He always felt alone in a crowd, but never more so than in a church. He’d been to a few, all of them with high ceilings and quiet halls. His family was never what you’d call religious, but they’d fallen on hard times over the years. Troubled people are drawn to communion – like an oasis in the desert, it promises all the answers to your questions. He wondered.
The crowds were always full of loud voices, bright smiles, heads nodding solemnly. There’s never any ambiguity, any uncertainty, while someone preaches at the head of the assembly. There’s an intoxicating quality to that – the idea that someone has it all figured out, and you only need to listen. His mind wandered. Some predators can lie beneath the surface of water, perfectly still, waiting for thirsty prey to bend down for a drink. The animals know it can be dangerous, but sometimes they’re thirsty enough that they try anyway.
He wasn’t with his parents today – in fact, he didn’t know many of the people here at all. There were teachers from his school, some friends too. Another family, one they used to go camping with until they had a falling out, standing together at the front of the crowd. They seemed to be fully immersed in the sermon, swaying back and forth, hands held skyward. When do you stop pretending, and start really feeling it? Many of his classmates were similarly enraptured, occasionally shouting in affirmation, hands clasped before them. When did they stop just mimicking, start believing?
A large panel up on the stage was removed to reveal a small pool, a hot tub full of cold water. This church was newer than the others he’d been in – the carpet was less musty, the front doors were glass, automatic. The pews were still wooden though, uncomfortable – the pockets on the back of the seats that the bibles rested in had more cushioning than was afforded to the congregation. That seemed only fair, he thought.
Today they were conducting baptisms. The pastor looked out over the audience, hand outstretched. Those who felt a calling, he said, to grow closer to their lord – they should step forward. A few did, children his age. All in their bathers, as the pastor was.
Churches are places of big moments – christenings, weddings, wakes – though the real moments always happen somewhere else. You’re not born in a church, you don’t die there. You propose at a place important to you – the church is just where it becomes official. Is it just a place for paperwork, then? Filling out the tax returns of the soul? Does it feel more real when it’s you, standing knee deep in the water, being lowered beneath the surface? What if, when you come back up, nothing has changed?
Maybe it’s the same for the animal at the edge of the river, peering into the dark, looking for eyes. When it bends down to drink, is that not faith?