by Rachel Petty
I knew that I should be an Episcopalian. I’ve known that for years, but it’s not especially easy to be one in rural West Texas. It’s not especially hard, either.
During a ten-minute Monday evening conversation my marriage unexpectedly and irrevocably ended. The next Sunday I needed something to do, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to correct my denominational oversight and check out the Catholic JV.
The closest Episcopal church is 20 miles from my tiny town. I checked their archaic website and found the Sunday service started at 10:00 a.m. Perfect time. I’d been avoiding services at the Catholic Church I nominally attended partly because they started at 9:00 a.m. and I had to be to deliberate about getting out of bed to get dressed and get there on time. Truthfully, that isn’t the only reason this Baptist preacher’s kid was seldom attending church, but it’s as valid as any of the others.
This particular Sunday morning I dressed, hopped on my motorcycle and rode west. When I arrived at the church I was surprised to find that no one was there. I must have had the time wrong, but no, I checked the sign out front and it said 10:00 a.m. in big bold letters. Checked my phone – 9:48 a.m.
I circled the block and saw two cars parked on the side, towards the back. I groaned – great, just great – and rode around the block again. I needed a crowd, somewhere I could be inconspicuous and simply go along with the flow.
I circled the block a third time and came up on the two cars again. After a moment’s contemplation, I decided I’d come that far and I damn well intended darkening a church door before heading back home.
This time I parked the bike in front of the church and removed my helmet. My hair, never glamorous and seriously uncooperative, was everywhere all at once. After corralling the wayward tresses with an elastic band and vain hope, I slung my backpack on my shoulder and climbed the stairs to the gothic doors. As I reached for the heavy wrought iron door knob, I paused and glanced back at the bike.
This was America, in the South, in the year 2015.
The Charleston church shootings happened only a few weeks before. I was about to enter a small church service carrying not a purse but a firearm-sized bag. I was dressed in biker boots and a leather jacket. And we’ve already mentioned my crazy lady hairdo. Briefly I considered leaving the backpack on the bike, but that was akin to leaving your purse on the hood of the car while shopping at Wal-Mart. So, trusting that my middle-aged, middle-class status would trump the crazy-ass, church-shooter vibe, I opened the doors and went inside.
That was the moment that I realized how staunchly low-church small West Texas towns truly are. Episcopalians are very few and far between. I found myself striding down the aisle, closer to the front than I’d had any intention of sitting.
“Come on in,” a friendly woman waved me forward. “There are plenty of seats left!”
There were more than plenty. There were all of them.
Only three people occupied the space, all crowded around the lectern. One man and two women.
The friendly woman met me in the aisle and introduced herself. The man was her husband and he would be doing the readings. Their companion was going to read a sermon. The priest was not present that Sunday. They share her with a larger church in a larger city, so they do morning prayer on the Sundays she is gone.
Some of the parishioners don’t especially care for the morning prayer service and this accounted for the sparse gathering that morning, the woman explained. “Although,” she admitted sheepishly, “for us, seven is a full crowd.”
I managed a breath and a weak smile, and parked myself on the nearest pew, about a quarter of the way back from the altar. My backpack landed heavily on the pew beside me, with a suspiciously metallic thump. I had no idea what made the metallic sound but when it happened, I winced and involuntarily glanced at the man at the pulpit. He glared back at me.
His wife and their friend blathered on graciously and more than conquered my initial discomfort, but the guy and I? We’d shared “A Moment.”
When I first came in, the three were vigorously debating the readings for the day. As in, which ones were they to do. The wife thought she’d printed the lessons for the husband to read, but they’d been lost somewhere along the way and he was not the sort to improvise. Not at all. Not even a little.
I watched and listened and tried to figure out how it could possibly matter one way or another. Only the three of them were present when the scope of the liturgical tragedy was discovered and initially discussed. They could have read pretty much anything. Or nothing. And it wouldn’t really have mattered. Would it?
Perhaps I had a ways to go before achieving full-on Episcopal sensibility. Maybe a long ways.
As the husband and one of the women debated the scripture choice, the wife engaged me with lots of friendly questions. I could see the husband keeping a cautious eye on me from his pulpit perch. He still glowered at me When the wife finally asked what I did for a living I explained that I am the chief probation officer for four neighboring counties. The man heard this and visibly relaxed. I’m pretty sure he’d been holding his breath. I caught his eye and grinned.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “Then you’ll understand this.”
The man reached into the lectern and pulled out a .45 automatic which he brandished in my general direction before laying it on the pulpit atop the open copy of the Book of Common Prayer. “Some day someone may come in here shooting,” he growled. “But they aren’t going to get out of here alive.”
Yes, he did. He pulled a gun on me right there in front of God and everybody.
In twenty-five years of law-enforcement work, no one has ever pulled gun on me before. Not until I set foot in the Episcopal church.
In the end, I had a great time. He and I are buddies now. By the end of that service, I was pretty damn sure I’d be back again the next Sunday.
A year later, when the Bishop made his annual visit, there was a confirmand to confirm and he was pleased to see that weekly attendance had increased by almost fifteen percent. When he visits this year, I will be one of those present during his meeting with the vestry.
Becoming an Episcopalian is the first religious decision I have made completely and entirely on my own, with no consideration for anyone else. That may run counter to the principles of playing well with others, but since the others took their football and left the playground, it seemed justified.
And I’ve been ridiculously happy about it ever since.
Rachel Petty lives in a dusty, windy, West Texas town where she is employed as full-time domestic staff for a couple of carefree dogs and two imperious felines. In her spare time she the Director of the 110th Judicial District Community Supervision and Corrections Department which, in English, means she’s the chief probation officer for four rural Texas counties. “It’s weird here, but I love it.”