JoAnn sits in the front center pew most Sundays. She sat in front of us, right there, for more than a year before I had my daughter,when my husband and I were still relatively new to our town and to our parish. She didn’t usually say very much to us, or us to her, but the three of us recognized each other and would often smile hello.
The first time we were in church after I gave birth to my little girl, JoAnn found me after Mass. “Bella, bella!” she exclaimed sweetly, pinching my cheek, looking me in the eye, and smiling so big.
Bella? Italian for “beautiful”? Me? Didn’t she know what a mess I felt so soon after giving birth?
More than a year later, as I nursed my daughter during a particularly quiet liturgy, I saw JoAnn turn to me and whisper over the back of her pew, “Oh, I just love hearing those sweet suckling sounds! They bring back so many memories!”
My cheeks flushed in embarrassment that JoAnn had noticed, and again, I was confused by this woman’s sweet exclamation. Wasn’t she supposed to be outraged? Didn’t people not look kindly on nursing mothers? Weren’t we tolerated at best? Far from just “tolerating” me as I cared for my child in the pew behind hers, JoAnn went out of her way to make sure that I–a first-time, uncertain mother–knew my family belonged there.
JoAnn’s support has extended beyond Mass time on Sunday. In the middle of a weekday afternoon, she has unexpectedly called me twice, once to tell me about a yard sale her daughter was having, full of kids’ clothes, once to offer a wooden rocking horse to my daughter that JoAnn’s granddaughter no longer used. Some Sundays, she shows up at church with little gifts for our girl–a Spongebob Square Pants T-shirt, a CD of lullabies, a board book about jellyfish, a solar-powered dancing bunny, meant to sit atop a dashboard.
Grateful as we are for these gifts, which have delighted our daughter, my husband and I know we could easily do without them. I’m not sure we could do without JoAnn so easily–JoAnn who took my baby girl from me when she was fussing loudly at the end of a long Mass and whispered in her ear during the closing prayers and announcements, calming her like magic. JoAnn who has reached into her purse for tissues that I, who comes to church every week carrying a big, fat diaper bag, was lacking. JoAnn who did not know of my weary arms last weekend, when she asked to hold my eight month old son, but who asked for him all the same and thanked me for the opportunity to snuggle with him when she handed him back later.
Raising the Future of the Church
We all know that parenting has its seasons of difficulty. We all know that trying to teach little ones to be holy and to appreciate Mass is hard. There were weeks in the not-so-distant past when I wondered if there was any point at all to bringing my daughter to church at such a young age. I would talk to my husband about going to separate Masses so that one of us could stay home with the kids. But every Sunday has found us in the same pew, all together, because we know that worshiping as a family is important, in spite of the struggles therein.
We all know better, I think, than to be the one giving parents a sidelong glance as they try to wrangle their brood. Most of us know that the parents sitting behind us at Mass are only trying to fulfill the important promises they made to raise their children in the faith; they are not trying to annoy the rest of the congregation.
We need to know that our children are valued by people other than their parents and that they are thought worthy of love and kindness by those around us even when they are less than perfect.
Most parents pray that no one will turn around, that no one will notice the baby who is nursing loudly in the middle of a moment of silent prayer, the kid who has turned into a sudden, shrieking puddle by the kneeler, the toddler who just whispered all too loudly about what happened when he visited the potty.
But sometimes, parents need folks to turn around, even if this means that the above scenarios, and others like them, are noticed. We parents need for there to be a JoAnn, full of patient smiles and loving help, right in front of us. We need to know that our children are valued by people other than their parents and that they are thought worthy of love and kindness by those around us even when they are less than perfect.
Crying children in the pews are more than a present–and passing–annoyance. They are the future of our Church, and in their ignorance of social etiquette or their inability to sit still for an hour, perhaps they provide opportunities for their church family to serve Christ by serving neighbor–their parents.
More than cry rooms and nurseries, which might send the message to some, “Your children are not welcome with us if they disturb our peace,” every church needs a JoAnn, someone in the pews to give parents some peace, to encourage them so that they will feel comfortable continuing to bring their kids back to church, back to Jesus. Isn’t that what we all want–not just to see the kids in their sweet christening gowns and First Communion dresses, but to watch them grow up, to see them, twenty years from now, walk back through the church doors, baby carrier in hand, desirous of the opportunity to raise their own children in the faith community in which they have always felt wonderfully welcome?
We all smile and clap and crane our necks for a better view of families on those joyous, special days when sacraments–marriages, baptisms, First Communions–are celebrated. Let’s make sure we don’t turn away on the days those same families–those husbands and wives, those children–need our support. On those mundane Sundays, the hard Sundays, full of teething and restlessness and tears, let’s be like JoAnn. Let’s help parents hand down the faith to their children. Let’s turn around and smile at the spirited future of our Church.
Latest posts by Rebecca Nelles (see all)
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- Why Every Church Needs a JoAnn - May 19, 2014