The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


June 11, 2009

Strangers in the far back pew

A remodeling project has displaced us from our home. For the next month, we're forced to seek shelter elsewhere.

One of the places we retreated to was South Padre Island, where my family and I rented a condominium near the beach for a week. It was a chance to rest and relax as our kitchen and bathrooms fell under the wrecking ball.

During the trip, Janine and I checked out the local Episcopal church -- a small congregation by the water where only about 50 people worshipped. Our church back home has about triple that number, minimally, on any given Sunday.

As visitors sitting in back, it was fun for us to follow along with the Common Book of Prayer, the worship book used at the white stucco St. Andrew's By the Sea. About midway through the service, the best part of the morning happened when the rector announced the Sharing of the Peace.

It lasted for more than five minutes.

Janine and I were welcomed, it seemed, by more than half the church. From our seats, we also got to watch the members hug and shake hands with each other as they moved from person to person. It was like a family reunion filled with relatives who were genuinely glad to see each other.  My daughter and I smiled and chuckled from the sheer sweetness of it.

Looking back, it was one of the best illustrations of church community that I could have scripted for my preteen daughter to see. From Sunday to Sunday at our home church, this time in the liturgy can become all too familiar as we greet those who sit around us. They're mostly the same folks week in and week out.

This particular Sunday morning as new people extended their hands and said "God's peace to you," it felt so different. It was a beautiful and powerful reminder to us of the most basic tenant of our faith: that we are to love and reach out to the strangers we encounter -- including those who show up on random summer weekends and sit quietly in the far back pew.

It's an experience that, days later, my daughter still talks about.

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