Tuesday, April 12, 2011
I'm not the best at church attendance. I'll admit that freely. I didn't go to church at all while I was pregnant with Marie. Pregnancy hits me like a ton of bricks, and I don't want to walk anywhere, let alone up several flights of stairs to get to CAYA services at St. Mark's. That weakness persisted for a few weeks after I gave birth (I was severely anemic, just one of those things; they gave me two pints of blood while I was in the hospital in an attempt to help with this), so by the time I felt good enough to go to church again, I'd been missing for about a year.
I was relieved to be back. I've said before that St. Mark's feels like my home in a way nowhere else does. I was baptized, confirmed, married (the first time) in that church. My children were baptized there--well, the two who have been baptized, so far. When my husband left me, the first place I turned was my church. When I lost the baby before Marie, the first place I turned was St. Mark's. They helped me out both spiritually and physically--in 2007, they provided my daughters with Christmas gifts and new shoes and gave me a $100 Visa gift card. All unasked. They have been incredibly generous with me and mine. So you can probably understand when I say that I was elated to be able to share some happiness with them for once.
A small child, a slow-moving husband, and an iffy ex-husband--not to mention my own nocturnal nature--have kept my church attendance spotty. Two weeks ago was about the fifth time since Marie was born that Erik and I made it to church.
Before we go on, let me explain something. I do not, like many people, prefer the back of the room. Shortness and nearsightedness combine to ensure I almost always sit at the front of any room. This was true all through school, and it has been true of every church I've attended on anything approaching a regular basis. Hell, I even sit in the first three rows in the movie theater. It's just what I have always done, and I have never had a problem with it.
Let me explain another thing. Something about CAYA services at St. Mark's. First off, CAYA stands for Come As You Are. (It was formerly IT: Innovative Traditional.) It is a more casual, laid-back service than in the main church. I've been attending it exclusively since 2007 because I prefer the format and the music. I take the girls when I can and no one gives us the stink eye if they get a little bit loud or decide to dance during the songs. CAYA services aren't in the main church--there's another service there at roughly the same time. Rather, they are conducted in the parish hall, in a (for want of a better term) conference room called Gosnell Hall. Toward the front of the room is a screen on which the bulk of the service is displayed. The band is off to one side, and there's a table we use as an altar in an alcove a bit behind the screen (it's rolled up and we go off handouts for the Communion part of the service). There are four small tables near the front, and several rows of chairs. These are arranged with a center aisle between them. There is a refreshment table in the back of the room. It is accepted--even expected--that you will have coffee or water with you during the service. There are a few other small tables toward the back, and a couple of chairs near one table in the very back of the room. This will all become important in a bit, I promise.
Two Sundays ago I finally get Erik to light enough of a fire under his behind that we're not late for services. I dislike arriving late so much that it's either on time or not at all, generally speaking. This time we got there early enough that folks were still sorting themselves out after adult Sunday school. Erik and I stopped to chat with Emmett, who is the church IT guy, and then Erik went to find us seats while I stayed behind to say hello to a handful of other people.
I was on my way to grab a cup of water and go sit down when Johnathan Wickham, who is the priest who typically handles CAYA services (though he'd not been there the first two I was at after having Marie) stopped me. I thought he stopped me to say hello. I'm naïve, aren't I?
So he greeted me and said "By the way, if you feel the need to b--" Right up until this point, I had no reason to expect what was coming next. For the life of me, I thought he was going to bring up baptism--I mean, I have four kids and only half of 'em have been dripped on and oiled up. What the hell else would my priest be talking about, right?
My tits, apparently: "By the way, if you feel the need to breastfeed, would you go to the back to do that, instead of front and center?"
Fuck the WHAT?
