He was the first person we saw when we entered the church. Hispanic, older, dressed in mismatched button down shirt and polyester pants – he offered us coffee and donuts. I never got his name. My intuition immediately was that I had met him before – men and woman who had what looked liked menial roles in life – who performed tasks in church and out that would never qualify them for monuments or statues or shrines. Yet, they were people who found a place in their church to serve – to be relied upon – to be needed. Yes – I had seen this man before.
The Cornerstone Bible Baptist Church is located in Redlands, Ca. only a few miles from our apartment here in Loma Linda. Surrounded by Seventh Day Adventists – we decided to try another church and after unsuccessfully locating a Southern Baptist congregation in the area – I suggested Cornerstone after researching them on the internet. Obviously a small church – it would be much more intimate than the high church atmosphere of the SDA in Loma Linda we had attended before Christmas. Furthermore it was described as a “New Covenant” church which I found to my liking and Lisa agreed to go along with my suggestion.
The website said the morning Bible study began at 9:00AM with the first fifteen minutes being “fellowship time.” We arrived about five before nine and began looking for a way into the church. The building had two upper entrances and a lower entrance to choose from. We saw no indication of anyone in attendance and after I unsuccessfully tried to open one of the upper doors, Lisa headed back to the car – thinking this church was closed for good. A man across the street standing on his front porch noticed our attempt to enter the church and yelled for me to go through the basement door. I walked into the church and met the Hispanic man in his mismatched attire who welcomed me and invited back to a larger meeting room. Lisa then joined me and soon the Pastor and his family arrived and we introduced ourselves.
It was after we settled into our seats that the little man, (I’ll call him, Philip) in charge of opening the church and getting the coffee started, offered us donuts and, I noticed, continued being busy around the room, getting all the needed cups and spoons for the coffee. After about twenty minutes of small talk the pastor asked Philip to begin our Bible study with an opening prayer. Philip spoke with a heavy Spanish accent but his earnest prayer made me think that he was asked to pray often in public here in this little church and he did so without hesitation.
After the Bible study we moved upstairs to the main sanctuary where Lisa and I counted as two of the thirteen people in attendance on this particular Sunday. The Pastor, his wife and four children made up six. The service began with prayer and then the Pastor led us in singing “How Great Thou Art” with his middle school son controlling the accompanying track on a small sound system toward the back of the room. There were long, almost uncomfortable pauses before each song as we waited for the music to begin. The thirteen of us sang every verse of every song that morning from hymn books that looked like they had been in a flood. The crinkled covers and brittle pages had seen better days – but the meaning of each of the old hymns – was still the same.
The message was fantastic – the Pastor, a professor of engineering at a local college, we learned, talked of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s sovereignty. We loved it! Following the sermon, Philip stood in the front of the church without being prompted and gave the offertory prayer. He then, alone, collected the offering We were soon after dismissed and went our separate ways.
As Lisa and I were driving to get some lunch – we talked about the positive message, the few people in attendance but what nice people they were. But my mind was on Philip. I could not quit thinking about him. Being in an unfamiliar place it is a wonderful thing to see people you are familiar with – see people you know. When we were in Pennsylvania – it was beyond words how great it was to see our kids when they came to visit or friends who drove up and spent time with us. It is hard to describe that feeling.
I felt that to some degree as I watched Philip at church. I had seen him or people like him before who serve and work behind the scenes. They would never be comfortable on center stage. While others are praised and glorified for a great singing voice or being a great speaker or teacher or writer – we tend to not even notice the Philips of the world. Theirs is the widows mite of service and importance. I remember a man years ago in my home church whose job it was to count the number of people in attendance during Sunday night services. His job was not even to count those during the more popular Sunday morning services – his job was counting the Sunday night crowd. He kept a little book with him and made tally marks as people entered the building. It was his job – his place and position of importance.
In our short time of traveling, Lisa and I have seen some marvelous things. We lived in Gettysburg Pa. where heroes are glorified with statues and monuments. We have worshipped in churches where Presidents have attended and whose seats are marked with plaques. We have attended churches with seventy voice choirs trained to hit every note with perfect pitch and timing – flawless and polished.
I met a man in Hanover who I wrote about that took care of his wife day and night who had Alzheimer’s disease – he did so without resentment or sense of great sacrifice. He did that because he loved his wife. His name is John. Here in California I met a man whose name I don’t even know – and I’ll bet he was the first one to arrive and last to leave church on Sunday. He fixed coffee and took up the offering. There probably won’t be monuments for either one of them.
When you are away from home it’s just good to see something or someone familiar. And it really is true that in Philip I can say – I have seen him somewhere before.