I was born Southern Baptist, and by the time I finished preschool, I had claimed my rightful inheritance on the family pew: third row, right side of the sanctuary. Dark, shiny hardwood with dark green, velvet cushions (which, of course, matched the carpet and even the choir robes). It was to this pew that I returned on a January evening in 1993, after my baptism. It was in this pew that I first felt a call to missions. It was this pew that I left behind as a teenager when my parents, brother, and I moved our memberships to another church (claiming, once more, the third pew, right side, with the [slightly lighter] green cushions). And it was to this pew (since reupholstered in a more pleasing blue) to which I have only returned once, at the age of 25, to bury my grandmother.
On Sunday night, I walked into a different sanctuary, in a different city. I sat on the next-to-last row, in the center section, in a slightly battered metal folding chair that was neither brown, nor tan, nor gray, but some amalgamation of every neutral color in the spectrum. This sanctuary claims no uniformity. The dark wood floor is the only constant, sloping downwards towards a stage vacant of pulpit and upholstered chairs. Two slightly uneven aisles are formed between three sections of chairs that are placed there at the beginning of each service and removed shortly thereafter. The folding chair in which I sat is one of several varieties, including brown folding chairs with ripped cushions; hard, white plastic folding chairs; and the newest, straight-backed chairs with woven seats. Those are placed at the front of the sections, nearest the stage, but I have yet to venture far enough into the sanctuary to try them out. I rather like the simplicity of the metal folding chairs. No fluff, no frills; purely functional.
The floor is my favorite part of the sanctuary. At one point, pews did occupy the room. The outlines still exist where they were screwed into the floor. The marks are lighter colored than the rest of the wood and stand as a beautiful reminder of the evolution of the Church in my city. At one point, I’m almost certain that green velvet cushions sat perched atop the old wooden pews. After all, the peeling paint around the molding is green; the cushions had to match.
This gathering began a little over six years ago, and I joined about 8 months in, although I didn’t realize it at the time. There were so few of us at the time that we met in a much smaller room on the second floor of the next building. Once the congregation grew, and the funds increased, we moved into the sanctuary. The chairs moved from one building to the next.
I don’t remember the first chair I sat in when I attended radius for the first time, but I’m sure that it was one of the same folding chairs we’re still using. In my five and a half years, those chairs have been occupied by a vast array of people, some of whom still remain, others of whom have drifted away. I, myself, have gone for weeks or months without sitting in one of the seats, only to return once more.
In one of these chairs I sat the night in 2010 that I knew my grandmother was dying, which was also the same night that I sat while others prayed for my upcoming trip to Haiti; that night, I had already begun mourning my inevitable loss, but I also looked forward, albeit with a bit of trepidation, to an adventure to which God was calling me. In one of these chairs I sat late into a Sunday evening, talking with a friend who had become very close about life and our pasts and how God would redeem us. In one of these chairs I sat the night one of my friends told me she had nowhere to live, and my roommate and I told her to pack her stuff and come home with us.
Last night, I thought about the chairs, about the people who have occupied them with me and those who will in the future. The person who first invited me to this gathering of believers was someone I once loved. He occupied a seat beside me for a few months before he left, never to return. I doubt he will ever occupy a seat next to me again. But those few months were enough time to become fully entrenched in the body, to meet others who, over the years, would take his vacant seat. Friends who became roommates. Friends who grew closer. Friends who stayed but also strayed away, just as the first one had. Others that I loved, or wanted to love. And others that I chose to love.
Last night, I sat surrounded by my small group, my family, the men and women I joined with, who search with me and beside me for the Kingdom of God. And therein is the uniformity that the chairs, on the surface, lack. God has brought us all together, no matter who sits beside me. When the one I loved sat beside me, God was there. When that man left, God was still there. When others moved into the seat next to me, and then moved on, God was always there, covering me with His grace and love and leading me to His Truth. And for almost three years now, the ones who have been beside me have been the ones I’ve chosen to journey with. I will disappoint them at times. I’ll let them down. But God will be there through it all. And whether our church buys new chairs, or whether I leave this gathering for another group of believers, or another city, God will always be there. Pew. Folding chair. Bean bag. Blanket on the floor. The vessel never matters.
His Kingdom and His Church will endure.