All I could do was hold her. She started crying in the middle of the service – sobbing, really. There were hundreds of people around her, and no one made a move. So I walked over to her, and I held her. And she sobbed. At some point, I thought to myself, “She’s so tense.” Or maybe I was thinking about my own body, because shortly thereafter, I took a deep breath. And then she took a deep breath, too. I felt her body start to relax. I felt her breathing return to something approaching normal. Eventually, I stood up, and held her shoulders as the service continued.
I made a move because as I watched her crying – alone in the pew – I recalled one of the first Celebrations I ever attended at Jubilee! I was 7 months pregnant with my first child, and it wasn’t going well. We knew she would not be born full-term.
It was Easter. Back then, I was a typical Christ-ter, that is, a Christian who attends only on Christmas and Easter. Jubilee! was my church of choice, so my husband I attended that Easter morning. And there was a baptism. Baptisms at Jubilee! make lots of people cry for all sorts of reasons. And on that Easter morning, I was one of those people. I wasn’t just crying; I was sobbing. My shoulders shook, and it was all I could do to keep my muffled cries to a low rumble. A Jubilant – and there is no hope of my ever remembering who it was – hugged me after the Celebration and said, “I hope you come back.” It was one of the warmest gestures I’ve experienced.
That baby was born – 5 ½ weeks early and very much underweight. She was a bit “undercooked” as we now say in our family, and she spent 17 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Four years later, we began attending Jubilee! regularly. Eight years later, I accepted the position of Nurture Coordinator. My 3lb. 14 oz. baby is now 16 years old. She is beautiful – inside and out – and teaches the Upper Elementary class downstairs every Sunday morning. Every once in a while, she’ll give me a hug, and say, “I love you Mommy.” It’s what mothers live for.
Hugs are an integral part of Jubilee! I often tell people they should come to Jubilee! at least once. “There’s no other church like it.” I usually clarify by adding, “You can come in, take a seat, and no one will even know you’re there. You won’t have to stand up and testify.” And then I warn them, “But people will hug you.” Back when I was a professor at Warren Wilson, a student-friend once said, “I love Jubilee! But I feel like they should have an area for people who don’t want to be hugged.”
I get that. I grew up in the Lutheran church, and my parents, even when they come to Jubilee!, still firmly shake hands with everyone during the Sharing of Peace. But my attitude is totally different from theirs. I have totally embraced (pun intended) the classic Jubilee! greeting of a hug. And I take that out into the community.
It is now 16 ½ years since that Easter morning when I found myself sobbing. I have developed a Bible-based interfaith curriculum that we use in our Nurture program, and pieces of it are now being published for a wider audience. To learn how other faith traditions connect with the Divine, I often attend non-Christian worship services.
And that’s how I recently ended up at the Rosh Hashanah service at Congregation Beth Israel. Rosh Hashanah is one of the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition. They are like Christmas and Easter in the Christian tradition; every Jew in Asheville attends at least one service. Rosh Hashanah services begin at 9 am and last for about five hours. It was well after noon when I noticed the woman crying in her pew. It was hard not to. Hundreds of people were sitting around her, but no one knew what to do. It was a scenario that might have played out at any “normal” house of worship anywhere in the world.
But Jubilee! is not a “normal” house of worship. I had learned from the best about the value of a hug. And so I, perhaps the only self-described Christian in the synagogue, walked toward her to share the only thing I could share – a small piece of myself. A shoulder to cry on, a body to lean into, a pair of warm arms wrapped around her neck.
It was an incredibly uncomfortable position – hanging over the back of the pew – but that was only the physical part of it. Everything else felt totally natural and totally meant-to-be. When I finally felt her body relax, I stood behind her and held onto her shoulders as we listened to the powerful and empowering sounds of the shofar. And I remembered that time, so long ago, when someone touched me, oh-so-reassuringly, at a Jubilee! Celebration.
So, thank you to the Jubilee! Community – for teaching me to hug and be hugged. Sometimes, the only thing we can do is hold one another.