For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
- Matthew 18:20
For a number of years, just before the 4th of July, I used to attend a writers conference near Philadelphia. Renewing friendships, honing my writing skills, and visiting the cradle of American Inde-pendence was always a highlight of my year - one year especially.
Philadelphia. What better place for a patriotic American to have an Independence Day experience? What better time for a Christian American to have a worshipful, Independ-ence Day experience than a Sunday near the 4th?
Id made my plans: take a break from the conference on Sunday morning, start early and drive along the wide, old city streets until I found a church compatible with my faith. As a church musician most of the year, I especially wanted to hear a fine organist and well-trained choir, or any music performed by someone else.
Asbury Methodist. How nice that the first church I found was the same denomination as my own. Was my search over so soon? There werent many cars. Perhaps I was early.
This isnt a church; its a mission, the seedy man said. No, he didnt know where the church was.
I stopped next at a large Baptist church on Chestnut Street and followed two other worshippers inside. I heard organ music and faint hand-clapping, from about 20 worshippers in a space designed to seat hundreds. I might have stayed - if the singing hadnt been in Chinese.
Still determined to have my Independence Day experience, I rounded a corner, pulled into a nearly full parking lot, and went inside St. Josephs Baptist Church.
Bedlam! Children running through the halls, more hand-clapping, and music that, well, wasnt quite what I had in mind.
The clock on my dashboard read 11:15 by the time I reached Christ Church Episcopal, the largest, best-kept building I'd seen all day. By now the choir had probably sung and the organist would be on sermon break, but I parked my car anyway and walked up a long flight of steps to the church.
There may have been 35 people scattered throughout another sanctuary built to hold hundreds. A darkened organ sat idly behind an empty choir loft; someone was playing an out-of-tune piano. I slipped into my choice of empty pews as a young woman began her unaccompanied, off-key solo, and I groaned.
But sometime between the well-delivered sermon and the warm reception the small congregation gave their critical guest, I had my Independence Day experience.
I hadnt expected churches within sight of Independence Hall to be empty or closed, not even 220 years after our ancestors declared themselves free from political and religious tyranny, but I was touched by that small congregation fighting similar odds to keep their church alive.
Pray for us, the pastor said as I left. Were trying to revive inner city Philadelphia.
Lots of luck, I thought, as I drove back to the conference along debris-littered streets, past the Baptist churches and Asbury Methodist, where a cluster of homeless men were gathering by their mission in the city where the land of opportunity began.
No, I corrected myself. Luck won't help the people of this city or Christ Church. Lots - and lots - of work might. Didnt anyone there know that nothing stays clean without cleaning, organized without organization, or in working order without constant care? Nothing - not streets, not churches, not governments, not freedom... .
I might not have heard stirring music, worshipped with the elegant, or witnessed the re-ringing of the Liberty Bell on my visit to Philadelphia, but I felt a resurgence of what it means to live and worship freely as I might not have experienced it any other way. Large congregations and trained musicians dont define a church anymore than the absence of chains makes one free.
Perhaps the best way to hear the music I want to hear is to keep playing it myself. Maybe the only way you or I will continue to hear the sounds of liberty, in Philadelphia or in our own churches and towns, is to ring the bells often, and sing Gods praises ourselves.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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