“Welcome”, she said as we walked across the car park. “Sorry, I’m in a bit of a rush. I’m the organist and I’m running a bit late. I like to get here early and play as people gather.” With that she walked on ahead of us into the small, but modern octagonal brick church that is the Uniting Church in Denmark on the south coast of Western Australia.
Cynthia and I are staying for two nights in a rammed earth “chalet” (as they like to call them over here) in a secluded bush setting. Still awaiting the results of a biopsy on a suspicious pain/mark in her big toe. We talk about it less, and Cynthia has refrained from Googling it, but the open possibilities hang around us like an unfinished sentence
“Welcome”, says a woman who breaks away from a pew conversation to greet us as we enter the church. “Welcome to our little church. We are a dying congregation, and we haven’t got a minister, but we do the best we can.”
Her welcome is extended by others as we move to take our seats. The individual chairs each have a cushion attached and are arranged in a semi-circle. There is a small (but large for the size of the building) pipe-organ, looking a little out-sized and incongruous in the modern surrounds.
The service is being led by an Emeritus Professor of Botany and his wife. He has remarried after the death of his first wife a few years before. He has arranged at the front of the church a large aloe plant with a four metre flower draped across the floor and supported by a couple of chairs. The actual aloe cactus is not connected to the flower, it is there for show. Once an aloe cactus flowers, the actual plant dies and withers to almost nothing. The professor felt we needed to see an actual aloe plant to understand. He had waited 29 years for this plant to flower, but the flower signals the death of the plant.
The gathering includes a welcome to us and another man, by name, and news of the church family. We learn that sitting to one side of us is a man who has recently put his wife into care due to her advancing dementia and travels a round trip of over 100 km each day to spend the day with her, lovingly easing the transition… for them both. To our left a woman who is back a church for the first time in eight weeks after receiving chemotherapy for cancer. A row behind and further around the semi-circle is a woman sitting with her two daughters in a tight group; her husband died last night. The church had prayed with her for a peaceful passing just the week before. It had, by the brief account we received later, been a good death. The family had gathered around in a circle, holding hands in vigil as he peacefully slipped from this life.
“Miracles abound” we were told as we were led through the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The professor had come to faith late in life, now in his early eighties, he was from Northern Ireland and the divisiveness of religion there had closed him off from the church. But in his sixties he had re-kindled his faith and spoke a simple heart-felt message. His wife joined in with a story from her nursing days that still caused her voice to break in the telling. Hymns were introduced and their relevance to the theme explained. It was noted that one hymn would be the poorer for the loss of the deceased man’s resonant tenor voice.
A couple of children were colouring and having their own church activities under the guidance of their mother and the organist (their grandmother). Occasionally there were raised voices between brother and sister that broke into the flow of the service, but no-one seemed to mind. As the service was closing the mother came forward and explained a picture that her son had drawn. His picture was pinned up on the wall.
As the service progressed the organist moved across the room to the piano and a small choir emerged from their seats and sang. Later they also sang the benediction.
Before we went to morning tea, the congregation sang happy birthday to another member. We stayed in conversation (social and theological) for more than 30 minutes after the service. We talked of the challenges and joys of lay members taking services for the past decade or so and swapped names of influential progressive Christian voices and useful websites.
Why do we allow the self-talk that says, “We are a dying congregation?” It’s such a common self-deprecating comment that I hear all too frequently. The danger is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
This church is alive. The worship is real. The people are genuine. It is welcoming. The welcome is not just few words at the front door. It’s a smile. It’s warmth. It’s ease with the stranger. It’s not just something that a visitor hears. It is something that the visitor senses. Welcome is a state of mind that embraces newcomers. The visitor concludes, “I could belong here.”
The service suggested the presence of a transcendent and all loving God. Not the remote, prime-mover God who winds up the world and leaves it to its own devices. The prayers were brief, but good. They invoked God’s presence among us and invited us into relationship. The sermon was simple, but heartfelt. The illustrative stories came from their own lives. This church is alive, it is in transition, but the service we attended made it clear that the God made known in Jesus is here, present and tangible; full of grace and power. It is a community of faith, where people can share their joy and pain and find meaning and hope. These are things that outsiders need to hear, but are rarely said; “Welcome, you could belong here. You can find God here”.