I’ve had a string of mildly bad luck in visiting churches recently, choosing places where the ministers are out for the week if not longer. When I visited the last week, I found that most of the congregation was missing as well. Emptied out by graduations and vacations, the sanctuary boasted only about 15 to 20 people.
Despite the smaller than usual population, the sense of fellowship was still strong during the service. A musical worship team—on two guitars, a keyboard, and drums—played an opening set to welcome people. They later played a string of five songs, following a scripture reading, a prayer for those in need, and a slideshow of announcements.
The church’s interior is quite modest. A coffee hour took place in the hallway outside the sanctuary, a few short steps from a small office space. The sanctuary itself has rows of takeaway chairs and draped windows. There was no lectern, and speakers gave their addresses standing in front of the congregation.
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One of the values the church says it aims to promote is acceptance. It promptly proved itself on this point when one member of the congregation gave a testimonial. The woman said she was pregnant with what she considered a “miracle child,” as doctors reversed their initial expectation that the baby will have Down syndrome. The woman also said she her previous church shunned her for getting a divorce.
“We are not here to judge you or criticize you,” guest speaker Sandy Sczesny assured her.
With Rev. Samuel Spatafore Jr. told me in an e-mail that the church hopes to convey the message, "No matter where you have been or what you are going through, there is hope in Jesus." With Spatafore absent, the Mother’s Day address was taken up by Sczesny as well as member Kim Hodges. Sczesny spoke on the topic of forgiveness. She said she had gone through a number of challenges in her life, including an abusive childhood and losing her job. She said she had to forgive herself as well as others and have faith that she was doing the right things. Throughout the challenges, she said the prayer, “Lord, help me deal with the pain. Because if I’m able to deal with the pain, I can move forward.”
Hodges spoke about compassion, describing it as the cornerstone of every major religion. She said sometimes it isn’t about what you say to people, but rather the act of being there for them. Like Sczesny, Hodges said people need to extend compassion to themselves as well.
“If we can’t forgive ourselves or have compassion on ourselves, we’re going to have trouble loving our neighbor as ourselves,” she said.
Sczesny, who has been a member for over 20 years, said she came to the area from New York City and found the church in the Yellow Pages.
“Everybody’s different here,” she said. “Everybody’s from a different part of the country. We’re all transplants.”
Michael Ehnot, who has also been with the church for about 20 years, is part of the worship team. He said the group gets requests for performances at spiritual events, and recently traveled to Hungary for a conference. He said the people of the church are what he enjoys most about Tree of Life, describing them as friendly and supportive.
“Church is about what you can give to one another, not what you can get,” he said.
Hodges has been attending the church for 34 years. She said the congregation is “an eclectic mix of people” from all races and walks of life.
“I think we’re almost a microcosm of New London…I think we’re a very open congregation in just accepting people for who they are,” she said.