Last year on Palm Sunday, the rector of our large, young, and vibrant Episcopal parish, St. Michael’s in Raleigh, announced–only half in jest–that we might want to consider attending the Easter Vigil on Saturday night rather than trying to find a parking space and a seat for any of the three Easter services. I actually followed his advice and so saw the first lighting of the paschal candle and heard the first alleluias of Easter. However, the experience wasn’t so thrilling as the festival Easter service with brass and harp and choir and hundreds of pastel-clad worshippers proclaiming in unison, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
This year, I decided on something entirely different. I went to the “find a church” page for the diocese of North Carolina, and I clicked on parish after parish until I found one that seemed small and intimate, reminiscent of my first Episcopal family at St. Christopher’s in Garner. Combining those criteria with a manageable drive for Easter morning, I selected St. John’s in Battleboro.
Since the parish has no website, and their Facebook page hasn’t been updated since January 9, 2012, I called the number on the diocesan listing just to make certain there would even be an Easter service. The phone rang four times, and the voicemail message began before a frail woman’s voice answered, “Hello?” I asked if this was the number for St. John’s Episcopal Church, and she said it was. I asked her if they would be having Easter services, and she said they would, at 9:00 a.m. “We’re very small,” she added, “and we’re all very old. I don’t know what has happened to the younger people, but they just don’t seem to want to go to church.” I asked about music (yes) and an organ (yes, we have a wonderful organist). I asked if the address was 101 Main Street, and she said it was. She told me to take the Gold Rock exit from I-95 and “the lady” would guide me the rest of the way. “I call her the lady,” she said, and I responded, “Oh, yes! Siri.”
And then the confusion started. I went to Google Maps for directions, which seemed simple enough: 101 Main Street, Battleboro NC. But Google informed me brusquely, “Maps can’t find 101 Main Street, Battleboro NC.” So I had to find it. After a quick Google search for the parish yielded nothing but a set of architectural photographs and drawings from the NC State University library archives, I looked–unsuccessfully–for the town of Battleboro in Wikipedia. A little more searching revealed that Battleboro has been swallowed up by the city of Rocky Mount, so I tried 101 Main Street, Rocky Mount NC on the maps application. Nope. It seemed that Main Street in Battleboro might be Battleboro Avenue in Rocky Mount, but when I went to 101 (NW, NE, SW. or SE) on the satellite view, nothing looked like a church, and street view showed only warehouses and empty storefronts. I got my husband the IT wizard involved. I got MapQuest involved. I went back to the diocesan listing, which had an Episcopal shield plopped in the middle of what turned out to be well-tilled farmland on the satellite view. Pavel and I spent more than an hour going up and down the street views of the former Battleboro township. I finally gave up and decided to call the kindly lady again for perhaps an intersecting street name. When I found the telephone number on a different diocese site, the address was also different–211 E. Main Street! That was enough to get me situated on Google Maps, and I had soon located the church on both satellite and street view, and the lady–the electronic one–was able to provide directions. I called the other lady just to be sure, but I had to leave a message. When I received a return call, it was her husband, the senior warden, who provided thorough directions, asked how to spell my name, and told me how glad they would be to welcome me this morning.
I followed the directions of Siri and the senior warden and made it to St. John’s in an easy hour up I-95. The lector greeted me and introduced me to the priest as I entered the nave made of rich wood and stained glass, with a blue vaulted ceiling above the sanctuary. And then everyone standing near the back of the church said hello and shook my hand and welcomed me. I took a seat in the third row behind the woman I had spoken to yesterday, and we sat in silence as the majority of the congregation stood in the back and chatted with one another in contrast with background of reverent organ prelude. A few people came up to greet me, tell me they are definitely low church, ask me how I found the parish (I gave them a highly condensed version), and generally make me feel that I had indeed made the right decision for this circuitous Easter journey.
The priest began the service with a non-traditional opening prayer, to which no one said “Amen,” and then we sang the rousing Easter processional–a few strong voices, mostly quavering elderly ones, all joined as one family: “‘Welcome, happy morning!’ age to age shall say.” The service was the traditional Episcopal one with a few strange omissions; for example, no one bowed when the cross went past, no one said “Thanks be to God” after the lessons, and no one made the sign of the cross in any of the usual spots. The priest, unsteady on a cane and with feeble voice, gave a powerful sermon entitled “Does the Resurrection Matter?” but no one said “Amen” when he finished. Of course, we said the creed and the prayers of the people and the general confession, but no one seemed very eager to pass the peace. I sat down after shaking hands with and wishing the peace of the Lord to the two women in the pew in front of me. The gentleman who made the announcements introduced me as the highlight of a “red-letter day,” and then he said, “When you called yesterday, we were afraid maybe you worked for the diocese and were coming to check on us.” As a former member of a small mission, I laughed with the rest but knew that the fear was only half in jest. With only about 25 people in the congregation, Communion went quickly even though several pairs held onto each other for support, others walked with canes, and few were able to kneel. And soon we were singing joyfully my favorite Easter hymn, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today! A-a-a-a-alleluia!”
After the recessional came the most delightful time of all as the parishioners approached me, thanking me for being there and asking me back. I learned who among them had family ties. I learned that the priest leaves right after church to preach another sermon and celebrate the Eucharist in a nearby town. I told them I teach English in Fayetteville, and they said, “I just knew you were a teacher because you spoke so clearly during the prayers.” I told the organist that I enjoyed his music, and he responded, “And I enjoyed yours.” When I took out my phone to take some photos, one woman offered to text me the ones she had taken earlier–and did so immediately. Three different people told me where to find the bathroom. Another told me about the history of the church and then made sure I saw both their old sign and the new one they just put up. They asked about my last name and seemed fascinated by the story of Pavel’s escape from Czechoslovakia when he was eight. The junior warden asked if I had suggestions for improving their grounds. At least ten people asked me to come back, and I assured them that I will. I am certain that every person in attendance shook my hand and greeted me, if only briefly, and most started a small conversation. One parishioner even gave me a pint of strawberries from her garden as we left the church.
I will indeed go back. I realize that St. Micheal’s has spoiled me with the reverent mood during the organ prelude, the polished voices of the choir singing Latin anthems, and the intellectual sermons, in which the priests quote T. S. Eliot and John Updike. But even though I have been attending St. Michael’s for six years, no one ever speaks to me except to wish me an anonymous “God’s peace.” No one even knows my name. But today, at least half the congregants called me Vicki. And I certainly did not have to joust for a parking place.
I believe the fellowship I experienced at St. John’s today was what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews meant when he wrote, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). More than once these people referred to each other as family. They love one another. They take care of one another. They and their parish may have frail voices and walk with canes, but their faith is strong. Even though they cannot pay for a full-time priest, they assured me several times that they meet every Sunday at 9:00. And doing so, they enact the words of Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!