It Takes A Parish

Sorry about the blurry shot. This is what comes of an iPhone in the hands of a 7 year old.
Sorry about the blurry shot. This is what comes of an iPhone in the hands of a (then)7 year old.

On any given choir day, we are likely to lose a child for a couple of minutes. When Mommy and Daddy are powwow-ing with instrumentalists, conducting a four-part choir, setting up mics, testing levels, and leading Mass, it’s very easy for a child to pull a Houdini.

For this reason we send Nicholas to Sunday school on choir days, and Michael to the nursery, keeping only the older kids with us. For this reason we also only lead music twice a month; we know it’s important even for the little ones to go to Mass.

But the nursery volunteer list has shrunk to zero, and they’ve closed it for the time being. And this weekend was parish festival day, so religious ed was canceled. So we had four children with us in the music area on Sunday. I drew a deep breath as I emerged from leading the choir through a challenging Communion song and did a head count of my children.

And came up one short.

It took me about five seconds to locate Julianna. She was halfway across the church–the front, mind you, right where she could distract everyone–with her arms crossed, waiting at the end of the last line as Communion wound down. One of the Eucharistic ministers put a gentle hand on her back and guided her back toward us. She had a big smile on her face and was doing her “happy walk,” this adorable, ungainly walk that makes her torso swing back and forth.

Confession: this wasn’t the first time she’d wandered off that morning. I spent most of the opening song wrestling Michael and craning my neck trying to figure out where she’d gone until someone in the back row behind us waved and mouthed, She’s here with me. That time she got away because I was preoccupied with leading the choir while restraining Michael from the high-tech playground that is a contemporary ensemble setup (trombone! trumpet! flute! electric bass! guitar! sound board! microphones! and oooooh, drum set!) Shortly after he tried to wrestle my flute out of my hands during the psalm, a parishioner took mercy on me and offered to hold him for the duration of Mass. He went into her arms with a wail that drowned out the priest.

And I thought: It takes a parish.

I wasn’t the one who came up with that pearl. Let me back up a week.

Julianna is developing a serial escapee habit. The last time we “were choir,” as we say in our house, she did the same thing: took advantage of parental preoccupation to go make friends with people waiting for Mass to begin. I’d been in the nursery with Michael, waiting for a volunteer who never showed, and when I arrived at church five minutes before Mass, she was already gone. Christian scanned the church. Came out from behind the piano. Scanned the pews again. Started walking. And then a little girl hurried across the front of the church, pointing behind her. Sure enough, there sat Julianna, beside a family on the far side of the arc of pews next to the Eucharistic chapel.

The soprano beside me–one of the holiest women I know, although she would make face if she knew I said so–chuckled softly and coined a phrase we will use forever. “It takes a parish,” she whispered.

It is true. We have come to trust our community to help us in our ministry. We don’t want our kids to bother or distract other people, but sometimes your best efforts to see that the kids are taken care of fall short: like, for instance, when the nursery and religious ed departments are closed. Last year during Christmas rehearsals, Julianna left the rehearsal room and walked all the way out to the parking lot with some other family leaving religious ed classes. They brought her back to us and waved off our thank yous. (And don’t forget this moment!)

It should have been terrifying, but I couldn’t quite muster the appropriate emotion. Our kids have grown up at this church, in plain sight of this community. Most people know who Julianna belongs to, and as we established last week, virtually no one is immune to her charm. We all have gifts to share, even if some of those gifts are in the “support” realm rather than the “in front of God and everybody” realm. We all need each other. Just as other people need Julianna’s gift for love, and the parish needs our musical gifts, we need other people’s loving arms and willing spirits to enable our ministry to continue in these years when the kids are small.

We depend on each other. And that is a good thing.