Expressway: A child's ecumenical curiosity

Church steeple.

Church steeple. (Credit: iStock)

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For my eighth birthday, what I wanted most was to go to church.

True, I was Jewish, but I didn't really know what that meant. I'd been raised without any religious training and I'd never been to an official place of worship.

Perhaps that's what made the idea so attractive.


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The little I knew about religion came from Bible programs on TV, the only shows offered on Sunday mornings. A smiling woman with a pleasant voice hosted my favorite. She held a picture book and narrated stories about Moses, Samson, David, Goliath, and Jesus, the headliner.

Churchgoing, as seen on TV, seemed intrinsic to American life, something grown up and normal. I aspired to be both. I watched those Bible programs for hours.

But we had no TV in Montauk, where my mother rented a house for the summer. It was a simple place, up above the old highway, just east of the Hither Hills campground. During World War II, the Army had used the house to scan the ocean for German submarines.

Now in the mid-1950s, it was a great place to run around barefoot. On sunny days my brother and sister and I would cross the road and walk down the bluffs to the beach, accompanied by our nanny, Mrs. Myles, a dour woman in her mid-40s who grumbled as she clambered the paths with us in her sensible shoes. On rainy days, we'd stay inside and play Candy Land.

Though our family wasn't observant, we kids enjoyed the superficial trappings of all holidays. We celebrated Hanukkah. We had a Christmas tree. We even had a little party for Lincoln's birthday, with cupcakes and hot chocolate in the cold of February. But these ecumenical festivities were not enough to quench my spiritual thirst.

So on a pleasant August Sunday, the first one after I'd turned 8, I put on long pants, a good shirt and leather shoes, and my mother and I drove to the little church down the road. My memory is a little fuzzy. It was a pretty building with a lush lawn, perhaps Montauk Community Church, though memory has blurred the details. Everyone was dressed up. I exchanged hellos with some kids I'd met at the beach.

I don't know what my mother thought of the whole thing. I wonder if she felt she was committing some kind of treason, like listening to a recruiting speech from a foreign army.

As for me, I liked the church. It was calm. People were nice. I was a bit bored, but I figured that was the price of admission.

Afterward, the minister stood in the sun outside the front door, shaking hands with each worshiper and sharing a few words. When it was our turn, after pleasantries, my mother said to him, "When you spoke, I saw a door opening."

 

Wait, I thought. What door? The only door I'd seen was the one we entered, and . . .

In the next beat, I understood that I'd just been introduced to metaphor. My mother was far from perfect, but that moment was. She had glimpsed the universal and was reporting back.

"A door opening." There might be more than one way to honor the transcendent. We might all be on the same journey.

In the years since, I've come to realize that, for better and worse, we all are.

Thomas Wynbrandt lives in Manhattan.

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