Stealing From the Collection Plate
By William Salyers
Recently, in a social media group reserved for members of Actors Equity, the Stage Actors’ Union, someone asked the question “Can you describe in four individual words, not a sentence, what theatre is?” The responses were varied, but some words were repeated, and telling.
These weren’t audience members commenting. They were actors. Professionals. I can’t recall my father, a lifelong welder and pipe-fitter, ever describing his work that way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a stevedore say his or her work held any of the aforementioned qualities; nor a transit worker, carpenter, or cop.
In fact, when I think of those words, there’s really only one other place I can recall hearing them regularly used to describe an experience: the First Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I was a member and weekly (if not always enthusiastic) attendee throughout my teenage years. Every Sunday, I heard the reverend and various other “witnesses” describe the magical, transformative love of the Lord Jesus Christ and how passionate and inspired it left them. I, too, tried to get passionate and inspired by the magical Word Of the Lord, but somehow, the fire never caught. That is, until I stood on a stage.
Don’t worry – if you think you’re about to read my version of how theater saved my life and redeemed my soul, you’re not. You’ve already heard it, or lived it, like countless others, and I’m sure my tale of redemption would sound much the same. It’s a common one among actors, even those of us who get paid for what we do.
But I digress.
The Bartlesville First Baptist Church seemed to have a lot of money. It was a beautiful house for The Lord, with wide walls, tall ceilings, and impressive lighting and sound systems. The minister drove a nice car and wore good suits, at least by my boyhood standards, for that place and time. Even so, at every service, the offering plate was passed. It was a simple metal bowl used to collect the donations of parishioners, usually in envelopes, sometimes in damp handfuls of bills and coins. Knowing that small community as it was then, I’m guessing the range of offerings, coming from all kinds of people, the wealthy and the wretched, was pretty wide.
Nevertheless, there were some people – usually children – who would pass the plate a little lighter than it was when it was handed to them. They would pretend to put something in, while in reality, taking something out. They stole from the collection plate.
I noticed this, on occasion, but would never rat out the offender. I wasn’t a snitch. I wasn’t superstitious; apparently not even enough to be a “good Christian,” but on the other hand, even I thought there was something pathetic about stealing from a church.
Here was a place where almost everyone thought – even passionately believed – that they were participating in something special, something worthy of reverence. They were coming together in a communal act to sit as an audience, sing and listen to music, and watch a man deliver a monologue about the ephemeral, the eternal and the sacred.
And there was some turd-in-a-punchbowl stealing from them.
Yes, them; because, if you asked them about it, they were that church.
First Baptist Church was not, ultimately, my tabernacle. When I found my faith, it was a different kind; and although my churches’ resources are nowhere near those of FBC, the services still often involve an audience, singing and listening to music, and speeches about the ephemeral, eternal and sacred.
And there are still turds in the punchbowl.
There are still those who want to steal from the collection plate. They even go so far as to volunteer their labor to the church to speak or sing, and then claim, after the fact, that their services were not sacred, not an offering, but just another job; one for which they have now decided they are owed the minimum wage. They betray their congregation for, in modern terms, much less than thirty pieces of silver.
I’m sure that some of those First Baptist Church members were paid, on occasion, to sing. I remember their beautiful voices, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t sometimes hired to bring their talents to weddings and other such gatherings, just as I’d be shocked to hear that any of them presented a bill to the church for their Sunday services.
The sacred is sacred, and the mundane, mundane. It takes both to sustain life, and I pity the person who can’t tell them apart, who confuses one for the other.
Because that person, ultimately, is just a — well… you know what they are. We all do.
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