Finding Hope in Church

In cahoots with God at Church...

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life,” says St. John. “Life was made visible.”

I am, as are you, concerned with the Word of Life. “Church,” however, is found guilty of not being concerned with that Word, and not proclaiming that Word. “Church” is found guilty of “concealing the truth.”

And that’s sickening to me.

***

I regularly worship at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish, a Black Catholic Community in North St. Louis. St. Matt’s is located in one of the most historic neighborhoods in America. The “Ville” was and is home to handfuls of innovators, artists, scientists, saints, and musicians.

The choir at St. Matt’s is known as the “Angels of Harmony,” which is a name that totally works. The choir is made up of long time parishioners: older women, middle aged women and men, an old nun, a young Jesuit, some young adults and two girls under the age of 4. At different points during Mass, any one of these members is holding the two girls who come every Sunday with their grandma and their uncle.

At St. Matt’s, we always sing two communion songs. After everyone has received the Eucharist, we do what people who know they’ve just received the body, blood, soul and divinity of God do: we sing.

Most Sundays, I sit behind Ms. Kim. She lives a few yards from the Church and, no question, is in total cahoots with God almost always. When neighborhood kids came to her hungry, she began a feeding program on Saturday mornings with an educational initiative connected to it.

Last Sunday, just before our second communion song, I watched Ms. Kim leave her pew and walk up to the choir. I smiled because I knew exactly what she was about to do. She went to offer help with the grandma’s 1-year-old granddaughter-slash-choir-member, who was making some fuss. She anticipated the grandma’s desire to sing this communion meditation without the extra work of holding a baby. Nobody, of course, batted an eye at this. It was so normal.

Kim returned to her pew and in front of me was now a super smiley baby. The baby who sings in the choir sat smiling and cooing and thrashing with joy. Though not related, the baby knows exactly who Kim is: the smiley, nice woman from Church. This baby, like me, has many mothers in this place.

Kim sits in a pew next to a woman who also comes every week. They are not “related.” Nor are they “related” to Ms. Roberta who is at the end of the short pew. None of them are related to each other, or to this baby. None of them, including the baby, are related to me, nor are the Jesuits who I sit with.

But I watch Ms. Kim bounce this baby on her hip. The baby smiles at me and laughs and plays with the other woman next to Kim. The choir finishes their communion meditation in which they belt out, “Take up your cross, be Simon of Cyrene.”

They then move on to sing the Anima Christi, which everyone in this parish knows by heart. I see Ms. Kim smiling and laughing while she looks baby in the eye and sings to her the Anima Christi, “permit me not to be separated from Thee” she sings.

Then at the end of the prayer, Kim, and I, and Ms. Roberta, the Jesuits in my pew, and the woman who is always there next to Ms. Kim whisper-sing three times with the choir, “Anima Christi, Anima Christi, Anima Christi.” This baby is surrounded by whispers of the soul of Christ.

I am at Church: in a foretaste of heaven where children are held in the arms of women like Ms. Kim who smile sanctity. Across the sanctuary their grandmother sings to God assured of her safety in the arms of another. I watch Kim watch this baby watching me and I really do see a face that is God’s.

***

Last Sunday was St. Matt’s 125th Anniversary. We sang Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” with rewritten lyrics that started, “We’ve been right here in the Ville, and you know we’ll be here still, working God’s miracles on everyone from the babies to the seniors” and that ended “We’ll always do our best, to put Satan’s plans to rest, from God we will be blessed, as we march on and profess: Happy Birthday to ya, Happy Birthday Parish, of St. Matthew!”

When our world and church can seem desperate for healing and rebirth, I remember St. Matt’s. People are fed, hugged, and sung to alongside mothers and brothers supposedly not their own.
Every Sunday feels like a birthday.

When I tell people why I love St. Matt’s, I usually say, “It is just good to be around people who believe in God and act like it.” The community at St. Matt’s is one of incredible resilience, bursting love, fierce hope, and thick, tangible, bright, contagious, evangelical faith. In other words, St. Matt’s is concerned with the Word of Life.

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