I was brought up within the folds of a fundamentalist Baptist church, but regularly attended Roman Catholic Mass. My Girl Scout leader had some sort of pact with the parents of Catholic Scouts: the girls could join the troop for weekend campouts, if they could get to Mass on Saturday night. So I went too.
We sat in the front pews of little mountain churches listening to the Latin inside and the wind in the pines outside. It was warm and dry compared to the wild weather we faced at our campsite. I rather liked going to Mass.
I thought my friend Anne might reciprocate by coming to church with me some Sunday morning after a sleepover, but the suggestion was quickly set aside. For some reason, she simply wasn’t allowed to go to a Baptist church. It was a sin or something.
She probably wouldn’t have liked it much, anyway. After all, for her Mass lasted an hour, tops. For us, Church included an hour of Sunday School, twenty minutes “recess,” and then a worship service that was considered “short” at 60 minutes.
The typical Sunday morning began with a scramble to eat breakfast, get dressed and get to Church with time to spare. Proper church attire was a dress for the moms and girls, suit and tie for the men. Grandmother added a hat and gloves; grandpa wore a hat. Shoes were polished on Saturday evening and left to dry overnight on a stack of newspapers.
We never walked in after the service started. One Sunday we drove up in front of the church a few minutes late. The doors were closed, the steps empty. My dad spun our Chevy Impala in a classy U-turn and we went home to spend the day quietly until we went back for the evening service. Twenty years later I noticed that my mother-in-law had no such compunctions about tardiness for Mass; any time before the sermon was fine by her.
Unlike most Catholic churches that seem to last for decades if not centuries, many protestant churches change or disappear with each passing generation. My old church, Bethany Baptist of Whittier, California, merged with nearby congregations in the mid-1970’s. Today, the property is home to the vibrant Zoe Christian Fellowship who worships in word, song, and dance. This short film shows that the main sanctuary hasn’t changed much since I attended in the 1960’s and 70’s, except for the addition of the big-screen monitors.
A typical Sunday in our Baptist family included Sunday School and Worship Service in the morning, followed by the evening service. This was a more relaxed meeting, often featuring special music, a religious film, or a talk by missionaries.
The missionary talks were incredible. Earnest men told stories about facing hostile natives in the South American jungle or saving orphans in China. Our congregation supported several missionary families all over the world; they had to be gifted speakers, the collection plate was their paycheck.
It wasn’t only the service that was different from Catholic Mass. The pews were all comfy padded benches, the better to keep you in your seat for those two-hour services. And, your feet were unrestricted by kneeling benches. Baptists didn’t kneel in church. Even the wooden hymnal racks were different, sporting little round cut-outs for the communion cups (Communion = Holy Eucharist in Baptist-speak).
We only used those tiny glass cups once a month for the regular communion ritual, the symbolic sharing of the Last Supper. The first time my cradle-Catholic husband was present for Communion Sunday, he was surprised by the “bread and wine.” Our “bread” was typically broken saltine crackers; the wine was usually sweet grape juice. The bread was sent around first, passed up and down the pews in a tray for each person to take a piece. When everyone was served, the pastor said a blessing and the congregation ate the bread at the same time.
The little glass cups (that really do resemble a miniature jigger) were assembled in a large round tray especially made for the purpose. Each tray held 25 or so cups and was sent up and down the pews by the ushers. We took the cup and held it until everyone was served. After a blessing, the entire congregation tilted their head and drank at the same time. The little cups were placed in the special hole on the hymn rack and collected later by the ushers.
When we said we were “going to Church” we might mean any number of things. We could be attending a Sunday Morning Worship Service, but we might also be washing cars with the teen group or participating in some other activity held on the church property.
Catholics, I’ve noticed, don’t so much “go to Church” as they “go to Mass.” It’s very clear there will be no car washing, no lunching, no meeting when Mass is mentioned. Other activities may occur at the Church, Parish, or Pastoral Center, but Mass is Mass.
Now, on Sundays I am honored to go to Mass at St. Andrew Parish in Pasadena, and frequently attend meetings and events at the Parish, but when I visit my parents I do enjoy joining them as we all go to Church.
If you suspect a few Protestants in your family tree, watch letters and documents for use of give-away vocabulary: Church instead of Mass, Pastor rather than Priest, and Communion instead of Eucharist.