Church life can be tough for Christians like me — the serial joiner types. We see an area of ministry that doesn’t have enough volunteer staff, feel bad that others have to pull double duty to keep things running smoothly and we lend a hand. Next thing you know, we’ve signed up for four ministries and spend enough time at church and church-related events to constitute part-time work hours. It can be exhausting.
That’s why when my church, a nondenominational megachurch in North Jersey, announced plans to spin off a ‘daughter’ church in Newark, N.J., I breathed a sigh of … trepidation. I couldn’t help but feel anxious about what would be expected of me if I decided to become a founding member of that church. I’ve done that before. About 18 years ago, Mary’s husband left his main church to launch a daughter church, which began with services in downtown Newark, coincidentally. I hesitated to leave the main church when they left, joining months later, because the first few years of a church’s existence are transient and potentially exhausting. You have to set up a worship sanctuary, complete with rows of folding chairs and kneeling pillows for prayer, before each service and pull down the whole thing afterward — all within a rigid time slot. The church leaders are constantly trying to find a permanent home, and because many cities are loathe to relinquish prime real estate and potential property tax revenue to a charitable organization like a church, the certificate of occupancy and permitting process can be long, discouraging and rancorous. Much is demanded of the congregants, too, not the least of which is money. Many times, people put off buying houses, taking trips or financing other big plans to donate the money to a building fund drive. And by the way, those building fund drives never really end.
Yet on Saturday morning, I peeled myself away from my adorable newborn daughter, got dressed and drove to my church for an informational breakfast meeting about the church planting. What I heard was somewhat comforting. The church launch process takes two years, during which time the spinoff organization shares the main church’s 501(c)(3) designation while it’s application for its own designation is processed. The church leaders get extensive training, as to the founding members, so the initial separation is less jarring for the fledgling church. The members are also allowed, and encouraged to continue to participate in the main church’s marquee events, like conferences, concerts and trips.
Yet I couldn’t shake memories of the first church planting that I had been through, or the insular church community in which I grew up. Don’t get me wrong: I think I was brought up well, but I noticed that, at least in my case, family life always took a back seat to church life. Birthdays often were upstaged by church conventions. My mother didn’t make a lot of time in her life for trips abroad, unless they were piggybacked onto a church bus trip. Every spare financial resource was earmarked for the church. Weekends were harried, because after a day of domestic chores on Saturdays, we sometimes went to services at other sister churches in South Jersey, Delaware or New York state. We did this for at least two Saturdays out of the month, only to get home late and get up early on Sunday morning to make dinner preparations. During my early to mid-twenties, this routine wore me out along with the demands of my job at a daily newspaper. It also didn’t help that most of my fellow church members worked such jobs as accountants, nurses, teachers or computer techies. No one else worked as a full-time journalist, so they couldn’t relate to my long, unpredictable hours or the need, an increasingly pressing need in my case, to be less insular and be keenly aware of relevant and interesting things going on around me, to spend after-work hours networking, so that I could generate good stories and move up on my publications. Eventually, feeling like a fish out of water, I left the church.
Yet because I am a committed Christian, I had to find another place that would nurture me and not tax my strength, physically. Sometimes I tell Hubby: Italian immigrants come here and open restaurants. Jamaican immigrants come here and open churches’. Instead of laughing like he’s supposed to, Hubby points out, in his peck sniff intellectual way, that it must have been Italian Roman Catholic immigrants who built all those lovely cathedrals in urban places like Newark. My point is that church life is often indispensible for Caribbean immigrants. The only trouble with that was my church community was very, very insular. Young people, especially girls, were often discouraged from going away to college. I am one of only a handful of people from my childhood church who went away to college. Many others commuted to Rutgers in Newark. Yet even when we attended colleges within driving distance, The very idea of attaining college and post-graduate degrees was looked upon with wariness, out of our parents’ and church elders’ fears that we would turn our backs on them and their values. Of course, you had many rebels who drifted far away from the regimented lifestyle that the church demanded, but for the most part, a lot of people maintained very close ties with the church.
I often see differences in the way Hubby and I approach faith and church life. If his family does belong to a denomination, it is lapsed Baptist, with the exception of his mother. Hubby has got a hearty skepticism about organized religion, and I tease him because he’s just now getting around to blessing the food in a decent way. Whenever I bring him to a service at my childhood church, he looks on in subtle amazement at the jubilant worship style, and he will later express true white boy appreciation for our music: upbeat ska delivered by an organ, rythm guitar, bass and drums.
I don’t think I’ll repeat my mother’s or my elder’s choices for myself and my family. I want to cherish time with my daughter (and other kids, if I’m so lucky) during her infant, toddler and childhood years, which everyone tells me are very fleeting. My goal is to be there for as many breast feedings, walks, games, recitals, trips and parties as possible. As much as it will pain me to see her go one day, Baby has got to spread her wings and venture out into the world. That’s the only way she’ll blossom into a self-assured, solid woman, and if I do my job well, she’ll enjoy coming around to see me and tell me about her eventful life.
I wish my fellow Christians well, because I believe their motives are sincere. The homeless, destitute, forgotten and abused of Newark are about to get another strong champion for their cause. But in those early years of establishing the church, while the congregants are bustin’ Newark sod, I’d rather watch my daughter take her first steps, speak her first words and throw her first fistful of spaghetti across the kitchen.