By Stephanie Young-Merchant, January 14, 2014
About 25 years ago, Rev Janie Spahr came to my little church in Delaware. Janie was and is a bit of a rockstar. I know several people who, like me, love to hear her preach. After weeks of anticipation, suddenly there she was in my sanctuary one evening. Janie is amazing. She wears her grey hair like a short crown. I remember thinking how much her clothes reminded me of Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls. Her smile stretched from ear to ear and lit up the room. But I also remember how I stopped listening about 5 minutes into her talk because one of the first things she said blew my mind. She had barely begun and already I found myself unable to listen because she had already sent my thoughts racing.
Janie said that when she walks into a church, one of the first things she looks for is the shabby. You know the shabby, when the carpet has become threadbare by the doorways, there is a small leak in the roof in the sanctuary, or maybe a few small leaks, the paint colors are woefully out of fashion, the pink and grey tiles in the ladies room, the avocado green doors and trim, things are well used.
This whole idea was so jarring. That church was beautiful. It was built in the 1950’s when they outgrew the tiny church and Sunday School building just up the street. It was so pretty that young couples that drove past would call the office to ask if they could get married there. They wanted something that looks nice in their wedding photos. The sanctuary was lovely, with beautiful molding, fan shaped windows all painted a pristine white, and no leaks, or at least no signs of leaks on the ceiling.
I grew up in that church. This was what I knew, what felt comfortable.
Janie went on to talk about when she walks into a sanctuary that is a bit shabby chic, it tells her that the priorities of that congregation are the work of loving people.
What do we look for when we are trying to find a church? How do you know you have found a place that you can get yourself to each week and feel a sense of belonging, feel inspiration from worship and feel challenged with how to do the work that faith drives? How do you know if it is the right fit?
A few years later when I moved to a new town and went church shopping, I found myself remembering Janie’s words as I was drawn to ramshackle. If a church was in an old building, with intricate stained glass windows, beautiful oak or cherry pews, that was all fine, just so long as it was old, built a long time ago by a congregation with different priorities.
At that time, my husband mentioned to someone we were looking for a church, and he immediately invited us to join them at their church the next Sunday. He tried to paint a picture we couldn’t resist and said, “You know, the majority of the members are extremely wealthy. You can make some great business connections there.”
This was a perspective we had never heard before. We never thought about going to church because we might get great clients. We didn’t have clients. We wanted a place where we could go and feel welcome.
About a year later, we went to the annual church picnic for our new church, a small inner-city church with a congregation diverse in age, race and class. We met at a public park along the Delaware River. Everyone brought a dish to share, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad… I remember sitting at the picnic table with our new friends when we saw a huge yacht pass by on the water. We stood at the river’s edge and waved at the fancy people on the yacht, holding stemmed wine glasses, and dancing to live music. A man standing next to me explained that was the annual summer luncheon for the church we did not join, the one with lots of wealthy people and connections. That’s when I knew we had made the right choice.
Deaf Camp Signs and Wonders was established to provide adults who are Deaf with additional disabilities a fantastic week of fun, faith, and fellowship. It is a tremendous week. It takes an entire year of planning and fundraising to coordinate with three states and multiple agencies and families, but I have seen that camp transforms people.
There is so much to say about Deaf Camp, but perhaps the clearest example is the first day and the last day. On the first day, we gather together and introduce ourselves one by one and you see all of the campers begin to understand that everyone who has come is Deaf. That we have very few rules but the most important one of all is that we will all use American Sign Language (ASL) and we all promise to be patient with the staff and volunteers who may be hearing and still learning to sign. Even that first day, I will see two new friends holding hands as they walk down the hallway. “Who is this?” I will ask. “I don’t know her name, but we are friends, we are roommates at camp and we are friends.” It is a marvelous thing.
Then on the final day, the Rev Beth Lockard will ask the campers to gather again and one by one she asks each person to share what they liked best about camp. All of the activities are fun. Boating always gets the most votes. Even those who don’t get out onto the water clipping along with the wind blowing their hair will choose to sit on the dock and wave watching their friends speed by. Arts and crafts. Puzzles. Archery. But each year, on the last day when someone realizes we will not be together again for an entire year, that is when the tears come.
I remember Jessica standing with tears streaming down her face and sobs choking her. “I cannot believe that we have been able to gather together all week. That we all speak in beautiful ASL and we understand one another. I cannot believe that Pastor Beth is Deaf and came here just for us. I love all of you so much. I will miss my new friends.”
A few years ago Bishop Peggy Johnson let me know she had found a Methodist church in Glenside, Pennsylvania that would welcome the campers who live nearby. She must have seen my face. I’m not always good with my face. I must have furrowed my brow or made a smirk with my mouth. No. No. She promised, Lighthouse Fellowship UMC had a small congregation but they had great heart, all of their members were hearing but they would welcome and love the campers.
I liked the idea of a small congregation.
But I was skeptical.
Campers aren’t always loveable.
At least not at first impression.
Many of them have no patience.
I have no patience.
