Looking Back on Sunday Mornings
By Stephanie Painter
As a kid growing up in church, I experienced the Sunday morning matinee of miseries. My woes included a hard and unforgiving church pew, unbearably tight Mary Jane shoes, and a droning sermon that I never quite understood. After the service, I would take flight, turning my patent leather atrocities into streamlined track shoes as I raced for the church’s playground. But my vigilant mother always swooped in and steered me toward the line in the narthex.
Today when I visit St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I find my family’s favorite pew – the fifth on the Gospel side – and participate in worship with the practiced polish of a cradle Episcopalian. I rise and kneel and receive communion without a misstep. Still, my younger self once beat her feet on the kneelers in this same pew, and the return to my spiritual cradle recalls vintage family stories. To this day, my mother delights in sharing them.
At the tender age of four, I waited with her to greet our priest on a radiant spring morning. Father Salmon looked priestly in his green chasuble robe and long pectoral cross. Ethereal in a floral maxi dress, my mother graciously took his hand. Hoping to atone for my sprint through the sanctuary, I mimicked her elegant gesture. Father Salmon showed his surprise. He smiled and said, “My young lady, aren’t you in a prissy mood today?” With my hand on hip, I replied, “Well, it seems to me that you’re the prissy one in that long dress and necklace!”
The priest’s cheeks promptly reddened, and my remark sent a shock wave through the family. At home, my mother consulted psychology books and studied the warning signs of behavioral disorders. Grandpa fussed that my Sunday School teachers had neglected their mission. But when Nana heard the story, she shared my quip with friends, bragging that I could hold my own with the patriarchy.
True to his forgiving character, Father Salmon did not ban me from church. So, one Pentecost Sunday, I reluctantly followed my mother to a pew. The altar was draped in a blazing red cloth, and the scene recalled game days when the Arkansas Razorbacks rushed the field in red football uniforms. Now over at the stadium, fans would reverently praise the Hogs and stretch their arms heavenward. “Woo Pig Sooie! Razorbacks!” they would cry. From the pew, I practiced a creative spin on the cheer. “Woo God Sooie!” I sang out to my mother’s astonishment. “The Razorbacks are not in the same league as the Holy Spirit!” she scolded.
By now, many in the church viewed me as a delinquent beyond redemption. However, there was hope. When I heard the pipe organ’s opening notes of the Doxology, I sprang to my feet and joyfully offered praise. Mysteriously, the hymn always brought me to a state of attention and elation. My mother’s heart swelled with happiness, though the spell was broken as quickly as the notes faded away. As I matured, the usual experiences followed, including participation in the EYC youth group. Eventually, I traded in my Mary Janes for fashionable clogs, and Father Salmon wiped his brow in relief when I graduated from high school. My commencement was on the dear priest’s bucket list.
As a youth, I had a secret bucket list myself. I checked off watching the Razorbacks capture a league title in an unbeaten Southwestern Conference season. To my disappointment, the ‘70s closed without any glimpse of one of the streakers who ran au naturel across the college campus. But I did sync up with God – my journey just took a little longer than my mom, my Sunday School teachers, and Father Salmon ever anticipated. As in a tightly contested football game, a little overtime was needed for me to find my place in the community of faith. As I kneel now in the fifth pew on the Gospel side, God is close.
So are memories of my spirited run-ins with Father Salmon. I imagine that if he were here today, he would beam at me from the pulpit, celebrating his victory. He would not toast my smooth and agile genuflection but rather my relationship and connection with God. Isn’t there a ‘cradle’ beginning for all of God’s faithful?
Stephanie Painter is a freelance writer and behavioral health consultant.