If you would have told eight-year-old me that I would one day choose sleeping in and doing homework over going to church on a Sunday, she probably would have recited every Bible verse she could remember in front of you before explaining that she loves to sing all the gospel songs just to prove you wrong. Raised in a faith filled household, I never suspected that I would have difficulty finding a community of fellow believers since I was surrounded by them through Bible study groups, prayer meetings, Vacation Bible School, youth group, and was of course joined by other Christians on Sunday mornings. But lounging in my pajamas while deciding what to eat for brunch was something I adopted as my new normal on Sundays during my freshman year. There was no fault in my lazy Sundays; however, this wasn’t the routine I had wanted. I had tried to find a church I enjoyed.
Church hunting ended up being more underwhelming than I had anticipated. As a non-denominational person of faith, I was puzzled when I discovered that there were little to no Christian bodies not tied to a denomination in Ithaca. With every church I visited, I always left with a longer list of things I did not enjoy compared to the aspects of the congregation that I liked. Whether it be dull preaching, sleepy worship music, a lack of fellowship, or the sense that I was somehow being involved in something political without my permission, I ended my search for a church discouraged.
Without any success and with my weekends consumed with homework, Sundays became a day for sleeping and studying. I didn’t mind this new change in the beginning. But it gradually led to a hollow feeling that I was becoming increasingly comfortable at the thought of giving up on a pursuit I highly valued: finding community outside of Cornell. Entering my sophomore year, my new top priority was to discover a church full of members I could grow close to and national Back-to-Church Sunday posed itself as the ideal opportunity.
The Saturday night before Back-to-Church Sunday, I browsed my closet in search of the perfect outfit with a million little comments and questions cluttering my head. The various phrases could have been delivered by a fashion critic or a conservative parent. Too plain. Too wrinkled. Too revealing. Too casual. Does this church have a dress code? Is this length appropriate? Will there be attendants in jeans? Can I wear my sneakers? Or is this my chance to finally wear my wedges?
I grew up in congregations where people presented themselves however they believed to be best fit on Sunday mornings. This always made the sanctuary a diverse mix of tank tops, shorts, dresses, polos, ties, and oxfords. While my background gave me no reason to fear, my unfamiliarity with the church community of Ithaca, paired with my previous attempts to find a church home near Cornell, worried me. I later decided I would enjoy myself and dress up knowing that on any other day I would be swallowed by a hoodie with my hair pulled back. After resolving my clothing issue, I headed to bed and prayed that I would wake up to my alarm.
I didn’t. I woke up at nine in the morning annoyed by the fact that I only had an hour before the church shuttle would arrive near my dorm. With my unofficial concentration in the art of taking forever to get dressed, I did my absolute best to pace myself as the horror of walking in late, in the middle of a sermon, would be enough to make me want to fade into a wall. I worked against the odds and found myself standing outside, across CTB, ready to aboard the church shuttle. I was right on time yet I did not see any other vehicle except for a white bus full of students. Maybe this was it? I nearly skipped up the steps of the bus until I saw a slew of people armed with backpacks making their way into the vehicle. Why so many backpacks? Would we be completing our assignments while the Pastor was preaching? Haha. I concluded that the bus must be for a Cornell related function and decided to uber to the church instead to prevent the dreaded mid-sermon entrance from becoming a reality.
Once I arrived to the church, I recognized the white bus in the parking lot from minutes before. I took a deep breath and walked through the church doors. People were conversing amongst themselves and appeared to be friendly towards one another. In the middle of wandering through the lobby, an elder startled me with a “Good morning young lady! Coffee and doughnuts downstairs. Welcome!” And with that, I made my way to the sanctuary and settled down at a pew. As I waited for the service to start, a young graduate student approached me.
“Is anyone sitting next to you?” She asked. I told her the seat was empty. In an instant, she was by my side and sharing that this was her first time visiting this congregation and that she too had been church hunting. Behind me and my acquaintance was a pair of Ithaca College students who were also visiting. I couldn’t help but smile with the realization that as a college student, I was not alone in my desire to find a church family. Once I turned back to my seat, service began with worship and I felt the flood about to be released from my eyes. The lyrics “Alleluia, Alleluia, For the Lord God Almighty reigns” appeared on screen and I felt a wall inside me burst. The eight-year-old girl who loved church because all she wanted to do was sing songs like “Angus Dei” and the nineteen-year-old young woman who felt hope that she was one step closer to community, came together inside me for a Sunday I had never experienced while at Cornell… until now.