Magnificent Sanctuary in an Old Gym

Updated: May 15, 2020

As a member of Traci Rhoades' launch team for her book, "Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost," she invited us to share a church story in her blog roundup. You can order the book here.

Every Friday morning, my mom would dress my sisters and me in coordinating smocked dresses. We would drive about thirty minutes to a guarded gate of a compound. My little sister, who had cute blond hair, would lie to the guards, saying, “They are taking me home.”

Sometimes the guards would wave us through, other times they would ask my parents to call the fictitious house, where we dropping her off. We always managed to make it into the compound, where the only Anglican Church in our city met.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Beautiful mosques that sang the Adhan -- the call to worship -- created the skyline. Signs of religion were everywhere, but the signs of our faith were kept hidden from the outside world.

We celebrated Christmas and Easter behind closed doors and attended a church, which was technically illegal even though everyone knew of its existence, in a gym. My faith was formed by the dissonance of a high liturgical church meeting in a nondescript gym.

Every week, the congregation transformed the inside of the gym into a sanctuary. The Lord’s table was placed under the folded-up basketball hoop. Metal folding chairs flanked the table so acolytes and chalice bearers could join Father Ben at the front. Every week, church members carried out kneelers, so that we could kneel to take part in the Eucharist.

The lines of metal folding chairs were not as grand as the pews at Westminister, but the people that filled them were just as regal.

Our international congregation each wore their culture’s version of Friday best, creating a beautiful fashion show. There was a family from Ghana, who wore beautiful brightly colored clothes that seemed more appropriate for a coronation than the desert. The beauty of all the different ornate clothes created a sense of majesty in the bleak gym.

I was taught that dressing up was a sign of respect. In junior high school, I did focus on impressing a couple of boys, but we were feasting in the house of Zion and my parents wanted our clothes to represent that momentous occasion. The first time I wore jeans to a church service, I thought I could hear my mom, who was thousands of miles away, give me one of her famous miny lectures about the importance of respecting God's house.

It wasn’t just our clothes that testified that we were on holy ground. Our parents had us curtsy each time we entered or left the makeshift pews. We would also bow as the cross was carried up and down the aisle.

The first time I carried the cross, I felt important as the congregation bowed. I knew they weren’t bowing to me, but carrying the symbol of the king still gave me a sense of importance.

Our church was the opposite of flashy. Since becoming a campus minister I’ve had the privilege of visiting many churches. I have seen fog machines in service, heard full rock bands, experienced the most elegant organ music. I have even attended a Scottish Reformation service with a bagpipe procession that sounded as though it came directly from the Highlands. Our church didn’t have any of that. The congregation made their own wine, smuggled in bibles, and recreated the sanctuary every week.

Each congregant had an important role in creating the sanctuary.

My father played the trumpet for special services. I loved watching him practice before those services because it showed me how important he took his role of serving. Even now when I get the pleasure of listening to a renowned professor or musician give a concert at the University, I still don’t think they compare to the services where my father's trumpet created the music.

After church, the congregation gathered in the back for refreshments. When it was my mom’s turn to provide the food, she prepared a feast of baked goods. The attendance doubled the weeks she would bring her cookies, brownies, and other delicious treats. Somehow every morsel of food disappeared before we headed home.

Even the way we served as a church was reverent. We didn’t just show up, we all pitched in to transform this inside of the gym into a sanctuary. The service was an act of worship, creating holy ground so we could celebrate God.

I believe I learned reverence from this little church that was hidden inside a gym. I was taught through watching my parents, the other congregants, and Father Ben the importance of creating a Holy Space -- a space worthy of a king.

The church was the backdrop of my childhood. I don’t often think about the different pieces. But Traci Rhodes’ book invited me to reflect on how I was formed by this little church. I haven’t been back there since my parents left Saudi Arabia. But the fingerprints of the church are all over my faith life.

My family now attends an Anglican church inside the Georgia Botanical Gardens. We meet in a beautiful chapel. The cross is back lite by the morning sun that streams through the windows. The beauty of the chapel is the kind of simple beauty that points to the Creator.

I love that my daughter and son are being taught about God in a beautiful setting. But the Chapel’s beauty is a contrast to the plain gym, that didn’t have a single window. Even though both churches are Anglican and celebrate the same holy Eucharist, I wonder how much of my faith was impacted by going to church in a gym where we learned to create the majestic sanctuary.

I’m thankful, that I grew up in a church, in a little gym, where I learned that God is worth worshipping, even with homemade wine, metal chairs, and a basketball hoop hanging above the altar.


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