It was with a pang of regret that I published the 24th and last chapter in my At Your Service series last Monday.
I began thinking of such a series something like 20 years ago, figuring it would be fascinating to visit some of the many churches in Billings and hoping that my “reviews” of the services might be of interest to others. At the time, though, and for many years after, I couldn’t imagine where I might publish such a series.
The concept didn’t seem to fit any conceivable niche in the Billings Gazette, where I was a reporter, and I couldn’t come up with any plausible alternatives. And so the idea went into hibernation until the fall of 2013, when I began planning for the launch of Last Best News.
It suddenly occurred to me one day that Last Best News would be the perfect vehicle for my long-projected series, since I intended the site to be a mix of news, opinion, entertainment and stories too odd or unconventional for your average daily newspaper.
As I explained in an essay introducing the series, I began attending church services a month before Last Best News launched on Feb. 1, 2014, and because of my haphazard attendance record, my last visit did not take place until March 17, 2015.
I wanted to make all my visits before the series began in order to preserve my anonymity. Even so, I was “outed” at a few churches, either by ministers or church members who knew me or recognized me from having seen my mug in the newspaper for so many years, or from seeing my mug on this site. When I was asked, always in a friendly, hope-filled way, why I was there, I never outright lied, but I was not completely forthcoming, either.
I usually said something vague, like “Oh, I’m on a bit of a spiritual journey,” or, “I’m here out of curiosity.” I sometimes wondered, on those occasions when I was recognized, what they thought of my taking notes throughout the service. They must have figured it was an occupational habit, something I couldn’t stop doing even when I was off the clock.
I mentioned regret. My main one was that I went about choosing churches to visit so unsystematically. It wasn’t until nearly the end that I realized I hadn’t been to a Jehovah’s Witnesses service, or to services at the city’s only African-American church or its only synagogue. By then it was too late and I could only kick myself for having been so aimless.
I also regret that a certain glibness crept into the series, but I suppose that was inevitable. I had no intention of doing any research beforehand, or of trying to paint a complete picture of each church. That would have taken too much work and would have changed my stories from impressionistic sketches to quasi-term papers. Like a bad sermon, they would have put my readers to sleep.
Still, the most frequent criticism I heard, in comments on Last Best News, on the LBN Facebook page and in personal emails, was that I had shortchanged this or that church, or that I couldn’t possibly capture the totality of a church experience in one visit.
To which I can only reply, of course not! Like a restaurant critic, I was there to see what was offered on a particular day, to see what one random encounter provided to a drop-in visitor. It was not ideal, but I don’t see how else I could have done it.
So, what did I learn? I learned—or was reminded—what a big world this is. For the past 25 years or so my job has been, basically, to try to understand Billings and explain it to people. At these services I sat among thousands of people I did not know, experiencing a part of their lives about which I knew almost nothing. It was humbling to realize how much is truly unknowable.
I also learned that there are probably more musicians involved in church music than there are in the whole secular music scene. I saw and heard everything from slick professionalism to the rawest possible performances, on instruments ranging from pianos, organs and guitars to trumpets, harmonicas and autoharps.
My opinion of church music—worth precisely what you, the reader, paid for it—is that old is good, whether that means old gospel, country and bluegrass or classic Protestant hymns. It is beyond me how anyone could enjoy the treacle being served up as “modern worship music” in so many churches. But there are many things beyond me, and I don’t expect the world to conform to my esthetic leanings.
I also learned that most churches these days have no semblance of ritual or order. The most common service consists of music, announcements, a sermon and more music, with the all-important collection wedged in any old where.
Oddly enough, it is the old-line established churches—generally those that are politically progressive—that preserve the ritual and follow an order of service. At the most conservative, hidebound churches, there is a feeling of “do your own thing,” precisely what their preachers have been telling us for years is wrong with America.
Blame my early immersion in Catholicism, but I believe that ritual, tradition and order are good for young people, if only to inculcate in them the idea that there is some order in the universe, and that the patient learning of ideas handed down from one generation to another has some value.
During my church visits, I have to admit, my feeling toward the whole project changed a bit because of external circumstances. Representatives of some of the churches I was attending or planning to attend began flooding City Hall to argue passionately and endlessly against a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, which was aimed at extending civil-rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Many of those opponents seemed sincere but misguided, in my opinion, but too many others wore their disdain, even their hatred, as a badge of honor. It rubbed me wrong, to put it mildly, to see people using their religion as a bludgeon against people whose “lifestyle,” that preposterously misused word, they condemned.
I found myself listening more closely at the services I attended, and reacting more strongly to hints of intolerance and sanctimonious self-righteousness. So many beams in so many eyes!
That old-time religion
Conversely, this summer, in the midst of running the series on this site, I had an experience that tempered my view of churches and organized religion in another way. At the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, my three favorite acts all hailed from Appalachia and all of them played traditional mountain music.
All of them also mentioned church and God and Jesus over and over again, both in their songs and in the stories they told about their songs. Two other great acts—a black bluesman and a trio of brothers who sang gospel—traded stories about their upbringing in rival southern Pentecostal sects.
It was a powerful reminder that religion isn’t just about religion. It is a social glue for which there is no ready substitute. Almost all of the music I love best is so deeply intertwined with the church-going experience that it is not possible to imagine it arising at all without that experience.
This is a secular appreciation for a thing held sacred by others, so take it for what you will. I’m simply saying that despite the heathenism to which I confessed in that opening essay, I can’t bring myself to belittle religion or the institution of church-going, despite having removed myself from them.
In the course of running the series, a few people offered to pray for me. I couldn’t object to that. If it’s not blasphemous, say a few prayers for Last Best News, too.
I also received more than a few invitations from people to visit their churches, whether I had already reviewed them or or not. That was very kind of them, but for now, no. I was glad to have made the visits, but also relieved when they were over.
And since so many of my reviews dealt with the music I heard, let me end this venture by asking you to spend a few minutes listening to Iris Dement—who grew up in a strict Pentecostal household—sing a beautiful little song that more or less sums up my feelings in a nutshell.
And here is the complete list of reviews:
Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.
Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Chapter 5: First Baptist Church.
Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.
Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.
Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.
Chapter 9: First United Methodist Church.
Chapter 10: Pilgrim Congregational Church.
Chapter 12: First Christian Church.
Chapter 13: Victorious Word Church.
Chapter 14: Oasis Church.
Chapter 15: Harvest Church.
Chapter 16: Billings Association of Humanists.
Chapter 17: Word of Life Fellowship.
Chapter 18: Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Chapter 19: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
Chapter 20: Faith Evangelical Church.
Chapter 21: Open Bible Christian Center.
Chapter 22:Billings Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Chapter 23: Elevation Church.
Chapter 24: Mary Queen of Peace.