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The Casino. Destination Services. Sunrise Cafe. The Library. Business Center. Theater. Bridge. Concierge. Serenity Spa. Jewelry. Sundries. Muster Station C.
Cruise Director. General Manager. Event Coordinator. Sickbay. Doctor.
Vero Water Refill Station. Automated External Defibrillator. Fire Extinguisher. Umbrellas. Towels. Lifebuoy.
Everything was conspicuously marked.
We’d overslept having missed the announcement: that in passing from Greece to Turkey overnight, we lost an hour. It was 9:55a, not 8:55a. We were in a hurry, determined not to be late. From the fragmented conversation we had had with our cabin steward (which relied mostly on hand gestures and grunts in the absence of a common tongue), we were pretty sure we were hunting in the right place: Deck 5, fore, port side. But search as we might, we couldn’t find it.
The Card Room. How hard can this be? Where’s the dang Card Room?
Given the itinerary of the ship and the number of passengers, I reckoned the room would be reasonably sized in anticipation of modest demand – not too many but not too few – and, therefore, easy to spot. But it wasn’t.
Absent clear signage, I reasoned that like us, other passengers would relish this time in the Card Room as a perfect respite in the middle of a frenetic schedule. Thus, I looked for a short queue of people filing into the room as a telltale. But there wasn’t one.
I groaned when I realized it was now 10:01a. There’s nothing worse than being late to one of these things.
In our hasty search, we’d ignored a short dead-end hallway that had no markings and only a single door at its end. The door was glass with an ornate coating that gave privacy to whatever lay behind it. Having no other option, I took five steps down the miniature hall and pressed my nose against the glass so that I could see beyond its elaborate design. There! Inside! Four card tables and ten or so people!
It doesn’t say “Card Room” anywhere!
They motioned me to come in and as I pushed through the door, they welcomed me. Lori was right behind. We were just in time; they hadn’t begun.
It was an odd little room. Perfectly square, a massive pillar stood smack-dab in its middle; each quadrant had a card table. There was maybe a foot of clearance between each seated person and the wall behind him. It was tight. And there wasn’t a single line-of-sight within the room that afforded any one person a complete view of all the others.
There were 13 chairs where there should have been 16, making for a smaller conclave than I had expected.
Maybe there’s a group that will come in immediately after us? This can’t be all …
We began. Our host was a lovely young person named Madison, who was also a member of the ship’s dance troupe. She handed each of us a simple two-sided page of prayers she had assembled over the week, for purpose. She opened her Bible to Luke and read. She shared her thoughts on the importance of Luke’s message, then took us through each of the prayers that we read along with her. She ended with a poem.
It had been only 25 minutes, but it could have been a day – I’d lost track of time. To my own surprise, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. This humble little church with its coincidental pastor touched me profoundly. I caught my wife’s gaze; her eyes were welling, too. I whispered to her, “Why? Why am I so emotional?” She gently shook her head from left to right and shrugged.
As I gathered myself, the folks began to trickle out of the Card Room. Each navigated the pillar to thank Madison and most mentioned that she had done well in leading us.
We were last to leave. By that time, she had gathered up the extra leaflets, her Bible, and a small free-standing brass cross she had had on her table that I hadn’t been able to see before now. I had questions for her … how – amongst a staff of 400 – had she come to be the facilitator for this non-denominational worship service … why had she elected to read from Luke … from where had she gathered the prayers …
But she had to run. She was due up on Deck 11 to help with Crazy Golf. The service had ended.
Those who would happen upon the Card Room later that day or on the days to follow wouldn’t nor couldn’t know the magnificence that visited there each Sunday morning. How could they?
The irony is rich: just the day before, the tour visited Hagia Sophia – a Byzantine-era church that served for a thousand years prior to its conversion into a mosque after its capture by the Ottomans in 1453. Three-hundred feet high with a footprint almost equal to two side-by-side football fields, its hulking presence dwarfs the parts of the city that dare approach it. In its grandeur, though, nary a word is uttered within its walls in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet in the Card Room, His name is most high!
* * *
Now, having had nearly a week to reflect, I’ve found myself repeatedly trying to determine which is more noteworthy: that of nearly 1,500 guests and crew only 11 elected to commune and worship on a Sunday, or that 11 of us did, in fact, huddle together to affirm and celebrate our faith?
But to argue either is to miss a greater point – that opportunities and encouragements to affirm and celebrate our faith are being discouraged, whether intentionally or unintentionally … certainly on board the Voyager, but more broadly in the marketplace of ideas, I submit.
Consider the primacy the cruise company gives to gaming, gemstones, fashion, and excursion planning. Each is broadly advertised and occupies a place along the main promenade. The make-shift church, on the other hand, has only a single mention in the ship’s Saturday night next-day bulletin. More, the sanctuary sits behind obscured glass, unmarked, at the end of an inauspicious hall. It’s hard to find and uninviting.
(Lest one believe this is the result of a financial decision, consider that the business center sits midship across from Lancome, Armani, Bvlgari, and Dior. It’s free to use and – in my observation – attracts only a dribble of retirees, none of whom seem to be transacting business; the decision to relegate the church to the Card Room cannot and could not have been financially rooted.)
To be clear: this isn’t about the cruise company, the boat, profit and loss, or passengers. Rather, it’s that while on a cruise from Istanbul to Barcelona, 11 people awoke on a Sunday, showered, and made their way to an obscure room in order to worship. Fourteen hundred and eighty-nine did not … many of them intentionally and for reasonable and sundry reasons. I suspect, though, that a handful of those who chose not to venture from their cabins might have done so with proper invitation, encouragement, and access.
This has always been true whether on a boat or on land. There exist hopeful and willing pilgrims who simply need a little help.
But the call of the church is growing ever more faint, made all the more inaudible by the cacophony of culture: NFL Sunday Kick-off, Christmas Day courtside seats at the Staples Center, F1, Sunday tee times and first-run movies at the Cineplex, big Sunday sales events … the distractions are innumerable. And for those few who manage to hear the call above the din, locating a house of worship is no longer always straight-forward (with church closures in 2019 outpacing openings in the US by 1,500 and many of the newer ones operating in temporary inconspicuous structures such as school gymnasiums and storefronts).
Said differently, if you’re a novice with merely an inkling of attending church – a gentle curiosity – there will be a myriad of reasons to remain in your cabin.
So what can we – the 11 – do?
We can actively work to ensure others have invitation, encouragement, and easy access to worship. Elbow-to-elbow worship. Madison kind of worship. Brotherhood and sisterhood that reaches in and touches one’s spirit … the kind that streaks cheeks with tears.
Working doesn’t mean that we need to storm the bridge, picket the promenade, commandeer the morning announcements, nor glue ourselves to the glass display of Baccarat crystal in protest. It does mean, though, that we should share with other passengers the delight of Madison’s Sunday services. It does mean that we should speak with the cruise director and suggest that sandwich-board signs be made for and displayed on Sunday mornings to help people find their way to the Card Room. It does mean that we should post to Trip Advisor and other sites positive reviews of the non-denominational worship services on board the Voyager. And it does mean that we should carry this same gentle outspokenness with us when we return home to our communities because no matter where a would-be pilgrim lives, he shouldn’t need a compass, a map, and a secret decoder ring in order to join others in worship.
* * *
Sunday morn is less than 48 hours from now. I’m truly excited to learn what Madison will share with us. Knowing the service will be short, and I’ll have many questions, I’ve booked Crazy Golf at 10:30a. Deck 11.Published in