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City Beat November 13, 2003
Among the Baptists
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4
Luckily lots of other "newcomers" stood up, enabling me to slide by unchallenged. But the interrogation still wasn't over. No sooner had the MC ended the "newcomers" phase than he ordered us to "get to know" the people sitting next to us.

I scrunched a scared grin, the quintessential American expression, on my face and tried to chat with the cardigan-clad fellow next to me. He said he was from North Carolina, so, suave as ever, I made some idiot comment about the Andy Griffith show. He switched the subject back to me, though, asking me where I was from. I started to see why this cult is booming in the appalling, unreported loneliness of the American suburbs: they'll let you talk! At first, anyway.

I said I was from Concord, a larger suburb north of mine; he hadn't heard of it. His wife burst upon us, chatting explosively, and the chat seemed to go on for too long when the MC broke in, leading us in several hymns.

The singing was another surprise -- because it was very bad, yet done with vast confidence. The congregation stomped through the verses, unashamedly honking and bleating.

My capital-C Church had a very different attitude. My father and his brothers and sisters took singing very seriously, studying from childhood, until their singing careers were aborted by the rigors of the great, grim Church. My Uncle Jim, a Jesuit, had the greatest voice of all and could have had a career in opera, but -- a typical denouement--"the Order wouldn't let him." Singing, self-abnegation and the Church were always mixed up together. My father, who had a magnificent voice, sang every week, at every mass from 8:00 to 12:15, for a decade -- in which time Monsignor Wade never bothered to learn his name, much less thank him. That was the attitude of the Church in its prime: "You owe the Church everything, the Church owes you nothing."

These Baptists, I realized, were full of what Catholics used to call "spiritual pride." It suffused not only their singing, but their very posture and bearing. They were "plain," an adjective I always associate with Protestants, and dressed in clothes that were drab and cheap by Moscow standards--and remember, Moscow takes clothes very seriously. Plain Muscovites usually hunch through town in shame.

Yet these plain folk were shameless.So this cult gives its followers social warmth, and pride...and I was about to learn, a third, even more vital gift: drama. The drama started with "special prayers." A mixed couple, American man and Russian woman, came up carrying their baby. The MC explained that the baby was very sick and would need kidney surgery immediately. The Russian woman, though obviously terrified for her child, seemed moved by the crowd's interest -- which wasn't difficult to understand, if you compared it to the scant notice she'd get in an Orthodox parish.

There was pampering for the mild, sandy-haired American dad, too, as the Pastor explained that "the father's job is to serve as the image of God." It was impossible to imagine any child seeing this harried officeworker as God, but seeing his glory reflected in the proud smiles of the congregation, the Dad could probably believe it for a little while -- and what a blast of glory that must be in the dull round of chores and eating which is the average American's week.

The real dramatic climax came next, in the form of "testimony" by a small, nervous blonde woman introduced as "Lisa Marie" (a name that seemed even less convincing than "Tom Giffney"). The MC told us Lisa was "very shy," and she seemed it, until she started talking. She was a master orator, starting quietly: "My faith was strong all through college," she said, listing her stats: president of the Campus Fellowship, chosen to come to Russia in '92...then she paused and let the crisis build: "I found many fine Christians in Russia. And I also found someone I should have run away from. But I didn't. I ran to him. And shortly thereafter I found myself in a place I never thought I'd be in...[long dramatic pause]...and after that I found myself pregnant."

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