Another churchgoer walked in. I buried my head in my hands, laughed out loud, and left. I may be petty and easily pigeonholed as bitter. It doesn’t matter. I will not do this again.
Of the spectrum of things cognizant, curious human beings talk about with other cognizant, curious human beings, the four tables occupying the upstairs of a southern Manitoba coffee shop all, independent of each other, chose religion. And, of the four, two chose the public space to hold counseling sessions.
I don’t mind the odd public display of God-talk. Freedom is a wonderful thing. And overhearing the following was the low-hanging fruit needed to end a writing drought.
The second floor of this cafe is modern and warm, the eight or so tables and booths a mix of steel and barn wood stained dark. The fireplace is faux, and I sat at a small table near it. I was alone. It was early.
The first person to walk the stairs after me was a churchgoing man, I later learned. At which church, I never heard; there are many here. He sat in a booth and two people joined him a few minutes later. He had influence in their lives. This became apparent, quickly. He was their pastor.
What are the odds, I thought, that the one day I spend in town in the over one year I’ve been living near this community, I have to listen to this. And I had to listen. He spoke unapologetically loud. They all did.
Had someone asked about the characters I would most likely meet on my excursion to this community, I would have listed the people I’m about to introduce, but only half in jest. You can’t get away from, escape, avoid, outrun, outsmart — choose one — religion-speak in this part of the province. It’s always hunting; it is always around the corner.
“When will my car be ready?”
“Oh, not for another week. My husband and I are closing the shop and going to Las Vegas.”
“Cool. Great to go somewhere warm in winter.”
“Yeah, there’s this church we are excited to check out. The pastor’s doing amazing work out there.”
This was a real conversation, and doesn’t yet give backing to my comment about the ubiquity of God-talk in this bible-belt city. But earlier that day, I joked about how my adding cream to good coffee is a crime.
“I leave the judging to God,” the barista said.
Phew. Here I thought we could have some fun banter about coffee(read, sarcasm).
In a city where nearly everyone attends church, what partially consumed the pastor sitting near me at the coffee shop that morning was evangelism; spreading the “word of God” to the youth of the area.
This is tantamount to nothing, by the way. Or, at the very least, not much. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone within a 100-kilometre radius who hasn’t been wittingly or unwittingly subjected to the Christian message.
I grew up attending a church in southern Manitoba that is colloquially known as the Pizza Hut church for its red, tin roof. The idea of a couple hundred people quietly listening to the interpretations of one man or woman is familiar to me. Bizarre, but familiar.
There’s a hardwiring that takes place when you attend church before the mind is developed enough to think critically. I will never find the topic of religion or spirituality uninteresting, and the damnation of my soul will dog me ‘till I die. The idea of hell is nearly impossible to exorcise from my head.
The Satan of Carman’s Satan Bite the Dust is hilarious on the lucid days, but updated, scarier versions of this character and the eternal suffering it represents still hold some sway in weaker, what if I’m wrong, moments. This place, this hot place where a man, usually ripped, burns your skin off and prods you with his trident of evil every day for eternity is what makes parents weep for their lost children’s souls, and is what gives currency to what are in many cases laughable messages from the pulpit.
Praise and worship albums such as Wow Worship, and other equally vapid entries, were once one to five in my CD tower. I subjected my coworkers to them, and believed the emotionally manipulative build-ups and climaxes were the Holy Spirit coursing through my body. I felt on top of the world in ways closer to hubris than humility. But the two are often too close to distinguish, especially in religion.
But that was a long time ago.
There are things that still tickle the spiritual in me. Good music does this. Inside Llewyn Davis, for example, forced me to an area of my brain where I felt connected to something I had no desire to explain away. Harmonies such as those draw tears, every time. And many old hymns do the same.
“Three out of four high school kids walk away from the Church,” the booth pastor told the two across from him. “The one out of four live in households where their parents act out their faith. How can we make disciples of our youth, getting them to share Christ among their peers?”
This pastor is getting tired of talking about sports and weather, he tells the two. He wants to tackle real things more often.
Please. Start talking about sports.
“We need to become more unified as Churches,” he set in again. “Working together. Really just looking at each other as one body of Christ. How can we turn everyone here into missionaries, and send them back to their home countries with the word of Christ?”
I must have missed the turn to immigrants, but that’s where his chat went, apparently.
“Jesus is our driving force, all the time,” he said, of his church. ”What is our Church? I’m going to start having monthly communion. We need to become more missional as a church. It’s just exciting to see what God is doing here. Hey, funny thing, us and the Mennonite Brethren church are doing some of the same things. I know, we’ll tell the congregation it was our idea, and that they are copying us.”
Laughter, or a giggle was probably expected. But none came.
And then, after an hour of spouting about the church and the community, using a battery of words not yet canonized, but make sense more as a feeling — “missional” — being the most ready example, the pastor’s voice softened: “But, really, all this is up to him. God. He makes it all possible. Only if this is all his will.”
It was a profound end to a conversation that never made it beyond clichés. The conversation now shifted to the other two.
This man lead two, impressionable young adults to some very needlessly dark places. The validation he began to feel as a pastor was audible, as the two talked in more detail of their struggles being between high school and the rest of their lives. He would help them through this, with skills that had yet to be revealed to the rest of us listening in on the second floor.
He took something every person goes through — the transition from youth to adulthood — and turned it into something that he was going to help them overcome with prayer. Amazing.
I hope the people he was talking to have the self-awareness to see through his thin veil, but that wasn’t clear.
Wait. They bought it. They now asked him about how he comes up with these genius ideas.
“I don’t know. I should write this stuff down,” he said.
The discussion got too quiet to hear, but I don’t think he should be writing anything down.
I wonder what the guy behind me is thinking?
“Hi. What are you up to?” I asked, probably a little more tersely than usual, in hopes of finding someone to talk to about this strange, loud conversation that had quickly become my business and no doubt his, too.
“I’m just working.”
“What do you do?” Again, too forthcoming.
“I’m a youth pastor.”
I was hoping for something different. Another pastor. This is insane.
Two more people walked upstairs. They sat close to me. They were both pastors, as well. One took issue with a piece I wrote a few weeks back. He seemed disappointed in me. This made sense. Disappointment from a pastor in this city carries a disproportionate amount of weight. They sat down, and started in on a conversation better suited for behind closed doors.
But touché, God is to be spoken about loudly and in public. This must be the takeaway. But, no, a quick Google search to find out how the God being talked about feels about such public displays revealed this verse:
Matthew 6:5: “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.”
The coffee shop had been fully taken by pastors. It was no longer safe for us tepid agnostics.
Another churchgoer walked in a few moments later. A friend, actually, and one who was able to appreciate what she was inadvertently a part of. We chatted about it, shared a laugh, and established that writing this would not be a planned attack on good people, who have not been given the opportunity to defend themselves, but an account of a morning spent at a bible-belt coffee shop.