My parents grew up in a small community in southwest Missouri. The best I can tell you is that it (Neola) was near a town (Arcola) that was near a town (Greenfield) that is 43 miles from Springfield. And it had a store, an elementary school, and a church. The church was called “Mount Olive” and everyone from the community went there.
Mt. Olive was a union of denominations. So one Sunday, it would be Disciples of Christ, with both male and female preachers and open communion every Sunday and a strong adherence to the “priesthood of all believers.” The next Sunday it would be Free Will Baptist, led only by male preachers and elders, teaching that all are “saved by faith and kept by faith,” and prone to long prayers and foot washing and quarterly communion. The same congregation, with the same hymnal, choir, board of deacons, and pianist, worshipped together every week, moving without fuss between the orders of worship and the doctrines of two very different denominations. My parents were both “Christians” but my step-grandmother was “Free Will,” and I came to know both churches well.
In Kansas City, I watched both my parents serve on local, regional, and national committees of the Disciples of Christ. But we went “down home” often, and I also watched my Grandma Thora wield significant power in the Free Will Baptist Church via her influence over those who had the right to vote: her husband, her brother, and her male neighbors. (Those were the days when children were taken along to meetings, with no nursery available, and simply expected to sit in the back and say nothing. I chose to listen, as I also did at home, when church business was the topic of conversation.) The car rides on the way to and from a meeting were always the best sources of information.
My parents joined Central Christian Church at Linwood and Cleveland as part of the DOC’s Reconciliation movement of the early 1960’s. We were the only white family in a black congregation in a black community during the struggle for civil rights. Black hands rocked me in the nursery, slipped me candy during a long sermon, dished up the best casseroles at the pot luck, and baptized me. The church ladies of my childhood are black and wear starched, pale blue cotton dresses with ribbon badges that say “USHERETTE.”
I was raised in the DOC, but also required to understand and respect other denominations. The year we had an exchange student from Italy, we went to Roman Catholic mass every week. We always went to church on vacation—just got dressed up and went to the nearest church. If I spent Saturday night with a friend, I went to church with them on Sunday morning, no matter their denomination. I spent occasional Friday nights with a friend eating a Shabbat meal and participating in reform Jewish rituals as an invited guest. Taken all together, my childhood was a course in comparative religions, at least as far as the religions present in the area at the time.
But the lesson did not focus on differences, rather it was one emphasizing freedom of and even from religion. I learned that there is great value in experiencing the rituals of other belief systems and in understanding their doctrines. But I was always reminded of my ability to choose my beliefs and to establish my own connection to God.
So I am grateful to that tiny southwest Missouri community that allowed for a variety of faith practices and for the openness it taught my parents and that they taught me.
Dear God, thank You for the powerful lessons I learned and for the variety of religious experiences I had. Continue to provide me with opportunities to share space with all people, I pray. Amen