African-American, Church, Commentary, Culture

This Seat Is Taken

Church pews

Kimberly N. Alleyne
The Harvest Magazine
Commentary

I witnessed something many years ago that continues to stay with me. I’ll likely always remember it because it was an incredibly appalling experience.

The year was 2002, and the event was a Black History celebration at the Memphis church where I worshipped. The church’s annual event never disappointed, and had even earned a bit of celebrity status on the Memphis church circuit. The pastor also taught African-American history at a local college, so his sermons were often peppered heavily with a historical bent. Make no mistake, this annual Black History Month celebration was (and maybe still is) his baby.

The afternoon service drew a filled-to-capacity crowd, as expected. The ushers and deacons placed folding chairs in the center aisles to accommodate the folks who spilled in from the neighborhood and sister churches.

Since I was the church clerk, I had had to arrive early, so I had nestled myself in a great end-of-the pew seat long before the event started. I looked at the folks scurrying in to get good seats. I was excited to hear music from a not-so-distant time, music that my great-great and great grandparents probably sang while they whacked away at cotton in the fields of a northern and western Mississippi county (my family calls it “up home” because it’s “up” from the Mississippi Gulf Coast).

Anyway, my Mom was running a bit behind. I can’t remember why now. It might have been something about pantyhose. But we arrived separately. I’m sure my eyes lit up when I saw her walk in the sanctuary before the celebration started, even though the pew I sat on was stuffed to capacity which meant we couldn’t sit together. I was happy that she’d be able to enjoy what I anticipated would be a soul-refreshing time.

I followed her eyes to an empty seat near the front, walk up the far right aisle to the second pew and seat herself. I then waited for her to look around for me; as I waited I saw a woman (whose name that I do remember but won’t mention here), lean over to my Mom and say something. My Mom stood up and preceded to find another seat. Immediately, something — call it instinct, or a gut-chec, or whatever–told me that whatever this woman had said to my Mom lacked a warm and fuzzy tone.

As soon as I could get to her, I asked my Mom what happened.

“Mama, what did she say? Why did you move?,” I asked.

“She said I couldn’t sit there, that the seat was taken—it’s fine. I’m not worried about it.”

My Mom found another seat. I went back to mine. We listened to the music and storytelling…the whole time, though, my heart pounded with anger because no one actually ever took the seat the woman had shooed my Mom away from. It was not “taken” at all. The fact was she just wanted space, didn’t want to be crowded in, and I thought that was unacceptable. And my feelings were hurt for my Mom.

I have an inkling that the elitist felt empowered to tell my Mom she couldn’t sit next to her because she and her husband were the “money” of the church—their individual success in the real estate space planted them squarely in a circle of Memphis’s elite society, and their tithes matched their social status.

No one would’ve dared correct her about her behavior.

After the celebration, fellow churchgoers acknowledged they’d witnessed the episode and even apologized to my Mom for the woman’s behavior. Classy as ever, Mama shook it off and chose not to make a deal out of it. I, on the other side of possible reactions, was steamed. The woman was unkind, and, I think, condescending.

Beyond that, it was not her pew space to control. It was God’s pew in His house, not hers.Who does that? Who has the fraction of a nerve to tell someone—not in their house, but in God’s house—where someone can or cannot sit?! Who does that? And who behaves this way without any conviction about it?!

How did we become so amazingly comfortable with displaying the behavior of our stinky culture in God’s house? How did this happen?

Even after all these years, the brief but jolting experience replays in my mind with vivid detail.

I have longed since forgiven the pew shooer. I think Mom forgave her on the spot, admirable especially since she was the target of the shooer’s disrespect.

Still, I shake my head when I think of the pew-shooer incident because I think a large number of God’s children don’t really comprehend whose house it really is. A lot of think their social and professional status entitles them to “minister” or lead in the church or to control what happens in the church or even what and how the pastor ministers.

I can tell you God does not care one iota about anyone’s corporate title or the number of zeroes in a person’s bank account. He does very much care, however, that His children “love one another” according to John 13:34-35.

The church is the Bride of Christ. The house where we gather is not ours! We’re only guarding it until Jesus comes to pick us up!!

Whose house is it?!—God’s house!! And no seat should ever be taken in His house.

Let it be.

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