The first church I served as pastor was small. Twenty-nine members, 14 of whom were home-bound. The other 15 were there every Sunday.
Not many churches can say that they regularly have 100 percent of the members who could be at worship there, but we did. A small, one-room church in the foothills of the mountains of South Carolina. I was the only person under 65. And I was the only one who could read. Half were illiterate, the other half’s eyesight was so bad they could not read even large print.
We gathered every Sunday morning, caught up with what was going on in the community, prayed for the needs of the world, worshipped and thanked God for all the of goodness we had experienced.
And every person had their own pew. They sat around the edges of the sanctuary, one to a pew. When I would go to clergy gatherings and people would be talking about the size of their congregations, I would always say mine was a “comfortable congregation.” Which meant that there was enough room for everyone to lie down and take a nap.
These saints would come to the small building each week bringing clothes, blankets and food, which they would pile up in a back corner of the room. Everyone had a key to the church, so when someone in the community would have a fire or some other need, they would come up to the church, get what they needed, take it to them and let them know we were here for them.
I was a student pastor, coming up on weekends from seminary in Atlanta. I would notice that the pile would go down some weeks, and I would know that they had helped someone out. I couldn’t have been more proud.
But there was a lot of room between the huge, raised-up pulpit and where the other worshippers sat. As a friend noted, “a lot of wood’s between you and them.” One Sunday I decided to change this. I placed a small lectern on the floor level in the middle of the front section of pews.
“Why don’t we all gather here in the middle of the sanctuary and sit near each other?” I said to my friends. “Our voices might sound better as we sing, and we’ll feel closer to each other.”
From the back of the room Mr. Matthew, a great man in the church, barked “No!” and no one moved.
“OK,” I said as I moved the lectern, and walked back into the pulpit.
What I was to later discover was that when they sat where they had all their lives, they saw people I did not see. Not in the sense of “I see dead people,” but in the sense that they saw where their mother and father sat, until one died, and later the other. They saw where Robert Johnson’s son sat until he went to Vietnam and never came back. They saw where the Radfords’ daughter sat until she married and moved off to the city, where she lived and died. When they were in their place, they had a sense of the presence of the others.
Over the years I have come to realize that when I gather with others to worship, there is a host of people I cannot see there. And it goes beyond our local church. It includes the saints who died centuries ago. John Wesley and Martin Luther, Polycarp and Paul, Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. They are all there.
A month from now, on Nov. 1, many of you will gather in churches where names will be read, candles lit, prayers offered remembering those who have gone on before.
Take time to remember those who are there but you no longer see. Because, if they are worshipping God (as it says in Revelation), and you are worshipping God, you really are in the same place.
Michael B. Henderson is a member of the Morning News’ Faith & Values Advisory Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.