An Unholy Sabbath: Their Need Is Great, And I, Too Small

This is a confession, of sorts.

When my fiancé, Edward, and I moved to South Brooklyn a few months ago from our respective Manhattan apartments, we bought coordinating throw pillows, joined the local library and deciphered which cuts of pork we wanted from the local Italian butcher. In all of this domestic arrangement, it seemed inevitable that we should settle ourselves into a nearby congregation and attend a church service now and again.

This past long weekend was the perfect opportunity to make our inaugural visit, and so after much debate about the proper arrival time, we stepped into the sanctuary of an Episcopal church at 10:56 a.m., four minutes before the service was to begin. There were three people seated. An elderly gentleman, a greeter, introduced himself. I’ll call him Bob, as his diminutive stature, gentle manner and sartorial choice of flannel shirt tucked into belted slacks put me in mind of my grandfather.

A sad, hopeful look crossed Bob’s face when we entered. It reminded me of a puppy at the pound, eagerly wagging its tail while its eyes pleaded: Don’t leave! A few more people arrived in the moments before the service began, including another young couple new to the neighborhood but not the city (as evidenced by her woolly scarf and his heavy-rimmed glasses) and a young woman just arrived from a Midwestern college (as evidenced by her Old Navy khakis and prim side part). By the reception they received from Bob, they were all obviously visitors like us. All told, we were 20 people sprinkled throughout a spectacularly beautiful-and immense-sanctuary when the priest, a large middle-aged fellow who may or may not have had bottle-blond hair, began the service. It was lovely-or not; I was so distracted it was hard to tell. Among all that ornate marble swathed in white for Lent, and by the jewel-toned light filtering through the stained-glass windows, our paltry showing seemed a sad spectacle.

It was becoming clear what this small, struggling parish saw in us, the five fresh-faced Sunday newcomers: salvation. Never mind what we were looking for.

The priest waited until the end to announce what I had dreaded from the start: Everyone should please exit the side door to partake in coffee and cake after the service. Edward inched his elbow into my side, slowly, so as not to alert the couple behind us. I looked at him sidelong, furrowing my brow to mean: “Grab your coat and dart out the back as soon as the coast is clear.” Edward nodded.

With the organ postlude omitted for the spare Lenten service, it was difficult to know without a musical cue exactly when to leap up and run, but I saw movement in the back from the corner of my eye: The other couple was making a break for it. Through clenched teeth, I hissed: ” Now.”

We were just crossing the threshold when Bob snagged us.

“Won’t you please sign our registry and give us your address so we can let you know if we have events coming up?” he whimpered. I looked ahead as the other couple pushed through the inner set of doors, on their way to freedom. Bob saw me looking, and his eyes widened. He turned and took a step toward them, but then, realizing we’d be left unattended and free to escape, he stopped and pleaded after them: “Wait! The priest is coming! Oh, wouldn’t you like to speak with the priest?”

The doors swung closed. They’d made it. Bob turned back to us, and as the set of his lips twisted in disappointment, I knew I could deny this man nothing further. I might recycle future mailings or dodge invitations to discussions groups, but I was much too cowardly to admit it to his face.

I went for the registry book and was calculating just how sinful it would be to give a false phone number when, like an Easter-morning miracle, the priest suddenly appeared at our side, smoothing his black robes. Perhaps 20 seconds had passed since he’d marched out of view-I imagined him throwing his special (break-away?) white Lenten vestments to the acolytes before sprinting up the aisle.

He turned to address Bob. “What about the other couple?” he demanded, his voice rising querulously. “Where did the other couple go?”

Bob took a step backward. “I don’t know …. I, I tried to stop them, but …. ”

“Chase them!” the priest shouted. “Chase them!”

Bob made for the door, but it was too late-the couple had vanished. The priest, perhaps noticing my white-knuckled grip on Edward’s arm, laughed. “They must have been scared off by the incense,” he said with a grin, like we were all in on a big non-denominational joke. Then the smile disappeared.

“Did one of you call here yesterday?” he demanded.

“I did,” a voice behind us said, and a tiny flame of hope licked my brain. It was the single Midwestern woman, who must have been behind us all the while.

“Ah, good,” the priest said, satisfied that the caller had not been one of the escapees. “Let me tell you a little about this church.” A recitation of the history of the parish, the building and the stained-glass windows (very impressive), and a hard-sell description of the two-and-a-half-hour Easter eve service with subsequent feast (“a real blowout with legs of lamb and great haunches of beef”), followed.

“Well,” said the priest, almost like a suitor at the end of a first date, “would you all like to grab a cup of coffee?”

There was a moment of silence, and I knew that I was going to do something very bad and very inappropriate.

“Actually,” Edward said, stepping forward, “today is Heather’s birthday, so we really have to run to go meet some friends.” This is what I like to call a half-truth, but what my Sunday school teachers of yore would have categorized as a lie: It was, in fact, my birthday, but we had no plans to meet anyone for several hours. It worked, however, miraculously well, and everyone wished me a happy birthday as the seas began to part and we inched toward the door. Freedom was but a few steps away.

And yet, somehow, the thing that had welled up inside me, the bad thing I knew I was going to have to do, was not diminished. There was something about their innocent hunger-for our attendance, for our youth, for our souls-that, while holy and wholesome, made me unwilling to yield. Their need was too great, and I was too small. Everyone seemed to be looking at me expectantly. “Well, Edward and I have to run,” I said, turning to the single woman. “But maybe you’d like to stay?”

Our eyes locked for a moment. Forgive me, I prayed, I know not what I do. Edward ushered me toward the door as the woman gave her faltering reply; her tone made it apparent that she knew she’d just been made my sacrificial lamb. “Maybe just five minutes,” we heard her say as the door closed behind us.

We were a full block away before either of us spoke. “I cannot believe you,” Edward whispered without breaking stride. “Why in God’s name did you give them our real number?”

Heather Larson is an editor at Absolute magazine. An Unholy Sabbath: Their Need Is Great, And I, Too Small