Take Me To Church

A post-9/11 quest for religion takes a side turn

I had decided that I was going to go to church. It was the spring of 2002, and I was having an existential reckoning of sorts. September 11th had happened, which changed everything and nothing. I had been living in NYC for over three years and had put together a good life. I was an investment banker. I worked all the time, upwards of 80 hours a week, but I liked my job and I made good money. I had great friends, who I could rope into any adventure, and who I could count on to rope me in too.

A year prior I had moved downtown, to my very own place, a studio apartment on West 8th Street. It was a walk up, above the TLA Video store. In this pre-Netflix era, the store was a mecca for movie lovers, with a steady flow of film students from nearby NYU. It had a massive catalog of movies, sorted by sub-genre into categories such as “Screwball Romantic Comedies” and “Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi”. I had asked a guy who worked there, one of those guys who knew everything about every movie ever made, to create a list for me of “classic movies that you think I should have seen already”. I was working my way through his recommendations: Chinatown, Rear Window, The French Connection, Out of Africa… The characters in these films did meaningful things. They did things with emotion. They felt the significance of things. I wasn’t sure that my life had enough of that. It struck me that maybe what I needed in my life was religion.

I had grown up going to the Perinton Presbyterian Church, with my family. We went to services every Sunday, and for the hour before the service, I went to Sunday School. My dad was my Sunday School teacher one year. He decided that instead of following the pre-printed curriculum packets he received from the church, our class was going to be based entirely on biblical passages relating to King Nebuchadnezzar, with a particular focus on the story of the Ark of the Covenant. My dad had some good reasons for choosing this story. Number one, just as he loved challenging me and my siblings to correctly pronounce and spell such words as Worcestershire and Skaneateles, my dad found great joy in asking every kid in the Sunday School class to say and spell the word Nebuchadnezzar. Number two, studying the story of the Ark of the Covenant gave my dad a legitimate tie-in to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He incorporated clips from that movie into several of our class sessions. We spent many weeks of the class constructing our own Arks of the Covenant. Mine was a spectacular vision of gold.

After church my family would go to Dunkin’ Donuts to get a treat. I always got a coffee roll, which is essentially a cinnamon roll encased in glaze like a donut.

My brother would protest every week. “Mom said we could get any donut we want. That’s not a donut.”

He was not wrong about that. The coffee roll was not in the Donut category on the Dunkin’ Donuts menu. It was a Fancy. Fancies cost 30 cents more than regular donuts.

My mom would say, “Christopher, leave your sister alone. She can get a coffee roll.” Ha.

One time, my brother ordered an apple fritter. That was also a Fancy. I made sure that everyone acknowledged his hypocrisy.

My religion wasn’t iron clad, but I knew that I loved church. The ritual of dressing up on a Sunday morning, and getting a treat afterward. And I loved singing along to church hymns. When you’re singing in a group, you can really belt it out and no one judges you. I think I also just liked the idea of showing up somewhere and having people simply be happy for me to join them, and not because they were waiting for me at the office to log some weekend work. So it followed that what I needed to do to inject more meaning into my life was to go to church.

I knew exactly which church I would go to. The First Presbyterian Church on 5th avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. It was a beautiful Gothic Revival building set back from the sidewalk behind wrought iron gates and green gardens. It was exactly what a city church should be. It was only a few blocks from my apartment. I often walked by on Sundays and saw all the people dressed for church. They really did wear their Sunday best. They wore hats on Easter.

It was set in my mind. The next weekend would be the weekend that I started going to church. I would attend the 11:00 am Sunday morning service. After church, I would walk over to the The Grey Dog on Carmine, to get a blueberry corn muffin.

My friend Shubha called me Saturday afternoon to see if I wanted to go out that night.

“Sure,” I said, “but I can’t stay out late, because I’m going to church in the morning.”

I called up our friend Katherine, who was going out with our other friend Kelly that night in the Village. We all met up for dinner at the Sushisamba on 7th Avenue. We drank mojitos. I ordered a side of the wasabi mashed potatoes all for myself. I had religion for those wasabi mashed potatoes.

After dinner, Katherine said, “Do you guys want to go get a drink somewhere?”

”Sure,” I said, “but I can only stay for one drink, because I’m going to church in the morning.”

We debated where to go. Kelly suggested Barrow Street Ale House. Nobody had a better idea. At Barrow Street, Kelly got us a pitcher of beer, and some guys came over and started talking to us. One of them caught my attention. His name was Charlie. He was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. I told him about my plan to go to church. He liked it.

