Another Small Town Sunday

June 26, 2005

Dubois, Wyoming is a town of just under a thousand people. Its boardwalk and wooden storefronts offer the look and feel of an Old West town without the glitzy commercialism of Jackson. A sign in the gas station and convenience store advised that the name of the town is pronounced “DOO-boys,” not “Du-BWA,” advice I didn’t need since we have a town of the same name in Pennsylvania.

The first thing I did when I got to town last night was call my friend Sallie. Until she drove over to the Twin Pines Lodge to meet me I hadn’t actually met her. She reads an e-mail discussion list that I participate in and when I posted my itinerary she wrote to say that Pinedale to Dubois and then back to Laramie might be a nicer trip than my orginal idea of Pinedale to Rawlins to Laramie. I took her advice and also arranged to meet her. For this I am forever grateful, because without this suggestion I would have missed the most spectacular scenery I had yet seen.

She took me on a driving tour (in her pickup truck) of the sights of Dubois. It has a little of everything that Wyoming topography has to offer, from the snow-capped mountains to the forest to the windswept badlands. Dubois is home to the largest wintering herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Lower Forty-Eight. This species had declined almost to extinction, but conservation efforts have nurtured the remaining population so that the Dubois area provides a herd whose members are transplanted to places such as Utah, Idaho, and South Dakota in the process of reestablishing its range.

This morning I sought a worship experience again. Dubois has ten established congregations including a Catholic parish, an Episcopal parish, and gatherings of Mormons and Baptists and Friends. With ten different denominations represented in a town of under a thousand souls, one can expect that each individual congregation will be small.

The Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Dubois is associated with the Missouri Synod. The Lutheran congregation I belong to at home and the one I worshipped with last week belong to the body known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). While the two groups can be seen as different branches of the same tree, the doctrinal differences can be sharp, especially concerning the ordination of women, attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the meaning and means of reception of the Eucharist. In general, the Missouri Synod is more conservative than the ELCA.

Last night I looked up on the Internet the rules and beliefs regarding Communion reception in place for Missouri Synod congregations. It appeared that, as a member of an ELCA body, I would be excluded from reception. But I wasn’t sure, and since reception of Holy Communion is the heart of my spirituality, I did not want to absent myself from the experience if I didn’t have to. But if the church I was about to attend did indeed practice a closed communion, I did not want to offend.

The first thing I saw when I entered the Mount Calvary building was a poster outlining the differences between pietism and orthodox Lutheranism. Pietism is a system of thought that emphasizes individual spirituality and an emotional response to scripture rather than adherance to strict interpretation of dogma, that is, a theology of the heart rather than the head. I’d learned the term in tenth grade Catholic church history as a heresy of the 17th century. Looking at the poster now, I realized that my own spirituality, which I find well-supported in the ELCA congregation I call home, is a form of pietism rather than the seemingly dogmatic purity favored by the Missouri Synod.

The pastor, an older man, was greeting worshipers as they arrived. I introduced myself and asked about Communion etiquette, about whether I could, as a member of an ELCA body, receive.

“We’re not having Communion today, so it doesn’t matter,” he said. That didn’t answer the question, but it certainly settled things.

I’d picked up a brochure in the narthex that gave a history of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, including an explanation of the scripture each illustrates and an identification of the person for whom the window was given. I got my camera from the car to photograph these lovely panels, especially the one that shows a particular favorite of mine, the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, when she does not recognize him until he says her name.

As I was stepping around to get my shots I heard a woman say to the organist, “We have a visitor. She’s taking pictures.”

“Yes,” said the woman at the organ. “And she has a notebook. Do you think she’s a reporter of some sort?”

“What would she be wanting to report?”

I felt decidedly uncomfortable, so I put my camera and my notebook away. When the service began I noticed that I was by far the youngest person there except for a boy about ten who appeared to be with his grandparents (and who spent the whole time scribbling on a magic slate such as I had when I was his age and then erasing it with a loud r-r-rip, r-r-rip).

I tried to follow the service. They did not use the green Lutheran Book of Worship which I have memorized now as throughly as I had once memorized the traditional Catholic liturgy, but a different book. Although there were similarities and the occasional familiar phrase, I kept stumbling. The homily seemed much more intellectual and theoretical than anything I’ve heard recently from either of my own pastors, and I had a hard time relating to it.

I left feeling not so much a stranger in a strange land, but a stranger in my own land. It’s not that the people were unfriendly or deliberately sought to exclude me. It’s just that I felt out of synch.

This evening I had dinner with Sallie again and her friend Ardis. “I’ll hear about this three times at the grocery store this week,” Sallie said of my being wondered about for my camera and notebook. 

Part of me does not want to leave, because there’s nothing new on the horizon. I’m going back to Cheyenne and getting ready to go home. I’m not ready to leave Wyoming, but I am ready to be at home, where everybody does know my name

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