Now, take a look at that picture up there. That's me, feeling the need to breastfeed. Aside from posed shots meant to make a certain point, that's pretty much the way I always feed my daughter. Indian-style, baby in my lap, shirt pulled up a tiny bit, hand supporting the working breast. There is not a single centimeter of "inappropriate" skin exposed unless you get all het up about arms and feet. I don't wear exactly that to church, but I come pretty close--since I'm nursing, it's a pullover top and a pair of pants or a long skirt ('cause I don't wanna bother shaving my legs). The one time I was wearing something I was afraid of flashing with, I took my huge brown shawl and made sure I was covered.
So whatever problem they're having with me, it is plainly not that I am showing anything inappropriate. Also, and I realize this is so repeated it's almost a cliche, but it's true: other folks routinely wear things showing more skin than I do when I'm nursing. Hell, I won't lie, I've done it myself. I have one bustier top that shows a very tiny bit of cleavage, and when I wore it to church a few years back I was complimented on it.
To say I was shocked was putting it mildly. Oh, as a nursing mom who dares to, you know, feed her baby when her baby is hungry, I know not everyone is happy with it. I don't really give a fuck, to be quite plain. Though I have never before--or since--gotten a negative reaction here in San Antonio, I knew it would happen eventually.
But at church? Spoken by a man of the cloth? It was 100% outside of anything I ever thought would happen.
And let me be clear here. It's not the first time I've nursed at a church. I've got four kids. I've nursed them all. I've nursed them all at church. When we lived in Hawaii and went to St. George's, I sat--front and center in the very first pew--and nursed Linda before Esther was born, and then after Esther was born I would switch back and forth between the two of them throughout the service. And I have managed to nurse every single one of my children at St. Mark's at least once. I have sat "front and center" each and every time. Not to make a political point, but because that's just where I sit. (See: short & nearsighted.) I have nursed them as babies and as toddlers. I nursed a two-year-old Esther while having a chat with one of the other congregants just before the small group Bible study we used to have.
Now, state law is on my side. That's plain. My right to nurse my baby anywhere I am otherwise authorized to be is codified into law. There is some wiggle room there because I wasn't told to leave, but you can see from my earlier description of CAYA that there is really no place I can go to be out of the way without outright leaving the room.
More to the point, though, I find the whole thing incredibly unchristian. Time and again in the Bible, God's love for Israel is compared to that a nursing mother has for her children. Beyond the obvious, I feel that nursing my children is a spiritual calling. I will even grant that nursing a baby in church requires more than the normal level of discretion, but again: I wasn't showing a damned thing.
So, it is quite clear that someone at CAYA services finds my breasts to be that distracting. And for some reason Fr. Wickham (who once mentioned in a sermon that he was put out when a woman came to the church on a Sunday morning needing help) thinks that, instead of providing pastoral counseling to whoever it is who is taken aback by my breasts being used as God designed them to be used, the proper thing to do is address the woman who is not doing a blessed thing wrong by any stretch of the imagination. In short, everyone else is welcome to come as they are. Me? Not so much.
The kicker to it? This is the same dude who once brought in a literal bum off the street--I'm talking smelly homeless guy--and counseled everyone present that we should be gracious and accepting. Which means: Hobo good. Nursing mother bad. Seriously?
Now, I've always said I'd tell people to quit looking at my tits if they bitched about me nursing in public, and the one other time someone said a cross word to me (a security guard in MacArthur Center mall in Norfolk, VA, for the record) I managed to stare her down and hold my ground. I was unable to do that this time. I was far too shocked. I just went and got Erik and told him we were leaving. I was almost able to keep from crying until we were back to the truck. Almost.
I e-mailed Fr. Mike Chalk, who is the rector and head priest, the very next day. It's been two weeks with no response, so I bring my complaint to the Internet.
I am faced with three choices:
1) Go back, act as if nothing happened, and continue on as I was before.
2) Send a nice "fuck you" e-mail to the powers that be at the church, and find a place less concerned with my boobies (which I am understandably loath to do).
3) Go back, and when I "feel the need" to feed my kid, slap one o' these on her head:
(And no, to the best of my knowledge, Diane Cibrian is not one of my fellow parishioners.)