Another tragedy the likes of 9/11 has occurred.
I am experiencing all of the same emotions all over again: confusion, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety… Only this time, unlike then, I also feel completely and utterly alone.
Though I am aware of the fact that I am still in the “city,” it looks a lot more like an unidentified countryside. I wander listlessly over green rolling hills, desperate for some sort of purpose, some sort of connection. Some sort of outlet for all of the things I am currently internalizing and experiencing by myself.
In my wanderings, I come upon a church. And though in reality it looks nothing like it, I identify it as the neighborhood church that in my waking life sits on the corner of my block.
I approach the door, and I hesitate. What if I’m not welcome here? I can hear the sounds of gospel music coming from inside, and I’m reminded of the fact that this is a “black” church, with what seems to be a loyal and devoted community. How could I possibly fit in? And what right do I have to attempt to share in, to intrude upon, their own expressions of sadness and grief? A stranger in the midst of something that is at once so deeply personal and yet so powerfully communal.
Ultimately I decide to enter, such is my desperation. I cross the threshold at the rear of the church and am immediately struck by how much smaller it seems on the inside than I anticipated from the outside. There are probably only six rows of pews leading up to the pulpit where, sure enough, two preachers and a gospel choir are gathered together joyfully praising god. That’s not to say that there isn’t great sadness—there most certainly is. But in the face of all that sadness, this community is choosing praise and thanks as a way of processing their despair. It moves me.
I look out among the pews, and am surprised to see that while everyone gathered around the alter is black, everyone seated in the pews is white. And not just white, but super white. Bleached. Starched, uptight, and proper to the extreme. And they’re all really…old. Suddenly it almost seems as though the singers and preachers at the front are…performing. It unsettles me.
But as I look closer, I realize that although the old white people are not expressing it in the same way as the younger black singers and preachers, they are in fact getting something similarly meaningful and comforting out of this. I detect it in the eyes of one older woman in particular, and I am drawn to her. I approach her and sit down at the end of her pew.
Sitting there, listening to the music and watching the singers’ intense mingling of joy and sadness, something breaks inside of me and my grief is finally able to come pouring out. I sob quietly and uncontrollably, conscious of the relief inherent in this release. And I begin to sink into that relief, and am content to just be there. Here.
At some point I realize that I am no longer crying.
And then it happens, the thing that I now realize I have been afraid of since entering. A woman approaches in the aisle, a white woman, although she is not quite as old as the other white people scattered among the pews. Somehow I know that she’s in a position of authority—she is somehow connected to this church. Somehow, I know that she “runs things.”
She sees what has happened, what I have gotten out of this experience, out of being here. And I fear that she wants to capitalize on it. And sure enough, as she arrives at my side, I see the paper in her hands. The sign-up. I now know that she has come to evangelize, to proselytize. Damn it. I look into her face, and I know that I have to leave.
I rise. She understands. I look once more toward the choir, and then turn and look back towards the open door through which I entered mere minutes, hours, days, months, years ago.
I see the rolling green hills once more, and know that once again I will wander. But somehow, after this respite, the hills look just a little bit greener. The wandering, a little less lonely.