After sifting through invitations from at least 50 readers to attend at least 40 churches, I spent my Sunday morning at Forest Hill Ballantyne.
Except for a wedding or a funeral or a fact-finding mission with an ex-girlfriend who covered religion for the Observer, I haven’t gone to church for at least 30 years. I was worried I might be treated like a woman at Augusta National Golf Club. But the folks there were uniformly gracious.
I went to church because I lost a bet. After picking five straight NFL games correctly against the line on the John Boy & Billy Big Show, I picked four more NFL playoff games last week on their show and in this newspaper. To put something behind my picks, I wrote that if I didn’t pick at least three of the four correctly, I would do something out of character. For me, obviously, that was to go to church. Somehow I picked only two of four.
I wasn’t sure where to go Sunday. I grew up Catholic but wanted to try something different. Forest Hill was recommended by several readers, as was Forest Hill at Ballantyne.
So I got on the escalator, latte in hand – I won't pretend I was climbing the stairway to heaven – and walked into the Ballantyne Village Theatre. A young guy with long hair stood on a platform in the lobby and played guitar and sang songs about God and Jesus we never sang at St. Thomas the Apostle. He played well, and asked us to sing along. But I can’t sing along with Led Zeppelin. I couldn’t sing along with a lathe. So I shut up, and I’m sure the people around me appreciated it.
Folks dressed casually. Most were middle-aged or younger, and many brought children.
We moved from the lobby to theater 3, which later would show Pan’s Labyrinth. I climbed to the row next to the top, away from everybody. But the upper rows filled in the way the land around Ballantyne has. I’ve seen several films at the theater, none of which attracted a crowd this big.
David Chadwick soon filled the screen. Chadwick talked about why God allows suffering. There was no pomp or pretense to what he did. He simply talked. He’s a great writer and a good speaker and, well, I was engaged.
So it was an interesting Sunday. I’m not sure what comes next. It’s not as if I can now go out and cast the first stone.
Before I do anything, I want to say thanks. Losing a bet is a bizarre reason to go to church. Readers could have criticized me for it, but only a few did. The rest of you were wonderful. Church is personal, and so many of you wanted to share yours with me. I was at the Dowd YMCA Saturday morning (and I know how pretentious writing about going to the gym sounds) and at least five of you came up to recommend your church, four of you graciously. A man at the Davidson-Appalachian State basketball game also did.
I get hundreds of e-mails from readers who wake up angry and write to me about what their team did or failed to do or what I did or failed to. They use capital letters and rarely sign their names. I’m fine with it. Hearing from these guys is better than being ignored, and there’s always a chance that responding to their missives will keep them off the streets.
The response to the church column was vastly different. Not only did you sign your names, you offered, in many cases, to accompany me to church.
My opinion of readers has never been higher.