As a recent convert to the United Church of Christ, and a rural Midwesterner, I'm often surprised in my travels when I come upon a well-established and aged UCC church.
I was attending a conference in Portland, Maine, recently and encountered a gorgeous stone building with the simple word "Congregational" carved in the stone above the entry, but with a modern sign in front declaring the building to be a United Church of Christ meeting place. It gives me pause to see such a structure, given my short history with UCC.
You see, the congregation I attend rents the narthex of a campus chapel, not the chapel itself, though the chapel proper goes unused on Sunday mornings. We rearrange the furniture and coffee machines before worship, and then return them to their customary places upon its end.
On a good Sunday we might have 30 adults in attendance. Most are farmers, teachers, and professors, with a few professionals and retirees rounding out the group. We are almost entirely white, but the children with us are less so.
Our minister is part time and holds another position with the Iowa Conference of the UCC. Part of my job, as moderator of the congregation, is to remind her of to take it a little easier and try not to do too much. The Sunday after my return from Portland, she preached about Jacob wrestling with the angel. She has a fascination, perhaps, with those who attempt the impossible.
The tallest member of the congregation is a transgendered person, standing about six foot five and given to heavily patterned synthetics with floral designs. We also have a lesbian couple whose names I reverse if I'm not careful.
The most trustworthy musician among us is a mental health therapist by profession, and it was she who counseled me when I went through a divorce a decade ago. She leads us in hymns with a guitar, and it's not uncommon that the rhythm we are following is more reminiscent of The Eagles than a church choir.
But we are not happy tableau out of an Anne Tyler novel. The charter members who initiated the church were not UCC but Presbyterian. They left that congregation reluctantly over issues of conscience and worshipped unaffiliated for some time. Even now there are some hard feelings between some members of the two congregations.
We struggle financially. We know that we are only two or three tithing families removed from going under.
We lost two of our most solid younger members to car wrecks in a period of less than three months. Our transgendered member who waited until middle age to "come out" was recently diagnosed with, and treated for, a brain tumor.
We try. When those among us grieve or fall ill, we feed and care for them. When one of us is unable to drive, we find rides. We sponsor a Native American family in South Dakota, and a van load of us drives out there every summer, armed with ample person-power and a little money.
I stumbled upon these folk by coincidence, my newly married spouse wanting to give them a try — their meeting place nearby and them not being the church of my past marriage. But I stay for the God I know here, and the God I want to know more.
Only once in the New Testament do we hear that Jesus laughed, but I believe we would make him laugh: this odd assortment of eccentrics, academics and marginalized; this congregation of a score and 10 that meets just outside a huge and empty worship hall; these small gestures of grace and large hearts of concern.
And once the Christ quits laughing, I know he would smile.
Steve Rose is moderator of Crossroads UCC in Indianola, Iowa, and professor of education at Simpson College.