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Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh

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Children in Church

Posted: 03/26/2012 5:10 pm

It's Sunday and we're in the cry room.

Through the drool-smudged window, I can see other children sitting attentively. Gentlemen are in gray suits; ladies sport scarves and attractive footwear. When they glance my way, I see pity.

A child is banging on our side of the glass partition, briefly interrupting the sermon. Mom grabs his hair and pulls him back to a seat. To ensure he remains, she feeds him another Oreo.

In fact, by this point in the service, most of the cry room has begun to snack. There are goldfish crackers and juice boxes, though no sandwiches today. I hear a jellybean rolling on the pew behind me.

As the result of an argument I lost, my own daughter came to worship today clutching a large pink ball. In the church proper, playground equipment is likely frowned upon. Here in the cry room, it's no biggie. I see a jump rope hanging out of someone's backpack, and what looks like a small hula hoop encircling a plant in the corner. After their snack, a few children sneak through the parking lot door to play soccer. Thankful for quiet, most of us pretend not to notice. But with one arm holding my drowsing toddler, I summon her sister back inside. The ball, I insist, will remain out.

Admonitions are frequent here in the cry room. A youngster has just been asked not to kick his father. This child has been rolling on the carpet with a lollipop, but the kicking is new. Another boy isn't sharing his video game. His mother cautions him: "If you don't start behaving, you will go sit in the church alone." I am fascinated by her ability to yell and whisper simultaneously. I make a mental note to practice this tone. Though I am surprised she cites the church as punishment. Sitting out there is our goal.

We tried transitioning back to the main church last week, but with my two-year-old so often wedging herself between the kneelers and the pew, it was difficult for our seatmates to remain reverent. They were kind-spirited. They chuckled when she picked her nose during the handshake of peace. Even the priest seemed unfazed when she sang a verse of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" during his remarks about gratitude. But I had had it when she began yelling the word "unicorn" over and over before communion. "Unicorn! Unicorn!" We finished out the service in the cry room.

My last church, in Connecticut, did not have a cry room. During mass, the pews were buzzing with kiddos in various states of attentiveness; occasional outbursts were par for the course. The pastor was kind of Zen about it. If the screaming interrupted him, he would usually just smile. Sometimes he would even go pick up the crying child. "The voices of children remind us that our church has a future," he would say. At my current house of God, I've been kindly directed into the cry room when my children misbehave, which, I should be honest, is quite often. But how will they ever learn church etiquette unless they are surrounded by worshippers modeling reverence?

The hassle of bringing kids to church sometimes has me wondering whether it is worth it. I am a born doubter; it is hard enough for me to open myself to the possibility of a higher power under optimum conditions. Without great music, contemplative lighting or an eloquent preacher, I often find myself making to-do lists: groceries to buy; errands to run. It is easier for me to mentally search the fridge for tonight's dinner than concentrate on the good news of the day. Attending church with my children, I sometimes forget to seek God at all.

But we will keep trying. When I became a mother, I reinvented myself a little. Late nights changed from midnight to 9:30. Sleep replaced emeralds as my greatest desire. Most of my pants now have elastic waistbands. As a parent, perhaps faith requires a similar elasticity. We can worship anywhere. I pray we'll make it through Walmart without any meltdowns. I hear my daughters' laughter, and know goodness is real. I watch them sleep, and feel glory. They fill me with wonder and awe and belief. And maybe they can even help me find God in the cry room. He's just tough to see covered in all those cookie crumbs.