My Cup Runneth Over: The Church at the Well in Wake Forest, NC
April 22, 2009
The high E-string catches under a loose thirteenth fret producing a shrilly tink as my hand grazes over the six strings. I stop the song for a moment, pull the string out from under the defected piece of brass, and continue as though the interruption never occurred. As I lift my face from the fingerboard to proceed with the spouting of lyrics, the microphone stares into my face as cumbersome as an old hag holding a broomstick to your nose. Since the acoustic guitar I’m playing doesn’t plug-in, my voice, admittedly nasally from a life of allergies and sinus infections, carries much louder through the PA than any resonation the acoustics of the guitar can produce. I sing songs about madness, evil stepfathers, unused potential, and the transfiguration of Christ to a crowd of multi-aged, wholesome Christian families sitting at large, round plastic tables, their children completely uninterested and uncomprehending to the themes implicit in my words. I give brief introductions to a couple of the songs before playing them. Prior to the finale, I casually talk about my boredom of the praise radio stations that play exhausted reiterations of exhausted worship songs and express my appreciation for Sufjan Stevens’ embrace of the “God-given creative capacity” that exists within each person to a crowd whose car radios are hot-keyed to each of these stations. Some of the people in the crowd don’t listen. Others politely pretend not to listen.
But from what I’ve seen, first solo performances at coffee shop open mic nights generally don’t go super smooth. Because only four musicians volunteer to play, Joshua asks me to play a fifteen-minute set. My brother’s request intrigues me: I’ve been waiting for a chance to play these songs in front of a crowd. Though the singer/songwriter stigma has grown stale since its golden age in the Civil Rights and Woodstock era, ideas still need to be sung or spoken, and since all that’s accessible is a guitar and a voice strained from a four-day coughing fit, I utilize my resources.
Joshua manages The Well, a coffee shop and restaurant that doubles as a place of worship and Christian education. Off Main Street in Wake Forest, NC, the two-story house with white walls and a home-style front porch with tables and chairs for outside conversation invites the general public to come and feel at home amongst the numerous couches, loveseats, and pleasant attitude of the staff.
In the mornings, the wood walls made from extinct trees built over a hundred years ago encase whiffs of fresh-brewed Columbian coffee. I walk through the front entrance door, twisting the rattling loose door knob, and opposite the counter in front of me hangs a collage of Columbian coffee farmers, all personal acquaintances of the owner, Pastor Mark. The rooms of the converted historic house divide among three adjacent small square dining rooms with tables, chairs, and couches, a small office with two desks, an upstairs dining area and “conference room” hospitable to large group meetings, the kitchen where the staff makes “The Club” sandwich and “Pumpkin Spice” soup, and an entrance area where the coffee counter, espresso machine, and menu boards reside.
A lady sits on a couch in the far west dining room wearing a business skirt and a laptop computer stationed next to her. She gives interviews to potential educators. Another woman sits opposite the interviewer on the other couch separated by a coffee table. Her tall spine perches stiff and erect, her middle-aged legs covered by flesh-colored pantyhose perched at the crossed position, and her curly blonde hair cut short so not to distract too much from whatever task is at hand. “I have a Masters in Education from Duke University and have taught at numerous special needs schools,” she proclaims as her nose stares at the ceiling fan above the ladies’ heads. “May I ask you a question?”
“Certainly.” The interviewer quickly becomes the interviewed. Analysis, psychological or otherwise, applies to everyone.
“If one of the children at Thurston Parochial School does not progress as quickly as the others, or not at all, is this child then removed from the program?”
“Oh no, no. Our goal is to provide individual attention to every child,” she responds.
“Good. I was hoping you would say that.”
I sit down to write at the two-top table next to them with my computer and steaming cup or fair trade brew as my eyes look up and observe UNC win over LSU basketball by fifteen points on the flatscreen television hanging on the wall directly in front of me. To the left of the NCAA tournament rests a shiny, white five-piece Pearl drum kit, a black Ibanez bass guitar complete with amplifier, and an electric piano propped-up by a folding stand protected by a light blue cover sheet. Six days of the week, ghosts take hold of these instruments and play to the imaginations of those watching. Ghosts are very good at requests: they play only to the requester, and they’ll play whatever you want as long as you know how the song goes. I ask Joshua if anyone ever plays these instruments during the Friday night open mics.
“No,” he says. “People don’t seem to take care of things that aren’t theirs.”
On Sunday mornings, however, the ghosts are ushered out and the praise band takes their positions. Pastor Mark’s daughter, Stephanie, leads the band behind the piano and with her voice. Her tanned face and squinting eyes make it seem as if she experiences a joyful pain as she sings for the Creator. Aided by visualized lyrics appearing on the same TV the basketball game played, the congregation claps, lifts their hands, and sings praise to God for His holy interventions. Stephanie’s brother, Jonathon, taps on the drums and cymbals with wicker brushes, producing a soft rattle opposed to the wat! and tup! typical wooden drumsticks give. Rick, the patriarch of the Ert family whose divinely-inspired mission they understand as following Pastor Mark and his wife by working at the café, plucks each thick bass string allowing for a foundation in the worship that moves the souls of the congregation members. The other Erts , wife Hope, daughter Shannon, and son Cory, along with the rest of the thirty-something number of people in the congregation, stand and sing praises. Cory’s children, new-born Gavin and two-and-a-half-year-old Zachary – who calls me “Snot” because he lacks the ability to pronounce the sk- sound – are the only kids in the conference-room-turned-kids-room upstairs.
Unlike most other churches in the Bible Belt – that exceptionally religious area of the Southeast stretching within the four-cornered points of Texas, Missouri, Virginia, and Florida – The Well proves truly independent, both in the business and theological sense. With no formal ties to any major religious or business corporation, the staff and congregation of The Well exercise their own brand of business as well as spirituality. Acting more like the pre-Communist earliest Christians described in the book of Acts as living in small, individual communes, The Well cares not to get caught up in the politics of mainstream religion. Like an advocate for states’ rights, the Church at the Well believes in the organization of small, local communities.
Most of the theology The Well breathes coincides with that of the Southern Baptist tradition, mostly the emphasis on evangelism. The congregation at The Well sees it as their prime directive to spread the message of Christ and convert as many as possible.
“Are we goats?” Pastor Mark asks the congregation at the end of his sermon, the goat a symbol of greed and lust.
“No!” They respond, their hands all stretched forward.
“Are we sheep?”