Shubha came over to tell me that the other girls were going downstairs with the other guys in the group, to play darts.

“Do you play darts?” I asked her with amusement.

She chose to view my question as rhetorical. “Are you coming down?” she asked.

”I think I’ll stay up here with him. He’s a nice guy.”

”You get so excited about nice guys,” Shubha said.

She was not wrong about that.

A few rounds of darts later, they all came back upstairs, where Charlie and I were still engrossed in conversation. Charlie’s friends called him over, so he went to talk to them and then came back over to me.

“We’re going to a party at our friend’s place,” he said. “Why don’t you come?”

”I can’t,” I responded. “I’m going to go home after I finish this drink, so I’m in good shape for church in the morning.”

“Then I’ll meet you at church tomorrow.”

“Really?” I asked.

“I want to go to church with you.” He smiled. It was cute.

So I gave him the details of the church service, and my cell phone number. There was no texting back then, but we did have cell phones. I had a little red Nokia.

Charlie left with his friends. I sat back down with my girlfriends.

Katherine said, “Should I get one more pitcher?”

Everyone said yes except for me. “I really shouldn’t,” I protested. “I should go home…”

”Because you are going to church in the morning!” they all finished for me in unison.

”Just hang out with us a little longer,” said Shubha. So I stayed. We talked and laughed, the four of us. Another group of guys came over at one point. Kelly turned them away.

“We’re not staying long,” she said, “because she has to go to church in the morning,” pointing to me.

Three hours and five pitchers later, the bar was closing, and we all walked out together. My apartment was on the way to Shubha’s so we walked together unsteadily, laughing, until we got to my door.

“That was so fun,” I said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” It was nearly 4am and I was exhausted. I set my alarm to get up for church. Or maybe I didn’t. I’m not sure.

I woke up the next day. I looked at my phone, and had 3 voicemails. Weird, I thought, who would call me on a Sunday morning? I dialed into voicemail.

The first message: “Hi! It’s Charlie. I’m outside, I’m a few minutes early, don’t see you yet but I’m standing right in front of the main gate.”

My heart skipped. I didn’t think he’d actually go to church. In my experience up until then, guys in New York didn’t tend to show up.

The second message: “Hey, Charlie again. I hope I didn’t miss you — I’m on 5th avenue right by the front entrance.”

My heart started pounding. Could I still catch him? I looked at the clock. It was already a little after noon. Too late.

The third message: “Hey, so I guess maybe you went in already. Or maybe this is the wrong church. Or maybe you didn’t come. Ok. Bye.”

My heart sank. He went to church. And I wasn’t there. What had I missed out on?

I called Shubha, who answered drowsily after six rings. My words spilled out rapidly. “He went to church and I didn’t. I’m so embarrassed.”

“Wait, what? Who went to church?”

“Charlie. The guy. From the bar.”

“No way! He actually went? That’s amazing.”

“I know, but I didn’t go. I overslept. I missed him.”

“Did you call him? What did he say?”

“No I didn’t call him. I can’t call him.”

“Why not? He went to church. You were right, he’s a nice guy.”

“I know, but he came for the girl who decided to go to church on a Sunday so she could have more meaning in her life. He didn’t come for the girl who thought about going to church, but then stayed out too late with her friends and didn’t manage to show up.”

“Well I still think you could call him.”

I sighed, and she sighed. “Meet up later for coffee?” she asked.

“Yep,” I said. “I’ll call you later.”

I thought about what I would say to him if I called. Was there a way to apologize? Explain? What explanation could possibly make up for standing him up on a Sunday morning, at church, when it was my idea to go in the first place? I wondered for a long time after that what would have happened if I’d gone to church that day.

But I didn’t call him. I deleted the three voicemail messages, and Charlie’s number. I was too embarrassed. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I called my dad instead.

“Hey Dad,” I said, my voice instantly quavering when he answered.

”What’s new?” he asked casually. My dad was the kind of guy who would know that I was crying and react accordingly, without ever explicitly acknowledging that I was crying.

“Well, I was going to go to church today, but I stayed out too late last night with my friends and I didn’t go.”

“Oh.” he said comfortingly. “Well that’s ok. You can go to church next week.”

“I guess I can.” I sighed.

“Did you have fun with your friends?”

“Yeah, we had a really good time.”

“Well then it was worth it. You’ll go to church another time.”

“Hey Dad? Do you still have my Ark of the Covenant?”

“Of course! That thing was a golden masterpiece. I have it out in the garage. You want me to send it to you?”

“Nah,” I said. “Just hang on to it, ok? I might want it later.”

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker