In 1990 I moved to the village of Rowayton, Connecticut. It’s a wealthy little section of Norwalk, but a whole different world from the rest of the town. I’d never been to church before, aside from a single visit to a Methodist church when I was a kid, and maybe a family wedding or two. I was in my twenties. One Sunday morning I woke up early because I hadn’t been out all night, and was sitting in my living room waiting for a reasonable hour to see who else was awake and up for something. And then something strange happened. It was a voice in my head that said, “Get dressed and walk to church.” Okay. I was almost afraid NOT to do it. So, I rummaged through my closet and found a dress that was appropriate enough, and because it was the 90’s I got some pantyhose on – because you just didn’t go anywhere without pantyhose in the 90’s. I didn’t have any shoes that weren’t heels at the time, either, because it was the 90’s…
It was a summer day and that summer was one of the hottest I can remember. It was humid, sticky and gross out already even that early in the morning. But there I was in my dress, pantyhose and heels setting out to walk to a church. No, I actually didn’t have a car at that time, and took the bus to work. So, I walked about a mile down the road that ran along the Five Mile River into what passed as “town” in Rowayton – a Post Office, a firehouse, a couple of stores… There was a little while church just past the stores and I was hoping that I could get off my feet there, but for whatever reason I kept walking, passed that church and on to the other church just a little further down the road. It was the United Church of Rowayton, a beautiful, unique building that I’d noticed many times in passing but never thought to go into. That day I went in. There were a few people there already but it was pretty early, still. I was greeted, given an Order of Worship and I found a seat in the nearly empty sanctuary.
My feet were grateful when I parked myself in the pews. Others began to arrive and I gave them each a glance but no more because I was so caught up in a feeling I’d never had before. Peace. I almost started crying while I sat there and felt that peace washing over me. I didn’t realize how tired I’d been. I was still so young, but I was so tired. I’d been out on my own for years with no family for support. I’d been working and struggling and my heart had been broken so many times. I’d made some terrible choices in the preceding years. I don’t believe I’d ever thought about God before, but frankly I felt so wretched and dirty I was sure God wouldn’t want me around anyway. Until that moment when I sat in that pew. I never wanted to leave. The choir came out and sang and I’d never heard anything so beautiful. I remembered singing in high school chorus and how much I loved it.
The pastor came out and started to speak. I consulted the Order of Worship for direction on what was going on and what I was supposed to do through the service; stand, kneel, repeat words, sing, etc. There was comfort in the ceremony of the service and in the message the young pastor delivered. He was hip and energetic, encouraging and soothing. When the service was over I walked home. It was much warmer and much more humid by then and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I took my shoes off halfway home and didn’t care that my stockings were ripping, my blistered feet just weren’t going to survive the shoes. When I finally got to my yard I walked straight to the Koi pond and sat down in it. The fish didn’t seem to mind.
I went back the next week. I wore sneakers for the walk and changed my shoes before I got to the door. I actually spoke to a couple of people that time. And I made an appointment to talk to the pastor during the week. I went to his office, which was in the parsonage where he and his family lived at that time. He encouraged me to keep coming, answered a lot of questions I had, some of which were truly stupid questions but he didn’t seem to mind. I asked him why the cross in the church didn’t have anyone hanging on it – the only ones I’d seen were in movies and there was usually a Jesus hanging on it. He smiled at me and told me that the cross being empty was the whole point; that Jesus wasn’t ON the cross anymore. He was resurrected. I thought that was a better explanation than what I originally thought, which was that they just couldn’t afford a Jesus for their cross. No, seriously, I was that dumb.
I kept going to the church, and I joined the choir.
I was a deacon after a year or so, and even delivered a sermon or two when Pastor John was on vacation one summer. I found a new job through one of the other members of the choir and had that job for the next fourteen years. I organized tag sales, I served on the Property Committee, I got super involved in everything going on there. It was a beginning. It was a change. I needed that change. I needed to know that there was something in this world other than the desperation and ugliness and hopelessness I already knew. After a few more years I moved out of Rowayton – the landlord was selling the house my roommate and I were renting – and my journey continued through many other churches but I will always have a place in my heart for my first church.
I got married in 2010 and in 2013 I took my husband down to Rowayton for a couple of services – the Maundy Thursday service, which had always been my favorite, and then we celebrated Easter there. Pastor John was still there, his wife Judi was still in the choir, Marsha was still the music director and there were still so many familiar faces there. And that feeling was still there in that sanctuary.
We live in North Carolina now. Since Covid hit the UCR has been streaming services through Vimeo and I’ve been watching again. My husband and I observe Sabbath on Saturdays but it’s always nice to catch a UCR service online on Sundays as well. A few weeks ago I saw a post from them on Facebook, it was about the annual Blessing of the Animals, which very few churches seem to do now, but our pets are God’s creation, too and Pastor John and his family always loved animals. I sent a picture of Bodie to the church and sure enough, they posted his goofy picture along with all the other pets that had to be blessed virtually since… you know… Covid…
About the same time I heard that Pastor John had suffered a stroke. It seems that he’s doing pretty well, though, and will be returning home to continue his recovery soon. I may be 700 miles away now but I will never forget my first church or the compassionate pastor who helped me take those first steps on my faith journey. He and his family are in our prayers.