Many of them sometimes burst out in a cackle of laughter at inappropriate times.
I do too.
Many of them get frustrated easily and make a face and stomp their foot or just sit down and pout and refuse to take one more step.
I wish I could say that I never do that.
Many of them lumber, they move slowly, they struggle to get about.
Each morning, I need help putting on my shoes.
Sometimes campers will have behaviors. I call it the great blow. Sometimes when they are at the end of their string, they blow, and it can be loud.
I wish I could say I never blow. But I blow.
These special special people can be an enormous challenge. They cannot live independently. They need professional staff to support them just to get through each day. They share a language and culture that is so unique and beautiful and sometimes so different from how people who can hear experience things. The space between the two can be vast.
That day that Peggy told me about this church in Glenside, Pennsylvania, my face was wrong.
I should have suspected I was wrong when I walked into their sanctuary the first time. The tall stone walls have evidence in spots of a roof high above that has sprung a leak or two. There are sky blue tiles in the bathroom on the first floor and pink and grey tiles in the bathroom in the basement. Most everything is still functional, still of use, just well used and cared for. When I saw those things my face did something else. It broke into a smile.
I’ve been shocked over the past few years at Lighthouse Fellowship. The campers were welcomed warmly with a place of honor just for them to sit. The comfy red cushions were removed from the first four pews on the left. They ripped the guts out of some speakers and fixed them to the bottom of the oak seats so that when campers come, they can feel the vibrations from the music. The congregation has made a point to learn ASL. Some have learned, “Good morning!” Some have learned a bit of the Lord’s prayer. A few have week by week learned enough to have an actual conversation.
Each summer, a handful of the members will wake early one morning and make the 2+ hour drive down to come and spend a day at camp. I remember the first day that they walked in. I greeted them with smiles and hugs and told them all of the ways they could dive in and help.
Rev Cindy Brubaker said, “I can’t wait, but we’ve been in a car for hours, where is the restroom?”
They come for an entire day of camp and after the restroom (remember priorities), they go to the pool, help with arts and crafts, create costumes for the Bible drama, take pictures. But most of all, they spend time with the campers and treat them like they are regular people, like they matter, like they are actually happy to take an entire day off work just to come and string beads and do puzzles or go for a walk.
Though that church is small, they are mighty. But small numbers, even combined and carefully governed still means limited resources.
So you can understand why my face did what it did the day one of the church members who had already taken an entire day of her summer vacation to come and join everyone at camp asked me about money.
What does it cost for someone who is Deaf+++ to come to camp?
I explained that the cost of Deaf Camp Signs and Wonders is $450.
“We must give that. Our church must create a scholarship. We can send one person to come to camp.”
I know of a fancy church that had an anniversary. They decided to spend an entire calendar year celebrating that their church was 75 years old. They brought in musicians, guest theologians, they had special Bible studies and Men’s groups and dramas put on by the children. All of this culminated in a dinner in a grand ballroom. Their members wore ball gowns and tuxedos and had fine food and a live band. They enjoyed a wonderful evening that ended with people making hefty monetary pledges to support their church.
This church that has welcomed the campers, they are having an anniversary. 20 years ago as two churches noticed their numbers dwindling, they made the difficult decision to close one church and merge together to become a new, united congregation.
A tiny congregation that gathers in a voluminous sanctuary has an anniversary they want to celebrate.
This congregation met and decided that they want to celebrate their anniversary by going bowling.
They have rented a local bowling alley nearby, the entire building, every lane, for next Saturday. Their celebration will involve everyone cooking in their homes and bringing pots of their favorite foods to set up a buffet right there in the bowling alley. There will be drinks and cookies (at least I hope there will be cookies) and then they want to treat all of the campers to come and spend an afternoon bowling.
They have already set up a few lanes for people who need the bumpers. You know, so you ball cannot roll into the gutter – that’s my lane. They will make a lane for all kinds of bowling ability, and for folks who don’t like to bowl at all, well they are welcome to sit and chat and belong.
This incredible church will come out and to celebrate their creation. First they will work to cook and create and then they will serve. They will stand at the buffet and make sure that each camper and their staff have plenty to eat before they eat themselves. They have learned and remember about who is lactose intolerant, who is gluten free and the one woman who is allergic to tomatoes.
After they have eaten, they won’t stand watch, observing the campers like exhibits in a zoo. They will spread out and join a lane that needs another smile. They will help keep score. They will give high fives when a pin falls and they will give hugs and a pat on the back when those pins continue to stand no matter how hard they try. They will use their ASL. They will sometimes write or draw pictures, but the language they will use most of all is love.
Their smiles will say, “I am so happy that you are here! I am so happy that we are together! I love seeing how much you are enjoying yourself! I am here celebrating you when you succeed and even when you fail. I care about you. I am grateful for you. You are a blessed child of God and you are loved.”
There in that bowling alley, on a Saturday afternoon, friends will gather and they will have church. I know if Rev. Janie Spahr were to join us she would look around and smile and say, “Surely the Spirit of the Lord is in this place.”