On the corner of two local through-streets sits my favorite church. Westminster Presbyterian is a local landmark. It towers over the elementary school to its right and the firehouse to its left. You can’t miss it. In fact, if you fly into Reagan National Airport and the approach is from the south, its steeple is clearly visible as you land, sticking up from the canopy of trees. The church helps to fund the annual budget by housing a cell tower up there for at least two major carriers.
Westminster is my favorite for a lot of reasons, including the dear friend of mine who leads it. It is home to a remarkable group of members who were the vast majority of the last social experience I had before the pandemic forced us all into isolation. They helped Pastor Larry Hayward, Pastor Maggie Hayward (yes, they are married; no, they are not co-pastors) and me fill two whole buses to tour Israel at the end of February. It was our third interfaith trip.
The population of the church, like most religious communities in the DC area, includes lots of people doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do, and a smattering of people whose professions influence the course of the nation. They are Democrats, Republicans, fierce independents, natural-born citizens, immigrants, wealthy and just-getting-by. And, to a person, welcoming.
I used to have an almost-infallible memory for names. But as I have gotten older and the sheer number of people I meet has ballooned, I am not quite so confident. So to avoid embarrassing myself, I now almost always greet people I sort-of know by saying “Hi, I’m Jack Moline.” By putting it out there that they might not remember me, my hope is that they will reply with their own names. The ritual continues with one or both of us responding, “of course I know you.” Mostly, it is true.
When it is not, it at least provides some context for the encounter. I have been introduced to one political figure many times, and he never remembers who I am. That’s just fine, because he meets a gazillion people a year. But my name and my yarmulke always trigger his memory, and the conversation always turns to whatever Bible passage he has been reading that week. It is refreshingly different from the “nice-to-meetcha” mantra that is otherwise inevitable.
The other result of my name game is to remind myself that I should not presume that other people know who I am. It is a lesson in humility that is worth learning and relearning when you live a semi-public life and can be seduced by the notion that you are kind of a big deal. (I was once at a social function, standing next to my wife, when a guy I did not recognize came up and tried to hit on her. When he asked her name, he recognized “Moline” and said, “Are you related to Rabbi Jack Moline?” “He is my husband,” she answered. “How is Jack doing?” he asked. “Why don’t you ask him yourself,” she said, “He is standing right next to me.”)
As I said, Westminster is a local landmark. Its big front doors open to the intersection on Sunday mornings. The courtyard next to the sanctuary is a surprisingly effective refuge from the traffic on the street. The parking lot across from the fire station takes up half a block and backs up to the park behind the school. The large marquee sign planted toward both cross (!) streets usually advertises the topic of the sermon ahead, along with which clergy person will be preaching. (Lately, it offers options for on-line and limited in-person attendance). You can’t miss it. If you park in the lot and enter the door that leads to the church offices, the chapel, the meeting rooms and classrooms and the best place to hang your coat on the way to the sanctuary, you absolutely know where you are going. You would not think you were entering George Mason Elementary School or Fire Station #3.
But posted right next to the door is a modest sign on which are painted the letters spelling “Westminster Presbyterian Church.” Just in case you don’t remember. Just in case you don’t know. Just so you know you are in the right place. Just so you know you are welcome.
It is a lesson in humility worth learning and relearning.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession