Last week, after talking to a local pastor, my memories as a young Southern Baptist girl came flooding back, and I shared a few stories. That column has received more comments than any I've written in months. One woman confessed it made her feel "guilty about backsliding" and said she would start attending church again. For the unchurched among you, "backsliding" is possibly a uniquely Baptist term for a previously "saved" individual who either blows off weekly services or does a lot of sinning in between.
I learned long ago that just because parents are relatively unchurched doesn't mean they won't fob their kids off on a hapless congregation. Back in my day, regular churchgoers harbored a certain resentment against folks who showed 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 Easter and Christmas “pageants” staged by children’s classes. The pageants were twice-yearly highlights of the Baptist liturgical calendar, and each required months of preparation. Adult leaders – vocal directors, pianists, and “wardens” to corral miscreants – would select the music and other accouterments for their 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 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 recorders 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 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 harried adult reluctantly gestured, the C&E mom would say to her kid, “Git over there!” and push him into the appropriate cluster. Then she’d repeat that process until all her youngsters were glued to their intended groups.
I’d always look around for my mom, who would be frowning. During the drive to church, she would have worked herself into a lather. “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? 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 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 wails of “MOMMM! MAWWWWWWM!”
I always think of the Baptist C&Es when my husband and I attend Easter Mass. Catholics have 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 Baptists often do. If a homily lasted more than 15 minutes, I suspect there would be a rebellion – and of course, there's no "altar call" to further drag things out. And Catholics don’t usually 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, there is usually an Easter egg hunt, with several C&E kids in the mix. One year, 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. Those C&E families in my Baptist youth had a good racket going. Easter egg hunts, Christmas candy, a free meal thanks to the good ladies of the churches. Anyone privileged to eat "church lady food" knows it's worth suffering through unsavory displays of nose-picking, dumb looks, and yelling in the sanctuary. And then, there's the occasional thimble full of grape juice. ...