The unrealized hope of a ‘Starbucks parent’

Responding to Patrick Hall’s Daily Episcopalian post about “Starbucks parents” who drop their kids off for Sunday School and then skip church themselves, Melissa Holloway offers a compelling piece about the unwelcoming nature of too many of our churches:

I was a “Starbucks Parent.” Well, not Starbucks; we would take the free

coffee and retreat to the little garden area and use the time to enjoy each

other’s company. We have more money now; today, it would definitely be Starbucks.

The church had a Royal School of Church Music choir. Singing that music

changed my children. It transformed the whole family, I think. Looking

back, I wonder why we thought they needed to go to Sunday School as well.

But I know for sure why we retreated to ourselves with the coffee in that

little garden space.

We got tired of being treated as invisible.

It is an experience I have had over the years in a variety of places in

churches over a range of theological stances. Unfortunately for me, and I

guess unfortunately for the Kingdom of God, it has been a uniquely

Episcopalian experience.

Even now I find it difficult to describe in words. One can walk down the

Sunday School hallways or be finding a place to sit in church and encounter

a face that is familiar. Familiar because the same people seem to sit in

the same section of the nave or even familiar because you might have

substituted in the Sunday School class together some time ago. There is

often a moment when you would expect your eyes to meet the eyes of the

other person, and it would seem a slight smile, a nod of the head or some

small sign of recognition would be appropriate. Just in that very instant,

the other person becomes significantly interested in perhaps the colorful

bulletin board or maybe the stained glass windows that apparently happen to

be in view just behind your head. Better even if there is someone that

other person knows well and is delighted to see farther in the distance

behind you. It is the experience of being looked through – as if one wasn’t there – as if one was invisible.

See, sometimes I still buy my clothes at thrift stores, and at that time we

drove older model cars and we couldn’t afford to get the little dings

fixed. No question that we could ever afford the church school, or to buy

a house in the elite neighborhood where most of the members lived. I guess

you could look at me and tell those kind of things.

Funny thing though, how the experience has endured. Over the years I think

we’ve actually accrued a little cultural capital. Yet, the days we were

returning from my spouse’s stint teaching at a European university – where he taught of all things, at a seminary – our luggage lost, sleeping on a

bare floor in an empty house, our first Sunday in the United States in a

long time – we showed up at church. I still shudder for the sake of the

church I do love, to recall, at the Peace, a manicured hand in mine, a

voice and eyes – yes, looking through me – seeking the one, just over my

shoulder with the words, “I like your hair.”

And of my children? The ones who went to Sunday School while we drank

coffee? The ones whose minds and hearts were formed by that profound

tradition of music particular to our church? My daughter called me on the

phone just about a year ago. She attends a small liberal arts college in

the same town where she went to high school and has continued singing in

the same church choir. Instead of finishing at the local Episcopal school,

however, she opted to spend her last official year of high school attending

the local community college and perhaps that is the reason, in the end,

that she doesn’t belong. I shudder again, and for this daughter I love,

this time with anger, to recall her dear 18-year-old voice saying to me,

speaking, I regret, of the clergy, “After two years seems like they could

just recognize my face. I love this music and will always sing it, but I

am done with their religion.”

So I offer a response to Rev’d Hall’s piece. While my spouse and I

dropped off our kids because we were tired of being invisible, maybe those

Rev’d Hill speaks of whose cars aren’t dented and who go to Starbuck’s, go

because they weary of all that it takes, in fact, to NOT be invisible.

Maybe they weary of the burden of the calculus of the rules of the community

about who is to be seen and who is to be unseen. And clerics should

wonder if those rules are altogether so righteous. My experience says it is

not so often that the church stands against a hostile culture, but that

the church, especially our Episcopal church, is not so different from it.

Let the staff meetings be wary of lurking arrogant piety.

And why do they drop the children off?

There are other possibilities. Sometimes nowadays, I do rub shoulders

with that middle class who might be Episcopalian. For one, they can afford

babysitters and child care on their own. For two, maybe clerics in staff

meetings don’t know it, but there are plenty of avenues of ‘good values’ out

there in the secular world.

Despite my own rather ragged uneven experience of church as community, I

still believe that the church is the one place we hope to find transcendence,

to find mystery, to find beauty, to believe in love. I believe that no

matter how mucked up church can get, those things somehow persist. Maybe,

we parents who have done/do the dropping off have an irrational hope, that

even though our experience denies it, church is the home of the

transcendent and we are slow to deny that to our children. It seems so

very human to hope against the odds that the good we may not have found for

ourselves might be found for our children. Maybe it is not unrepentant

out-sourcing, maybe it is more brave hope.

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