This is Part 4 in a multi-part blog post. If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.Act One, Scene One
I was finally able to work things out so that I could attend a church service. I did it by working morning shift at the gas station though; so, I would have to attend the evening service. This would have been mid-May of 1996, and Max was still working at the station. He would be working second shift that night, freeing me up to go check out his dad’s church.
While I had been working all of this out, another set of maneuverings were going on. My brother’s girlfriend had a friend named Prudence, and they thought that she and I would be great for each other. She and I had chatted on the phone a couple of times. This was well before the widespread use of cell phones, and this required awkward communications back and forth on landline home phones. We’d had some difficulty finding a time that worked for both of us to get together, but that Sunday night worked out for both of us; so, I suggested that she accompany me on my first visit to this new church.
Prudence lived in another town in a neighboring county. I made the 45 minute drive from my parents’ house to where she lived with her parents. Then, we drove over a little over an hour to get to the church. Conversation was pleasant on the way. I remember that we laughed a lot. She had a great personality. If I could go back and be my true self, I’m sure we would have been great friends.
Now, before we get to events inside the church, I need to give you some more background on what my church experience had been up until that. The only place that I had attended services was that tiny little Baptist church that my grandparents attended. It was a quiet church. Most of the attenders were older. There wasn’t much excitement. They played a small organ and sang from hymnals. The pastor gave a nice sermon, and everyone went home. That was it. My eyes were about to be opened to a whole other world.
I like to joke that I wasn’t yet a Christian; so, I still arrived for things on time, and, in this instance, we were actually about 15 minutes early. When we first stepped through the door of the church, we were standing in a hallway. I knew generally where I was. I’d been here with Max when he needed to ask his dad something or get money from him. There was a door to our right. I knew that led to Max’s dad’s office. There were two doors on the left of the hall that led to the sanctuary. The lights in the hallway were turned off, and there was no one around. The parking lot was filled with cars. People had to be there somewhere.
Prudence and I opened one of the doors of the sanctuary, and slowly stepped inside. The lights were all out in here as well. There was music playing, and I could hear people praying out loud. Some were at the altar. Some were up walking around. Occasionally, I would hear someone cry out in what sounded like complete gibberish to me.
I had known Max and his family for about a year at that point. I knew them. I’d spent countless hours at their house. They were nice people, normal people. I began to ask myself if I had just walked into a cult. I couldn’t believe I’d been dumb enough to bring a date. This felt incredibly awkward. I turned to Prudence and asked her if she wanted to go. She told me that we should just sit down.
Prudence and I found a seat near the back of the sanctuary and began talking about what we were seeing and hearing. She had experienced things like this before. This allowed her to calm me down and begin explaining things to me. She didn’t get very far though because Max’s dad, who was up praying on the stage that formed the altar saw us come in. He tapped Michele, Max’s sister, and told her that I was there and that she should go to me.
Michele came and talked to us. I introduced the two girls to each other, and Michele led us over to some pews at the back of the sanctuary off to one side where most of the younger people sat during the services. As I talked to Michele and Prudence, I paid less and less attention to what was going on around me. Soon, it was 7:00. The lights came up, and the service began.
Max’s dad didn’t preach that evening. He was giving some of the other men in the church opportunity to preach on Sunday evenings that summer. I paid attention during the service, but I maintained my resolve not to take any of it in. That night, I kept thinking about Lt. Commander Data, the android second officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I kept imagining how he would process an event like this, taking it in for its cultural significance, yet viewing it with a cool sense of objectivity. This helped to suppress some of the uncomfortableness I was feeling.
After giving the message, the man who preached gave an altar call. That was uncomfortable, but it was encouraging too because I knew it meant that the service was coming to an end. When the service was over, the pastor and his wife came over to us. They asked how we liked the service and wanted to meet Prudence. They commented on the unusual nature and the beauty of her name. I had just taken in a lot in the last two hours. I needed processing time. I told them that I needed to get Prudence home.
During the drive home, the events of the service dominated our conversation. I apologized for such an awkward night. She it was all right. The night didn’t seem to have unnerved her nearly as much as it had me. Since she had been to services like this before, I had a thousand questions. Why had all the lights been out when we got there? Why did people raise their hands in the air while singing? And what was with that weird language they were praying in? While Prudence had been to things like this, she had very little information to give me to help me understand that “why’s” behind things. I was very weirded out by the whole experience, but, at the same time, I was very intrigued by it as well.
© Joshua Culbertson 2014