine and a 40-ounce Red Bull. Drunk. Vomiting-in-the-bathroom drunk. “Oh, they loved on me so hard,” the pastor says. And he knew church was where he was supposed to be.
Lee walked the empty sanctuary and pointed to extra chairs and spots where they’ll seat the overflow crowd. He talked about the Easter lilies that will adorn the pulpit, and how they’re making it a dress-down Sunday for the ones who want to come but don’t have new clothes.
And as I stood there, I felt like I’ve missed church and I didn’t want to leave. It’s something I think I might like to feel more than once a year.