Family Secrets

Some time ago I lived in a little village in NE Ohio. One day I read an ad in the paper and on a whim decided to attend a morning service at the local Mennonite Church. The ad was for a missionary speaker who worked for an organization I much sympathized with.

As a nervous newcomer, even though I was a missionary then and a church-going person my whole life, I arrived there a little early and sat in the car to time my entrance. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I almost changed my mind as  a thought came clearly, “I don’t belong here!” But in the end, I went in.

Upon entering the building, I found a nice atmosphere. A couple of people extended their hand to me, including the man I suspected was the pastor, whom I had met some time earlier at the little barbershop in town. One lady, who was sitting by me, actually introduced herself, shook my hand, and said with a smile, “Hi, I am Rita Wenger. Welcome!”

The service started with some nice readings by a couple. They read a poetic arrangement about God’s signature in the sunshine, the lightening, the rain, and “the people with their beautiful smiles who are here this morning!”

A gray-haired lady, nicely dressed and decidedly friendly, led the music. We sang the first song a capella. Beautiful harmony. Mennonites, like Brazilians, know how to harmonize.

After a few songs, the pastor got up and shared “celebrations.” A couple had become grandparents — again! An elderly woman had the twenty year old roof replaced in her house — all the work done by the men in the church, and the women, who helped cook that day. A couple who was moving to Indiana was honored — “a celebration in reverse,” the pastor called it.

But I was not expecting what happened next. He invited people to share. No, he didn’t just ask them to come upfront or walk to them when they raised their hands. He gave the congregation the microphone… literally. Announcements, words of thanks, clarifications, a real grocery list of stuff was shared.

But the place turned eerily silent when a lady who was sitting on the back got the microphone. She said, “Many of you have asked about my divorce. Well, I am here to share this with you by way of a prayer request, so please take your pen and paper.” The sound of paper shuffling and people getting their pens out echoed in the room and eyes were moving fast.

The woman spoke with a voice that commanded respect and drew sympathy to the core. She said the divorce had been finalized recently. As she went on, she asked for prayer for her. Her anger. “Yes, I am still angry.” Her ability to forgive. Her children and his children. “One of my children has been sleeping with me for several months now.” The pain was so intense but she was not done.

Next, she gave a list of her losses: a husband, a family, a relationship, a person she thought was her best friend. The anniversaries she no longer celebrates. and the fateful date. September 26, Communion Service. The woman who was her best friend then washed her feet and when she got done, she whispered in her ears, “I love you.”

That same night, when they got home after the service, her husband told her that he was having an affair with the feet washer. “That was the death of my marriage,” she said, “and that anniversary is coming up.”

I looked in front of me and saw the neck of this beautiful lady wearing a beautiful green blouse. I knew her. She was the stoic pre-school teacher at the school my son attended. At school she looked like a saint whose smiles come only in installments. But now her neck was getting red, from the bottom to the top. It was like the shadow of the clouds rapidly covering a river at high noon. Soon it took over her entire neck and tears began to flow. I could only see her neck but it was as if it too was crying. Her hands were resting on her chin and I heard her sobbing softly.

Then I looked around and saw other people crying, including grown men with what appeared to be tear-proof beards. The woman went on and listed other anniversaries. By now I was asking God to spare us more sorrow. Then, quietly, she read a poem that talked about overcoming through Jesus and sat down.

The pastor got the microphone and prayed with the congregation for this woman. Then he went to the platform and said, “This is the church.” From then on, I could care less about what the speaker was going to say. I couldn’t take another sermon. What that missionary speaker had to say no longer mattered. I could only think about that young woman, her painful words and the tremendous courage it took for her to share them with those people.

Then a thought came: “I was right. I don’t belong here.” Let me explain: my church experience was so different from what I had just witnessed. Yes, I was blown away by the openness of that congregation but there was a part of me that thought I inadvertently walked into a family meeting and stumbled upon some family secrets.

I just wonder: is that the church like the pastor said or just one aspect of it?

Ivanildo C. Trindade