Distanced from the rest of the congregation’s wooden tables by a horde of tussling children, I know the plastic table is for us long before I can read the hastily-taped sheet with bolded Arial font: “College Students, Sit Here.”
My inner high-schooler pushes my chin up—I, the capable college student, get to sit where no child has ever gone before. Yet loneliness creeps over my shoulder and insecurity settles on my chest as I squeeze into a folding chair.
It’s the second Sunday of the year and the first Sunday of the spring semester. Between the pandemic, a few months abroad, and a patchwork of vacation plans, my church attendance has been far from stellar. Though my heart eagerly awaits these precious hours in the company of other Christians, the easy community church attendance constructed when I was in high school doesn’t come as naturally.
Now, 1,283 miles away and three years into college, when my alarm sounds on Sunday mornings, enthusiasm deflates into dread.
This morning, though, I hope to change that.
After a plate of pasta and a debate over the merits of watching kids’ television, a deacon slowly approaches us. Looming above the table, he singles out Karen, the unpaid head of college events (and mother to the church’s only local college student).
“Some people were upset that the college students got to eat first today, you know,” he booms, leaning forward like a parent scolding a naughty child, his protruding belly pressing into a student’s plate of sauce. “They’re wondering why we don’t see any college kids serving in church.”
Shame, fiery and begrudging, blooms in my chest.
A moment passes. Two. The scrape of forks against plates echoes in our silence.
This isn’t a new question. We taste it when we accept communion from a familiar stranger. It burns our pockets as we pass the offering plate.
How do we, the college students, belong?
I feel a nudge at my feet. A puffy, green ball has wedged itself between my shoe and the table leg. Mr. Deacon clears his throat, preparing to list every way that he carries the church on his shoulders. Somewhere between his tithing percentages and his children’s Bible study habits, I kick the ball backward and crunch sideways to grab it. My head collides with a shoulder—that of a child hovering just behind me. Beyond her, a cluster of kids is frozen in the gap between dinner tables, their eyes wide as they track their friend’s efforts to recover their ball.
Her hands tremble, extended before her in quiet pleading.
A moment passes. Two.
I roll the ball back to the other kids and hold a finger up, inviting her to wait. Reaching over the table, I pull a piece of cake—a special treat from Karen to thank us for coming, to soften us into coming again—onto a paper plate.
The girl beams, and, carefully balancing the frosted peace offering, she patters back to her friends. Warmth blushes through my chest—and dissolves as I’m sucked once again into the conversation at hand.
Liza, a college senior and lifelong church member, cuts in: “What if we opened up our table to the rest of the congregation?”
The deacon pulls back from the table with a start. A dark red stain roughly the size of a bread loaf now stretches across his stomach.
“That hardly solves anything,” he bristles.
“No,” Liza admits, “but if we went first, the congregation would actually want to sit with us.”
It’s a start.