Written by Katie Teal
Some of my favorite memories of church are not the ones you may expect a child to hold onto. While I plotted during boys vs. girls pine cone wars on the playground, relished the stained fingers from tie dyeing at VBS and was honored to be a Tree in The Tale of Three Tress during children’s choir, the moments I grasp when I am feeling disconnected from church and faith are the ones that happened while I was sitting in a pew.
One of those memories is the Sunday I got to know Ms. Linda. My family still lived in Columbus, Ga and we attended St. Thomas. I was 5 or 6 and had aged out of the children’s chapel program there. Momma and I sat in the pew as the other children began to process out at the sequence hymn, as was the practice at St. Thomas, when Momma realized there was no adult with them. Confident in my ability to sit quietly and that there were plenty of other church Momma’s around, my Momma hopped up to lead children’s chapel. She, of course, let me know where she was going; I was fine…at first. But after she walked away, I realized I was alone, in big church. As the minutes passed, I was sure it had been hours, that Momma should have been back already and that something horrible had to have happened. I began to cry, which also meant I stared at my lap (a habit I still have) because that meant no one could see me. I was wrong. Not long after I teared up, I heard a slightly above whisper calling me from the altar. Ms. Linda was the verger that day and saw me cry. She invited me to sit with her in the verger’s chair until Momma came back. Ms. Linda provided comfort in the form of company, paper, pencils and peach flavored hard candies that make me think of her to this day. This began a friendship that was blind to the decades between us. I look back on her as a grandmother figure but then, I only knew her as a friend. After that Sunday, it wasn’t uncommon for me to sit with her the days she served and carry the verge when the acolytes processed. I think this helped inspire me to be an acolyte but more importantly it taught me that church is a safe space.
Another memory is also an early one from St. Thomas. Momma was always diligent about taking us to Holy Week services to help us understand Easter was more than egg hunts and baskets full of candy. We were at the Maundy Thursday service and it came time to wash the feet. I sat in a chair and Fr. Doug rinsed my feet and carefully dried them. I hopped up ready to return to my pew, but Fr. Doug sat in the chair and I realized he wanted me to wash his feet. I felt certain this was a job for an adult, but I cautiously poured the water, being sure not to spill any, and dried his feet. Through this I learned that, no matter my age, I have a role in the church.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was but somewhere in the middle school range. Sherry Cook led a prayer meditation service (I’m not certain but I think it was part of a Lenten series offering.) What I do remember is the I carried with me into the service. I had one friend who, out of the blue quit talking to me, another wrapped up in a boyfriend I wasn’t a fan of and other who completely changed after getting involved in a fundamentalist church. Life felt harder than it ever had before. I was grinding my teeth, tensing my eyebrows together so much I nearly had a unibrow and I wasn’t my shoulders had taken up permanent residence in their new home, up next to my ears. It’s the first time I remember physically carrying my stress. But as Sherry spoke and led us through meditation that stress began to melt away. At one point, it felt like someone had literally lifted a weight off my shoulder. I began to cry the full body type of cry that cleanses the heart and transforms a worried soul. I’d felt burdened for weeks and suddenly it was gone. I fully believe it was God taking my burden and worries and replacing it with love. I learned the power of prayer and that church is a refuge.
I remember the excitement around St. Paul’s as we built “the new church.” Seeing the plans go from sketches on paper to reality and watching it go from the bones of a foundation to a church. I was there, probably helping Momma set up a reception or Wednesday night supper, not long after the ambo was installed. I walked into the church and had an urge step up and see the space from a perspective I’d never experienced. I stood there and felt more at home than I ever had at church. I was comforted and encouraged by those quiet moments to myself in the church. In my 11-year-old mind it I thought it meant I was supposed to be a priest one day but now I understand it to have been a call to ministry. I learned what it was to have a calling and a voice in church.
I can remember the feeling I had when I was aware the music for the Gloria change with liturgical seasons. I remember the first time I prayed the Nicene Creed from memory. I remember deciding to stand or kneel at the Eucharist and it being my decision. And when I was in high school and St. Paul’s no longer felt like home, I felt empowered to in my faith to find a place that did.
These moments only happened because I wasn’t confined to a “children’s space.” While there was place for me to be messy and loud, I was never restricted from exploring “big church” or “adult spaces.” Children’s chapel only lasted the length of the readings and sermon, so I was in church for the Nicene Creed and the Prayers of the People. Big Church was my church. I learned what my voice sounded like lifted in prayer with others and I learned to follow the service order and flip to right page in my prayer book and hymnal. I was excited to get my first prayer book and used it proudly every Sunday. How many 8-year-olds can say that? I was allowed space in church-to learn and grow and make mistakes from loudly saying the wrong word or accidentally ripping a page because I turned it a little to enthusiastically.
I have been thinking on this idea of Children’s Space a lot recently. We have a beautiful children’s wing that is routinely locked (along with all the doors but that’s another conversation.) I fear our children at St. Paul’s are receiving the message that they only belong in certain places. That their faith, voice and prayers only belong where adults say they do. I don’t think this is happening through any one adult’s intention, but limiting children is an easy thing to do. It takes thought and intention to be okay with their noise and chaos and to tell other adults “this is their space too; this is their beautiful way of worshiping.” That their noise is them letting us know “I feel safe here. I can be myself.” Children belong in the front pews, around the altar and in every space at church. If we give them this, it won’t be long before we hear their voices mixed with ours, lifting our prayers higher than before.
I know I have a home in the Episcopal Church, no matter where I am and that foundation was built as I was a young child, barefoot, wandering the halls of the church, finding the ways and spaces I experience God the most. I want this for every child; to know the power of God’s love, to define their faith on their own terms and experience the power of a supportive parish. But to do this we have to extend children’s ministry beyond the walls of the children’s wing. We must open our hearts to their noise, their mischief, their rule breaking and exploration. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus says “let the children come to me.” In Isaiah 11 we are told ““The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.” So, let the child lead us; to open doors, to open hearts, and open hands ready to do the work of Christ, to love like Jesus.