By Michelle Best
In the fall of 2010, my husband passed away three weeks after a cancer diagnosis, when the first dose of chemotherapy proved fatal. I found myself a widow, with six- and eight-year-old daughters. Since he was a building superintendent in Manhattan, our home was linked to his job; once he passed, the nuns from our church, which owned the building, gave me only six weeks to vacate our home, eventually serving me with eviction notices on Christmas Eve. My church no longer felt like home, and in my hour of need. Unbelievably, they even asked me to increase my volunteering. I needed comfort. I also needed help and to learn how to receive it. Fortunately, my community outside of what I had thought was my church family, surrounded me and took me into their arms. Manhattan is more neighborly than you might think.
Janet Girardeau, one of the most loving women I knew in my Midtown neighborhood, suggested that my girls and I accompany her to her friend’s “marvelous church” in Chappaqua. Knowing that I was Catholic, she said that I would not even have to attend the service, but that I would “really enjoy the drive and it will do you some good to get out to the country and see the fall foliage and breathe some fresh air.” Smiling, she described a playground for my kids where “they can climb a tree and play out in the fresh air; it’s simply beautiful.”
Needing the spiritual boost, I accepted, and we set out from Times Square towards Chappaqua. Decompressing with each mile, I began to breathe as I took in the trees, golden and red and orange. An hour later we pulled into the giant parking lot of the First Congregational Church. I attended the service and was welcomed without any pressure. It felt familial and warm. Very low key, as though I’d stumbled into a meeting of people who genuinely knew the secret of how to live, and how to be kind. And a miraculous thing happened; my children had a great time at church!
Later, they begged me to return. “Can we please go back to that place? It was fun!” We returned the following week, and afterwards witnessed the most beautiful thing. An elderly parishioner was dying, in his last months or even weeks. At coffee hour after the service, his family and friends, even his hospice nurse, were welcomed. The men of the church, his closest friends, honored him, memorializing his name while he was still alive to hear it.
Getting it “Right”
They stood with a microphone and told stories of their years together, remembering the things he had done for the community, for the building we were in, for the world. A living funeral. These people, this church, was getting it RIGHT! They were honoring his life, right to him. Not waiting until it was too late to tell him about all that he had meant to the congregation.
I had found a new church community at FCC. And its sole mission was to make people feel good by doing good for one another. Even my children could see and feel that simply doing good for and with a group of people is the best medicine for a broken heart. We had found healing, in people, in this beautiful place, with beautiful nature. It became our spiritual home for good.
Years later, this remains our church. We don’t make it up to Chappaqua every week, but when we do we are welcomed and feel like we’re home. People at FCC don’t judge when life interferes with churchgoing; I always feel good when I walk through the doors, whether it’s been a week or a month since my last visit. At FCC everyone shares their thoughts, everyone is involved, and even during “the homily” (as we called it in my Catholic church) we are encouraged to raise questions and discuss our role in making the world a better place.
After a wild night of trick-or-treating and a sleepover, I was willing to let my kids off the hook one Sunday morning. To my surprise, it was not to be. My 12-year old convinced her friend to come with us. “Don’t worry, it’s not like a regular church, it’s actually really fun…the only thing we do is really fun things and then it helps people and you get to play and run around and it’s awesome.” My 14-year old, normally only interested in Snapchat, added that “we get to make backpacks for poor kids who can’t afford school supplies and we put together packed lunch for homeless people, and we had a car wash and stuff, and we get to sell Christmas trees to people, too.” Their friend was excited to join us, and left FCC having had the promised fun.
FCC gets things right: the world can use a spiritual place for good. Everyone, even kids, like to help other people–it just feels good. The more people we have the more good we can do, for ourselves and for one another.
Michelle Best is a writer, director and actor living in Manhattan.
For more information about the First Congregational Church, please visit: fcc-chappaqua.org