We stand in the middle. At a counter tugging strips of blue tape from their roll to stick in loops on the back of signs that no one reads, watching Alec carry orange traffic cones almost as tall as he is, hugging my arms around myself [it’s too warm with the pea coat on, just too cold off], sneaking into the sanctuary on an errand, savoring the warmer air before stepping back out into my place.
Alec is back inside, with a sleepy sideways smirk and mussed black hair. “Think I’m going to get some coffee,” he says as he always does. The hour of nine is too early for him. I shake my head with a smile when he asks if I want anything. Off he goes, leaving, hands shoved deep in pockets.
Luke passes through, on his way from the stage to the sound booth and back again. Bob does the same, and Karianne. I wave at them each, every time. I can be counted on for that if nothing else. I’ll get a smile in return, but they don’t stay, these goal oriented folk.
A red sign peels itself off the wall, dropping with a dull thud onto the carpet. Sigh. I push myself off the counter I was reclining against, walking forward to stoop. The laminated cardstock is harsh, unbending. Leveling the sign against the wall, I lightly pound with my fist the four corners, commanding the blue rounds to hold fast.
Stray leaves decorate the carpet like modern art, coming in from the chill, from the threat of the air-tainting leaf blowers and reflective vested bearers.
I slump again against the counter top jutting out from the wall; it’s holding stacks of tracts, habitually straightened; it’s holding me up. Alec, returned, is beside me, nursing a cup of drip from 7-11: his liquid humanity. Smiles and nods in exchange for words.
He leaves the two too tall doors propped open, welcoming the wind that carries more vestiges of autumn. We shiver together, waiting for the crowds, he with his coffee, me with a stack of bulletins.
When you think about it, our job is completely worthless. Really. I’m sure the brilliant students, faculty, staff who make it to chapel on Tuesday mornings could pick up their own bulletins and make it into the sanctuary all by their lonesome. We are extravagant accessories, invented to create a welcoming environment, to hand out folded quarter sheets, to say “Good morning” like we came up with the phrase. We smile to each other, knowing that we are useless as we watch the chapel team within the sanctuary form a circle in prayer.
Both heads turned to the left, still leaning against the counter, we wait for bodies to stroll across the street, through the construction cones Alec placed so lovingly in the midst of the road, crafting a safe zone for any possible pedestrian. And here they come, in ones, in twos, in hoards.
These crowds rush to get inside the two tall doors, an escape from fighting off a biting wind. In they come with thank yous and returned good mornings. And as quickly as they arrive, they’re leaving through a second pair of double doors, to padded pews and stained glass shadows.
But we, we stay. We do not arrive. We do not leave. We stand, pillared stabilities, tunneling the students, staff and strangers. We do our job well. Maybe not well enough, though; if we did better maybe they would stay, maybe this no man’s land between the secular and the sacred would be inhabited, maybe our wood between the worlds would deserve to be dwelt in.
Some do linger. Mostly friends, pausing for a hug and simple sentiments:
“How are you?”
“So good! And you?”
“Good. Tired. You know.”
We do know. That’s why you’ll find us stapled to that jutting counter from 9:05 until 9:21, paid two quarters over minimum wage to stand at the ready.
Others linger, hesitant, desperately gripping cell phones or watching for any sign of movement outside (is that a familiar face?), any possibility that they will not have to trudge down the aisle, slide into the straight backed pew, feel the weight of all that is holy, alone. Standing, suspended, inevitably ephemeral; knowing this is not your destination. It’s a passing place, a middle ground, a space for pause but not for staying.
Lobbies were invented for leaving.
Why not step directly from outside into the welcome embrace of the sanctuary? Why this open expanse of carpet and high ceilings and sleep student workers?
A place to catch your breath, I guess. A moment to pause before heading into the service, or to prepare before stepping back out into the cold, to be rained on by leaves.
We stand in the middle. In the middle of what looks like our entire lives, if life ends after age forty-five; one foot cemented in childhood with crayons, pretending, and nap time; the other firmly planted in the real world [but what makes it more real than this life today?] with nine to five, suburban homes, and paying taxes. We straddle the middle, in this made up span of young adulthood, these [wasted] college years.
A place to catch your breath. A moment to pause before heading into the world outside of handouts from the Bank of Mom and Dad.
So, welcome. Come inside, take a breath, take your time. No rush.
The speaker is behind the podium, those too tall doors long closed, all late comers packed away in pews. Alec is upstairs, gazing down from the balcony on the gathered mass, taking the count . I realize my humming echoes.
A literal wall stands between us and the chosen few who sacrifice time and sleep to be here on Tuesday mornings. Maybe they’re only one hundred and fifty, sometimes thirty more and sometimes twenty less, but the sanctuary shakes with their worship. Or maybe that’s just Chris’s bass turned up too loud, coursing through my rib cage to cause tremors in my lungs.
“I get paid to go to chapel;” a common brag to any friend. But there is something so wrong about this sentiment. I steal from God for these two hours per week. Sneaking behind the scenes, snatching harmonies and sermons notes, allowed an isolated service where my voice in worship drowns out Alec’s, not ashamed to sing here where no one hears.
The benediction comes too soon, and out they rush like floods, eager to get to class on time. They come as a trickle, one by one, but leave as though a damn broke, all through those two tall doors. Into the real world.
That walk between pairs of double doors will take me three years. From the warmth of the intimately familiar comfort of past into the chilling unknown of whatever lies on the other side of that black mortar board. A place for passing through, but we all know we can’t stay here forever.
Alec, broom in hand, sweeps the leaves over the threshold after those who left. Leftover bulletins, red signs since pried off the walls, blue tape acting as a bracelet, pea coated, ready to head back to the office. I stand in the middle of the doorway, looking out at the grey, looking back to receive a sideways smile in exchange for a “see you next week.” And I know I’ll stand in the middle every Tuesday morning for as many weeks as I can, stealing peace, stretching time, savoring sleepy mornings until I leave for the last time.