A Year in the Life: Sundays with Marilee
By Kyran Pittman
On the second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020, I brought my mom, Marilee, with me to church. We sat on the left side of the nave, about half way back, in the sunlit, whitewashed sanctuary of what I’d described to her as a little village church deep in the heart of the city. My husband and I had moved our family to New Orleans from Arkansas in June, and after a long search had finally found our place in The Free Church of the Annunciation.
I savored every second of that sacred hour, knowing how much she would love the spirited music, wondering what she thought of the preaching, and eager to introduce her to those around us, whose names I was getting to know, but who already treated me as one of their own. I remember the joy of singing with her. The enveloping warmth of her arms at the Peace. The holiness of my body next to her body, where I was seen and known before I was born. The foreshadowing you now read into this memory was not there, only the poignancy of knowing there were just two days left of her visit before she was due to fly on to Florida to visit her sister, then back to Newfoundland, the place I grew up and rashly left over 25 years ago. The soonest I could expect to see my mother in person again was six months. We spoke hopefully of a Thanksgiving visit, even as concerns began to rise over the new virus spreading abroad and inching closer.
I remember her being wistful getting into the car after the service. She wanted to stay for coffee hour, but my son was antsy to get home, and we capitulated to teenage restlessness. The next day, we capped off her visit with an epic lunch at the renowned New Orleans restaurant where my oldest son is learning to cook. It was a sacrament in itself. Whereas our spiritual journeys have led us down divergent paths over the years, my mom and I have always been single-minded in our worship of good food. We were still raving about it an hour later when we collided with a car in my blindspot. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but I was shaken. I had literally not seen it coming. There’s your foreshadowing.
The next Sunday, I sat alone in my pew, weeping as our cellist played Amazing Grace. It’s not a hymn that usually gets to me, but in the few days since putting my mom on the plane, the mystery virus was no longer something looming at a distance. As fast as that car had sped up beside me, the pandemic was here. My teenager’s high school had closed on Friday, my oldest son was anxious about his restaurant job, and my nerves were stretched like a rubber band between both coasts. I was desperate for updates from my middle son, posted in California with his Americorps team. My mom and aunt’s annual snowbird summit in Florida was suddenly an emergency evacuation effort. There was talk of borders closing and airlines halting operations. What if they couldn’t get home? What if Mom became sick with this terrifying illness? What if my son did? What if. What if. What. If.
Was it grace that taught my heart to fear? Maybe. I wept with wordless foreboding, at the edge of a shadow falling, the reach of which I mercifully couldn’t see. I wept with gratitude that I could at least still go to church and take communion.
It would be 217 days before I entered that room again, to help fetch prayer books for our first in-person Sunday service held on the lawn on October 18. For over 30 Sundays, our red doors were shut, the sunlight streaming through the frosted glass onto empty, silent pews. But catastrophes aren’t the only things that can blindside us. Miracles have a way of sneaking up too. For almost every one of those Sundays, my mother has come to church with me online.
My mom, who long ago abandoned the anguished effort of trying to make her outsize heart and expansive mind fit into the cramped theology she inherited as a child, eagerly tunes into our YouTube channel for the live service every week. My mom, who taught me everything I know and ever need to know about God–which is that God is Love–now asks me questions about the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. My mom, who has for many years cultivated a daily meditation practice, is discovering ways of weaving threads of Christianity back into her rich spirituality. My mom–from whom I have lived nearly 3,000 miles apart for more than half of my lifetime, whose hands I can’t hold, to whose side I can’t travel –comes to church with me on Sundays.
How precious, grace.
Our first online service was held March 22, the same day my mother arrived safely home, thanks to a rescue operation deployed by my cousins. Our rector was also the vicar of Mount Olivet parish on New Orleans’ West Bank, so he ushered us all into one virtual lifeboat and began live streaming worship from his home every Sunday at 10. I had happened to join his staff part-time as Discipleship and Evangelism coordinator about five minutes before the lockdown, so in the absence of any clear way to make myself useful, I proposed hosting a weekly coffee chat on Zoom. We thought it would be a stretch to keep people engaged for an entire hour, so we planned for 30 minutes and called it Half-Caff.
My mom almost never misses it. As much as I love knowing she is following the liturgy with me and getting to later rehash the sermon with her, coffee hour (which it usually winds up being) is my very favorite part of going to church with my mother in this strange season. Now that we’re live streaming in-person services from the sanctuary and on the lawn, I’m usually running late to Zoom. When I log in, mom is already deep in discussion with the others who have become her church family as much as mine. This little raft of ours bobbing through space is a holy and beloved place where I get to be in community with my mom, to pray with her, to delight in her presence.
There are others we have picked up in these troubled waters. Former parishioners who moved away, and never found a new church to love and be loved in (as an Episcopal evangelist, I’m sad to say we let this happen all too often). Elders and people with health issues for whom attending church in person is challenging even in ordinary times. People who are grateful for a faith community that can meet them where they are, how they are. I wonder what we are to do with these people when the rest of us are comfortably back in our church buildings and parish halls. What Jesus would have us do.
I joke that I have a hokey-pokey relationship with the Church. A whole foot in, a whole foot out. I’m one of the people I think of as straddlers. Straddling the century, the millennium, the margins of “in” and “out,” “before” and “after.” Maybe you are too. I suspect many of us drawn to evangelism are. I’m beginning to think God has a design in mind for us straddlers. We are pretty good at pulling people into the boat. We are good with not knowing exactly where the boat is pointed every given moment. Let the navigators navigate. Won’t the one who brought us safe so far also lead us home?
Meantime, I’m counting heads, passing the thermos, and taking prayer requests all night long. And discovering there is so much more room in this boat than we knew. Room for me, room for you, room for my mom.
Kyran Pittman works for and worships with The Free Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans, where life is a wonderful wobbling balance of feast and fast.