Since living in Santa Fe, my partner John and I have been attending a very friendly, small church, the Center for Spiritual Living. Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. Our handsome, boisterous and intelligent Reverend Bernardo was taking a much-needed weekend off and so a guest speaker had been appointed. As always, the opening session included an invitation for visitors and guests to stand and introduce themselves. A beautiful young couple, with a brand new baby, stood. The handsome young father, in a suit jacket and tie, turned to his wife and, placing a hand gently on their baby girl’s head, said, “We are looking for a community for our new baby daughter.” They were welcomed with a warm burst of applause.
But then, sadly, the guest speaker, about ten minutes into his rather self-centered talk, admonished them because their baby was whimpering. Clearly, he wanted to remain the center of attention. A few minutes later, he shook his head, “tisked, tisked,” them, and asked them to leave. “It makes it very hard for me to speak,” he said.
The baby had not been howling, not even crying, truly she was barely whimpering. The couple left immediately, feeling embarrassed, chastised, and thrust out. John and I were aghast. This was Mother’s Day, after all! Several other people also left. I walked out the door at the back of the room and met them as they were leaving the building. I apologized profusely, asking them, “PLEASE come back when Reverend Bernardo is here.” Several of us assured them that the guest speaker’s attitude did not reflect the congregation’s. The young father said to me, “It’s such a contradiction – talking about this being a safe and sacred space.”
My heart aches for this couple – the young father, who had dressed with such care and respect, wanting to make his wife’s first Mother’s Day such a special occasion; the young mother, in tears, feeling humiliated and unwelcome. Even the baby’s face was anguished. I could not help but think of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus trying to find “room at the inn” in Jerusalem.
I regret that the entire congregation didn’t rise immediately to their defense. I regret that John and I didn’t leave with them and offer to treat them to breakfast. I regret that I didn't get their names and address so I could be sending them this letter.
When my own daughter Sarah was barely walking, I regularly attended a small, intimate Episcopal church in South Dakota. My own mother was hundreds of miles way in Colorado. I had no immediate family to help shoulder the responsibilities of motherhood. But Father Pete was quite liberal, in both thought and action, with Reverend Bernardo’s same warmth and intelligence, and he believed that church should be a “home away from home” for everyone, including the tiny children. If a toddler fussed during service, he encouraged the parents to put the child down and let them wander the room unrestrained.
Once in a while, Sarah would want down from my lap. She would quietly toddle around from pew to pew. Occasionally, someone would hold out their arms to her and she would climb up and settle in for a few minutes. But more often than not, she would be drawn to Father Pete’s deep melodious voice and would wander up to the alter area, where she would sit quietly at Father Pete’s feet while he talked, gazing up at him without uttering a sound. Usually, within a few minutes, she would toddle quietly back to the pews and find her way back to my lap.
Shouldn't we be able to make room in our hearts for young parents whose own families may be hundreds or thousands of miles away? If Reverend Bernardo had been there, he would have found a way to ease this young parents' dilemma. But no reverend or minister can tend to the flock all the time. We must be willing to rise to the occasion when the occasion warrants. Next time, I will not quietly leave. I will take the whole congregation with me, outside among the sprouting spring trees and the rosy breasted finches building nests in preparation of the coming of the next generation.