by Ian Bridgman
It was my 3rd Sunday in Martinique, and my first since moving into my own apartment after spending the first two weeks living with the director of the school where I teach. It was time to search for a church. From what I saw during my first year here, Martinique seems to be littered with cult groups and fringe denominations. The Baptist churches look like the safest option, and I had my choice of two relatively large congregations in the area. One is 15 minutes away, walking up the hillside, the other about twice as far. I chose the closer one.
I arrived early on during the worship service. About 200 people were in attendance. An elderly woman met me at the door and showed me a seat. She seemed friendly. As I took my seat, I felt the scrutinizing glances of those around me. Maybe it was the long hair, maybe it was the earring. Maybe it was simply because I was one of the very few young men in attendance, and probably the only one not attached to a family there. Eventually, the pastor announced the start of a short break, to be followed by an extended prayer time. People could stay or go as they pleased. About half the congregation trickled out, myself included. Some talked quietly in small groups, many headed down the street to find their cars. Some of the older women boarded a city bus passing by. I had already been there for 2 hours. I was tired. The sun was hot. I started the walk home. The woman at the door earlier would be the only one to speak to me that morning. But meeting new people in new places takes time; there was always next week.
My second Sunday was communion Sunday. Near the end of the service, the pastor gave a few words about who was welcome to take communion. I didn’t understand every word, but I assumed it was the same as everywhere else I had been. Once again, however, about half the congregation got up and made their way out. Wanting to participate, I stayed behind, until the woman at the door came in, put an evangelistic tract in my hand, and then proceeded to politely usher me back out. A random, unattached young man couldn’t possibly know Jesus. I wasn’t thrilled about being walked out of the service, but I decided that fighting off elderly women was probably not the best testimony either. I watched the remaining proceedings from outside, with some of the others. I returned to that church two more times. After four Sundays, I had met exactly one family, and of course the greeter lady.
Several weeks later, I found out that one of my students was attending the other church with one of the other language assistants. I decided to tag along. Compared to the previous church, the experience was like night and day. The building seats about 200, and it was all but overflowing. The worship service felt like a celebration. There were no stares, or sideways glances, and by the time we left, more than 3 hours later, I felt like I had been introduced to half the people there. At the previous church, I was going back because I felt like it was what we are supposed to do on Sunday mornings. With this church, I find myself looking forward to Sunday mornings.
I have no desire to criticize another body of believers. It is a believing church, and they are preaching the gospel in that part of the city. I also realize that every church is free to administer communion as they see fit. But being here, in an environment utterly devoid of any Christian influence, the last thing I needed was to be refused the opportunity to publicly identify with other believers. Changing churches was, in this case, the right decision.
The experience has made me much more aware of the need to intentionally welcome newcomers into a congregation. Visitors, by default, will feel on the fringe; it is entirely up to us to bridge that divide. In the USA, at least, long hair and earrings don’t ruffle as many feathers as they used to. But are there other things that cause us to look at someone differently? Their choice of clothes? How they carry themselves? Their perceived socio-economic status or level of education? Nobody in the first church seemed hostile to my presence, it just seemed like they couldn’t quite figure out what I was doing there. Their strategy seemed to be “ignore it, and it will go away”. Indeed, I went away. Two Sundays ago, my parents were here on vacation. That week, it was communion Sunday in my new church. We ate and drank together; nobody was ushered out. When new people come into Grace Church, I hope they will not find us like the first church. I hope they will find us more like the second.