As soon as we walked into West Park Presbyterian Church, we were already in the wrong place. We found the sanctuary easily enough, but West Park doesn’t meet in the sanctuary—another church does. Members of that church informed us that we could find the West Park Presbyterian service in the chapel around the corner.
The chapel was small, with a smattering of three-person pews on either side of a narrow aisle leading to a pulpit and piano in front. We sat down with about twenty other congregants. A prominent photo of the pastor stared up at me from the church bulletin.
I didn’t know anything about this church before that morning other than that it was within walking distance of our apartment, that the service started at eleven, and that this guy was in charge. I had seen his photo on the website as well, along with a list of impressive credentials: he had been the pastor for the past twenty-two years, very active in the neighborhood, involved in homeless ministries and interfaith commissions, and so on. In a church so small, it was clear this man was the lifeblood of the congregation.
Still, it seemed a bit much to put him on the front of the bulletin like that. Every church has its quirks though, so I tried not to think too much of it. And once the service began, my qualms with their bulletin design fell away. The music, led by the piano player, was simple and beautiful, no mics or sheet music, and the people were singing like they meant every word. For Bible readings, the pastor just called out people’s names, and they would stand and read the verses from their pew.
So by the time we got to the sermon, I was digging it. Ready to listen and to learn.
I was not ready for what happened next.
The pastor began with, “Well, this is it. Transfiguration Sunday. The end of the long season of light that began with Epiphany. One final burst of light before the beginning of Lent. Well, and for me, the end of a season that began nearly twenty-two years ago on April first, 1995. Not that it’s always been a season of light. Nor, I hope, is this my last burst. But this season is winding to an end.”
That’s right: we had stumbled into this tiny church on his last Sunday. Over two decades of Sundays to pick from, and this was ours. This knowledge made the room feel even smaller and the visitors (just us) feel even more out of place. Suddenly, I realized that the intimacy of the venue, which was so lovely a moment before, did not include me, like when you’re hanging out with two friends and it dawns on you that maybe they would like to be more than friends and therefore you should leave. Or, more accurately, when you’re hanging out with those same friends after they’ve been dating for twenty-two years and they break up amicably right then, but you’re still there, and Lord knows you should not be there. That’s what it felt like last Sunday. Except I could not get up and leave, especially not during his last sermon.
So I sat. My discomfort mounted as the pastor and the people around me got teary-eyed. I sniffled in an effort to fit in, but really my nose was just runny. He told stories of the wonderful things that happened at the church over the years. He mentioned members who had passed away. He incorporated Jesus and the Bible and stuff. And then, just when I thought we had reached the peak of vulnerability, he started to sing a song he had written. His deep, clear voice filled the chapel effortlessly. I was almost surprised he didn’t turn into a swan right then and there.
The service then moved to share and prayer, during which it became clear that this group of twenty people was not typical—this was a big turnout—and that the tiny church wasn’t sure what would happen next without their clergy-in-chief. If we showed up next week, would there be a service, and if so, who else would show up?
Finally, the service ended with the holding of hands of strangers. After the final blessing, the pastor said, “Alright everybody, find your seats and let’s continue this fellowship. We’re going to have food and drinks and give people a chance to tell some stories.”
We grabbed our coats and were gone before their bottoms hit the pew.