I’ve said it before, I will say it again: I love church ladies.
When I was a kid, a church grandma named Mrs. Little used to sit on the left-hand side (the choir side) of the sanctuary, about 4 rows back. Every Sunday of the world she brought–I kid you not–a purse full of candy. Yes you heard that right. A Purse. Full. of Candy. Needless to say, she was popular amongst the young crowd. She would sit down and unzip that purse, and it was all Jesus ‘let the children come to me’ up in there. Probably not quite the free-for-all that I am remembering, 30-some years later, but…let’s just say, that was a crowded pew.
There were peppermint and butterscotch hard candies, always. And, on occasion–toffee! The good Brach’s kind in the shiny, colorful wrappers. I associate that taste with my childhood sanctuary, far more than the taste of the mail-order, styrofoam communion bread.
I’m sure it was a small thing for Mrs. Little to buy a few dollars’ worth of candy and stock that purse each week. But it was a large gesture of love that made me–and others, I’m sure–feel a sense of belonging in a space otherwise exclusively designed for grown ups. There was red (RED) carpet; a big ol’ organ; there were red velvet pews and towering stain glass windows older than Moses. But all around Mrs. Little hung an air of welcome, and the promise of something sweet.
In the pews around her, and in other churches since, I’ve seen many an open purse serve as an invitation to the life of community: the tissue, handed with impeccable timing to that first time guest who weeps through communion, overwhelmed by the unexpected welcome to the table; the cough drop for that person who probably should have stayed home, but didn’t; the ink pen, for that worn looking person who really needs to write down their prayer request. Sometimes, an innocuous looking hand bag can bear wonders of mythic proportion. I’m talking, healing for lepers, loaves and fishes for the masses and– somehow–communion, all at the same time.
The children of Foothills will be talking about their own Mrs. Littles someday… One in particular, who carries in her purse, always, a stash of sticker books and paper dolls. She bestows them upon the tiny masses with indiscriminate generosity. But mostly, she hands them to children who are waiting, in the way that children wait…which is to say, badly.
Here’s the thing–the child is probably waiting because Marty–the keeper of the sticker purse–is talking to the parents. If they are new, she is getting to know them, telling them all about Foothills, and making sure they feel noticed and welcomed. If they are, say, the preacher’s kids, she is talking about some very important up and coming thing, or some new person who needs to be included, or just checking in about a shut in who needs a visit.
While she goes about doing the business of the church–otherwise known as the business of Jesus–the kids have stickers. And paper dolls. Because they are important and welcomed, because they matter, and because no child should be made to wait for boring grown up things to happen before they can be made to feel a part of community.
Kids matter. Ladies with generous purses know this far better than Christian publishing companies that market and sell ‘children’s ministry,’ as though it is something that comes in a book (or, often, in a can). They know it better than so many of us who give the children a line item in the budget, a cry room off the sanctuary, and a week of camp every summer and call it a program “to welcome kids and young families.” These women, with their abundant candy and stickers, chap stick and tissues, ink pens and cough drops–they carve out a person-sized place in the seat next to them, for any who will come and receive it…long after we’ve outgrown the candy (but do we ever outgrow the candy?)
Their benediction comes a little worn, with maybe some lint stuck to it, but make no mistake–it is the very grace of God, pulled up from the depths of tan frayed lining.