By KIM POINDEXTER
When my siblings and I were kids, the only thing that would have kept us out of church was pole position at death’s door. I remember my father, the Baptist deacon, yelling on several occasions, “I don’t care HOW sick you are, YOU’RE GOING TO CHURCH!”
Since my father invested serious time and effort in making sure his family was in church every Sunday, I guess I understand the resentment against folks who show up only once or twice a year. My husband, a cradle Catholic, jokingly calls them “C&E Christians.” Though you may see them every day or so in a secular setting, your sacred paths cross only on Christmas and Easter.
My mother’s a mild-mannered sort, and C&E parents and their kids were among the few things that could provoke her ire. Because she’s such a superb pianist and vocalist, she was often prevailed upon to help with the Easter and Christmas “pageants” staged by various children’s classes at the church where I grew up. The pageants were twice-yearly highlights of the Southern Baptist liturgical calendar, and each required several months of preparation. Adult leaders – vocal directors, pianists, and “wardens” to corral the miscreants – would select the music and other accouterments for their respective classes. Each week, during Sunday school – and sometimes after church – the kids would practice their songs and learn their positions on the “stage.”
All this work culminated in the anticipated grand performance – on Easter Sunday, and the Sunday directly preceding Christmas. A week or two before, it was time for shopping. For both holidays, the boys got miniature suits and shiny black dress shoes, with bright bow ties. The girls were decked out for Christmas in taffeta, chiffon or velveteen, in seasonal colors of red and green, with touches of gold and silver. For Easter, we donned cotton or linen frocks in pastel hues, with matching patent-leather Mary Janes and petite purses, sometimes with hats and gloves.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins flocked to town, bearing dishes to accompany after-church feasts. Cameras were loaded with film, batteries for video cameras checked. Then, everyone packed into the cars and headed to church for a last-minute rehearsal. The kids filed into their places in the pews, with all the doting adults seated behind.
Then the C&Es would appear. Parents we may have known from school functions, but in some cases had never seen in our lives, would usher their broods into the sanctuary. You could tell the grownups were “unchurched” – they didn’t know how to use their “inside voices,” and sometimes clopped an unruly kid in the chops right in front of other worshippers. A C&E mom would holler to some other adult who appeared to be in a position of authority, “Where’s the 8-year-olds ‘sposed to be?” When the hapless adult reluctantly gestured, the C&E mom would say to her kid, “Git over there!” and push him into the appropriate cluster of kids. Then she’d repeat that process until all her youngsters were glued to their respective groups.
I’d always look around for my mom, and she’d be scowling. I knew why, because during the drive to church, she would have already worked herself into a lather. “Who will it be this year? I don’t see why these people want to force their kids to get up there. They don’t even know the songs! They just get up there and mess up the whole thing! Why do their parents want to embarrass them that way? Poor kids! I guess it’s just an excuse to dress them up and take pictures!” My dad would sometimes respond with the appropriate “Hmphf.” He had achieved his goal: Getting us there. Whatever happened after that – with boorish parents, singing, unrehearsed kids who messed up the flow – was my mother’s problem. The only thing left for HIM to do, if it was one of those days when the “Lord’s Supper” was served, was to hand out the grape juice.
Her predictions never failed. In every group, there was always at least one poor kid who stood mute while the rest of us sang. All the parents took pictures, but the C&Es typically pushed their way past the regulars, stepping on toes and proclaiming, “Move over – that’s my Johnny up there!” Johnny never knew the words, but in some cases, he tried to fake it. Some Johnnys would gaze around the sanctuary, mouths agape, perhaps thinking, “So THIS is church!”
One year, a kid in my brother’s group pushed an index finger up his snout and resolutely mined for gold. The kids in the front pews watched with fascination as he produced a nugget and held it up in triumph, before popping it into his mouth with an air of satisfaction. The congregation uttered a collective “Aaaah!” of disgust; my mom, from her perch on the piano bench, gagged. Another year, a 5-year-old forced into the spotlight – by an overbearing mom with curlers in her hair – began to bawl as soon as the first chord was struck. Her sobs escalated into perpetual wails of “MOMMM! MAWWWWWWM!”
I thought of the Baptist C&Es when my husband and I attended Easter Mass at St. Brigid. We have our share of C&Es, too, so it takes a long time to get through communion those days, though we don’t have to endure 40-minute sermons some Baptists must suffer. And we don’t have kids’ pageants,with C&Es dragged in front of the altar to humiliate themselves and annoy the congregation. Besides, C&E Catholics would rather not draw attention to themselves; they prefer to get their wafers and slide out the door.
After Mass, though, there was an Easter egg hunt, with several C&E kids in the mix. There was so much noise that Craig Clifford had to stand on a chair in the activities building and yell for silence before he separated the kids into age groups – including a group for teenagers. I was in the back, talking to some other parishioners, when I heard one mom say, “How long will this take? I think we might be able to make it to the Methodists, if we hurry!”
NOW I get it. Some of those C&E families back in the day had a good racket going. I wonder how many of those kids were picking their noses in Pentecostal pageants earlier in the day?
Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.