Letting Down Church Ladies


God gave me a mother, and the church provided several more.

They were matriarchs varying in age and economics. Strong resilient pillars that held the church building upright, sitting in its pews each Sunday and rearing the next generation of parishioners.

On days like today, when Drew and I failed once again to make it to church, I think about these women. I think about them when I start to count up all the Sundays I have rolled over and fallen back asleep rather than throwing on pants and sitting in a church pew.  I think of them while eating a pop tart instead of feasting on Christ’s body.

I knew my church ladies by their casserole dishes and the designs on their crock-pots. I could have navigated our church potluck line blindfolded, filling the sections of my plate with heaps of Lisa’s mashed potatoes and Vicki’s fruit salad, feeling for familiar wooden spoons and the cardboard side of a KFC bucket (Jan always forgot potluck days). In those days, the church was familiar and comfortable.

As the hunters and gatherers of our community, the church ladies ensured the tribe got fed, especially during the hard winters, knee surgeries, and moving days of the congregation. In my family’s darkest hours, church ladies knocked on our door balancing tureens with chicken noodle soup and coordinated convoys of mostaccioli pans by calling through the 1997 church directory.

Church ladies opened their homes for women’s prayer groups and Super Bowl parties.  Floral wallpaper borders lined the ceilings of their bathrooms, rooms that always smelled of potpourri and jar candles. I spent time in their hallways examining pictures of them in puffy-sleeved wedding dresses or  posed in Olan Mills photo studios with all their kids wearing matching Osh-Kosh overalls.

The ladies still gather at celebratory showers for the daughters of the congregation.  They give new brides books with titles like “Sex Starts in the Kitchen,” and raise their eyebrows when they say things like “we always made sure to lock our doors when we were newlyweds; you don’t want to get…interrupted.”

At baby showers, they sound a collective “awwww” as the expecting momma holds up a onesie printed with dinosaurs. When she opens a Diaper Genie or video baby monitor, they impart legends of babies riding in the front seats of cars and swinging from doorf rames in Johnny jump-ups.

Church ladies formed the militia of my local church, sounding first alarm when the youth group “Snowfest” trip lacked supervision. In one such case, a church woman piled the entire youth group into her Chevy Astro and passed out zip lock baggies full of Twizzlers. She slept on the church pews with the rest of us, keeping vigilant watch by night and making  sure we didn’t leave our toothbrush in the host church’s bathroom.

Church ladies hoot and holler at Applebee’s. They laugh despite their divorces, chronic pain, and prodigal children. They snort over shared plates of calamari and proclaim that they wet their pants a little bit.They laugh together in cackles, shrieks, and snorts, a symphony that will continue through eternity.

When something bad happens, the church ladies pray. They pray in brown folding chairs with vinyl pads set-up in circle in the church fellowship hall or meet together in the sanctuary, squeezing hands and passing around boxes of Kleenex.

They laid hands on one another, on lumps, failing hearts, and bad backs. They forwarded emails to the prayer chain, whose links extended to those long moved out of state and others who now attended the local Baptist church due to an argument with the current pastor over the Celine Dion song used in his Easter sermon.

Church ladies helped raise me, getting their hands messy without any family title.

Shirley taught me how to make lemon bars, to slide a knife over the top of a measuring cup for a precise quantity of sugar. After I broke up with my fiancé, my church ladies hugged me longer at the greeting time. The same woman who took a splinter out of my foot when I was three noticed my pale color and sudden weight loss. She is the same woman who I used to see weeding on her hands and knees in front of the church sign on her day off.

If you wish to know an oral history of any child in the congregation, just ask a church lady. They mark your growing up years by piecing together Sunday school rosters and the parts you played in the Christmas pageants, remembering your reactions to flannel graph bible stories and recalling the summer they carried you around on their hip at the church vacation bible school.

I worry that at 26, I am rocky soil for the seeds they planted; they buried truths in good faith and entrusted them to a girl in smocked Sunday dresses wearing coke bottle glasses. Would they recognize me now, wriggling in the church pew and sitting with crossed arms during the refrains of worship songs among throngs of those raising their hands and swaying to the music? These days I no longer gulp the communion grape juice or offer to pray aloud.

They tripped over much larger stumbling blocks and kept going with graceful flourishes and sunday morning testimonies shared into the worship leader’s microphone. Church ladies held tightly to their faith, wringing it dry like a rag that always had one more drop of holy water. They exchanged Psalms and cassette tapes that encouraged them through their own hard times.

They weren’t leavers, they weren’t like me, not like my prodigal generation with our inabilities to be certain of what we cannot see. Will my own children be raised by the church, their support beams hoisted up by a community of faith? Will I teach them of an everlasting feast or will I be as I am now, unable to utter anything but the Lord’s prayer with my fingers crossed, hoping it’s true now, was true, and ever more shall be.

I love my church ladies and mourn that right now I am not one, at least, not like those who came before me. Maybe if I begin to show up on doorsteps with foil covered pans and on Sundays with my saran wrapped doubts held in open hands, I may yet become my own type of church lady.

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