Church With Rachel

I sat beside Rachel in worship Sunday. Rachel is my 24-year-old granddaughter. She is a young woman with Down Syndrome. She is part of a remarkable program at National Louis University, lives in university housing, works part time with infants and toddlers in a day care center. She rides the El and the Chicago Transport Authority buses, loves to sing, knows the titles and words to every Beatles song and can dance for hours. Rachel starred in a motion picture, The Spy Who Knew Me, in which all the actors have special needs. It was produced by A.B.L.E.- Actors Breaking Limits and Expectations, which also puts on several stage productions per year including Shakespearean plays and original work. Many of the volunteers who work with the actors are from the Chicago theater community. 

Rachel greets me with more enthusiasm than anyone else, throws her arms around me as if we haven’t seen each other for months, and a few minutes later, does it again. It is no exaggeration and certainly not a sentimental euphemism to say that Rachel is a precious gift to me, her family and anyone privileged to know her. She has truly made us all bigger, better people.

I’ve been thinking about worshipping with Rachel all week. When it comes to worshipping in her church, Rachel, to say the very least, is all in. She reads the prayers and responses just a beat behind and punctuates the prayers with an enthusiastic, un-Presbyterian, loud “Amen.” She finds the pages in our heavy hymnal, declines my assistance, sings the hymns robustly, full volume, recites the Creed and Lord’s Prayer precisely and urgently.

Sitting beside Rachel was the best thing that has happened for a while. It made me think about this curious weekly activity we so take for granted, made me ponder what an unlikely thing to be doing on a Sunday morning, how counter-culture, particularly at the present moment.

I’ve been around the church long enough not to be a starry-eyed romantic, long enough to know that church people can be as mean and hurtful as anybody else and that there is plenty of conflict and infighting in the church, sometimes carried out with startlingly harsh rancor. I’ve been around churches long enough to have experienced arguments that turned into fights and that resulted in tragic separation with neighbors no longer speaking to one another. It seems sometimes that the church reflects the worst of our culture so that even hard-boiled businessmen are astonished at how unkind and unchristian church people can be.

But once a week we engage in this amazing activity. We sit together for an hour or so in space filled with memory and tradition. We join our voices to sing and pray together, an act of surprising unconditional unity. We listen quietly to scripture and sermon. And now, since I am retired and sit in my pew as part of a congregation, I witness the love and affection that abounds in this place as people greet one another, embrace, genuinely happy to see one another And, on good occasions warmly welcome strangers, inviting all into this amazingly intimate phenomenon, this family of faith.

Sitting beside Rachel, worshipping with Rachel, I couldn’t help but ponder how, as a society, we desperately need the grace and kindness and acceptance of all and forgiveness and hopefulness that public worship both embodies and conveys. It is such a contrast, worship is, such a judgement on a social and political ethos that has turned mean and nasty. The President, in many ways, represents all of us, gives voice to our values and hopes and establishes a style, a mindset, an attitude for our life together as Americans. There is no grace currently. There certainly is not the slightest hint of kindness. There is no hopefulness, no aspiration to truth and respect and beauty. There is no humility. Instead our national climate is one of fear, anger, revenge. The leader of our national conversation at the moment, our spokesperson, demeans and humiliates, employing the meanest adolescent names for perceived enemies. At rallies he stirs his faithful followers with vulgar, violent rhetoric, strutting, smirking, threatening.

I am not alone in pondering how he has poisoned the air, the social and political conversation that has been, and should be, what holds us together.

And so that hour sitting beside Rachel in worship in an institution that welcomes and accepts, affirms and includes her as one of the parts of the body, actually lifted me up and gave me hope. I have worked for, and aspired to serve, the church for all of my adult life. I have led worship and preached a sermon on something like 2,500 Sundays. But last Sunday, sitting beside my granddaughter, I experienced something new and beautiful and profound for which I am deeply and profoundly grateful.

John M. Buchanan


  1. Sandy Mathias says:

    With tears of love for the hope and joy in your words and sadness for the reality of our times , in your words. You let us know there is good to hold on to. Thank you.

  2. Thank you! I agree with Sandy. I know that church is the place for me, my home, when I am under the weather and think contradictory thoughts.: “I can’t expose (someone) to this” and “But I’ll be missed, (so-and-so) won’t see me and will worry.” Those are family thoughts, family worries that I do need to take out into the world.

  3. Diane Buchanan says:

    Reading this was such a beautiful way to start my day! My heart is full of love for Rachel and you! XO

  4. Mary Miller Brueggemann says:

    Thank you a blog that lifts my spirit. I am so disheartened by the president that it truly weighs me down some days.

  5. Nancy Stevenson Greenberg says:

    I sat right behind you and shared your experience, then exchanged a big hug with Rachel. Sunday worship has become even more important these days — a sanctuary, a refuge . . . home.

  6. Tahlman Krumm Jr says:

    That was s beautiful tribute to Rachel and to your time with her at worship. Would that the same spirit, the same grace, might find its way into the highest office in the land and into the mind and soul of its current occupant.

  7. T J Church says:

    Lovely thoughts and words – nice to go to a caring loving place in life with such ugliness in our world.
    Thank you Rev. Buchanan!

  8. Barbara Timberlake says:

    I was I was in the pew in front of you and Rachel on Sunday. During the whole service I experienced a sense of grace that can’t be described. My heart is still smiling

  9. How precious! I, too, was sitting just a few pews behind you. Is Rachel in the PACE program? I used to coordinate the PACE volunteers who worked part-time at Rush, so I’m very familiar with that program. It is always good to see you in church! And even better seeing Rachel!! Much love,


  10. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    The last week has one again driven me silence. What can be said that isn’t being said over and over and over again and that adds something of value to public reflection on our time? I’ve moved inward to see more clearly and to love more dearly the people whose attitudes and behaviors I deplore. John Buchanan’s description of worshiping with his granddaughter takes me home.

  11. Jacqueline Stearns says:

    Another post from our favorite preacher …

    Sent from my iPad


  12. goalshifter says:

    Thank you for sharing this loving tribute John.

    Sent from my iPhone


  13. Deborah Whitmore says:

    I remember Rachel during her confirmation. Such a joy! 24 years old! Where does the time go.

  14. Ronald Reehling says:

    What about naming Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? You failed to mention Him!

  15. Jill reid says:

    So thought provoking but still the place l call home.

  16. stanley smith says:

    I know Rachel and I love Rachel.
    I am glad that she and her grandfather attend a church where everyone is loving and welcoming to strangers.

    At the Church I attend we are told on a regular basis that much work is needed to make up for the fact that we are a racist institution. Last Sunday ( April 7, 2019) at our 8:00 am service our minister said that black members have shared that they are ignored at coffee hour and that white people refuse to sit with them in the pews.

    Some black members have reported being mistaken for street people and directed to social services by white members . The final proof of our racism is that we prefer euro-centric music and a subdued formal worship service.

    One of the most profound statements made by President Barrack Obama was at his first inauguration when he quoted scripture saying “when I was a child I spoke as a child and understood as a child… but when I became an adult I put away childish things.” I was also told once by a person I greatly admire that ” we must always look for the kernel.” (John Buchanan )

    I was not offended at church by the comments about how racist we are because I did not hear a kernel of truth in that. As I reflected on why that was it occurred to me that for most of us, we usually take offense when there is some truth in whatever is being said that just doesn’t jibe with our world view.

    I can only guess what people hear in the rhetoric of President Donald Trump. I suspect that what they hear
    is the kernel of truth that reveals something about themselves. Could that be self-righteous moral indignation? Possibly.

    Who was it that said, “ we meet ourselves wherever you go” ?


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