This is the time of year I miss going to church . Christmas and church always seem to go together. I was a lapsed Methodist when I retired to the Vineyard. Up until then I had had what I thought were good reasons not to go to church. I worked many Sundays and spent lots of weekends away from home. Church was low on my list of priorities. Besides, when I was young I went, you could say, religiously. I sang in the choir and taught Sunday school right through college. Then I got a life. A busy one. There wasn’t room for a lot of things. I didn’t lose my faith, whatever faith I had, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to take part in most of the rituals. Flash forward to retirement. Now I had time. But I wasn’t sure just how or where or what rituals were right for me. The last time I went to a church service I became uncomfortably aware that the church, as I had known it, had changed. So I decided now was a good time to find a new fit.
I had an opportunity to look at churches when my new Island friends started to die off. Funerals give you a reason to go to a church without the pastor or congregation looking at you like a potential new member. In this day and age of closing and merging parishes new members are at a premium. The first funeral was at an Edgartown church. I won’t say which one. Now I’m a good person and I feel I’ve led a pretty good life but the first thing I spied when I walked in the door was a large banner proclaiming “Repent!” Okay, it was Lent, but a church that assumes I need to repent without even knowing who I am is not for me. Besides, the incense gave me an asthma attack.
Church number two was a little better, no sign demanding repentance but the service was almost identical to the previous one, incense and all. There also seems to be a requirement now that the service stop briefly for everyone to shake hands and say, “Peace be with you.” This made me feel silly and I worried about being shunned if I refused to take part during flu season. I didn’t get discouraged. After all, there are 29 churches listed in the Vineyard phone book. One was bound to agree with me.
The many friends I made here all encouraged me to go to their church. The ones that went to church, that is. The rest tried to interest me in what floated their boat: birding, sailing, gardening, painting, yoga or rug hooking. Everyone on the Island seems to have something that connects them to nature in one way or another.
One winter there was an article in the paper describing a round table discussion to share feelings about Christmas traditions. One member held a degree from Harvard Divinity School, was raised in a Protestant community church and now attends the Unitarian-Universalist Church. One was a retired Lutheran pastor, now a member of an Episcopal Church, and one, the granddaughter of an Orthodox Rabbi, is a cantor at the Hebrew Center and a practicing Buddhist. I knew that if I couldn’t find my niche on the Vineyard, I never would.
The longer I live on the Island the more I realize that you must live your life by what you believe. I was taught good values growing up. Be kind, be honest, be helpful. I internalized these things by watching my parents live. I treat everyone as an equal, not necessarily because they deserve it but because that is the kind of person I want to be. I recently read a quote that made a lot of sense to me: “Being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.”
I’ve learned that the all-encompassing church of the Island is the concept of charitable works. This has become my religion, my congregation — the rite of working to make life better for others. Now, instead of church, I go to meetings and raise money to make life better for others.
I think God would approve.
Carolyn O’Daly is a writer who lives in Katama.