CHURCH

George Papa
13 min readMay 14, 2019

I sat in the pew with my head bowed, praying along with the rest of the congregation. Light streamed in from the stained glass and bathed my face in rose-colored light. It was the middle of an evangelical church service. At the front, just behind the pastor’s podium, the choir stood on risers, awaiting their cue from the director. Next to them, a drummer, guitarist, and organ player waited with their hands over their instruments, ready to play.

Wordlessly, the congregation rose in choreographed unison. I stood with them, noticing Elyon to my right. He seemed fully engrossed in the service. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, when organ music suddenly began to play, soon joined by the guitar and drums. The choir sang, and the congregation followed suit. It was a lively worship tune that I did not recognize; yet, I found myself singing along anyway, swept up in the wavelike energy that seemed to bathe all of us in its warm glow. The music connected each of us to the others like an invisible thread. When we sang, it was with one voice.

In the past, when I had been forced to go to church, I always squirmed with discomfort during the whole service. I had no respect for Christianity, or any religion for that matter. It seemed to me to be nothing more than mass brainwashing that sought to benefit a select few in the elevated ranks of the institution itself.

Yet, standing there with the congregation, I felt instead a stirring of a bond that ran between each of us like an electric current. After the song ended, the pastor walked to the microphone and read from the Bible.

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.’

Surely he will save you

from the fowler’s snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

As he spoke, the magic sensation of connection gradually faded, and I remembered my reasons for hating the church. It did not seem logical to me that a just and fair God would favor the evil while allowing the good to suffer so deeply. I found it hypocritical, the fact that they insisted on preaching about the goodness of God when the Old Testament depicted him as nothing more than a jealous, vengeful, angry, bloodthirsty tyrant.

I had to escape that place. I stood up and made my way through the God-fearing believers, who scarcely noticed me above the sacred words being uttered by the pastor at the front of the church. Eventually finding my way to the back, I slipped out the swinging door and paced agitatedly in the lobby. Elyon came out of the door shortly afterward. I started to explain myself, but he raised his hand, silencing me.

“It’s all right. I’m only curious about something. Let’s sit.” He motioned toward two wooden chairs beneath a bulletin board covered in flyers. We sat, then he said, “What do you think when you hear the word ‘tribe’?”

In the next room, the worship music had started up again. “Honestly,” I said, over the ruckus, “I think of savages. People who defer to the mind of the collective because they do not have a mind of their own. Uneducated, uncivilized, outdated structures that isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Tribalism has many negative connotations nowadays.”

Elyon smiled somewhat sadly. “It’s interesting you think that way. After all, you were born into a family, which itself is a small tribe. For most, the family is the most important foundation a person has: It offers a safe space to grow and develop until one is ready to leave the nest and join the rest of society. Your family has known you, fed you, clothed you, and taught you what you need to know to eventually go out and start a tribe of your own. They know the good and bad sides of you and accept you for who you are with unconditional love and open arms.”

I scoffed. “That’s only if you come from a healthy family, which you’ll seldom find. Though I was lucky, with my parents. For toxic families, this tribalism turns into shackles that are difficult to break. What about the mafia? To be born into that tribe would mean a life condemned to crime.”

“You have a point,” Elyon said wearily. “But then again, you also prove the formidable power that a tribe can have. The Cosa Nostra has survived every assault from the Italian government. What else but tribalism could take this entity from such humble beginnings as Sicily, the island of chaos, and spread its influence to the corners of the world? What if you could determine the mechanics that made it so successful and apply it to something useful, a ‘mafia’ that defends human rights and justice and fights corruption and environmental destruction? Don’t you see, Architect? Everything that has ever had any impact on our history can be traced to a tribe. Take European history, for instance. From the divided city-states of ancient Greece emerged Sparta, which became the most well-known, despite its relatively small size. Instead of walls, Sparta defended itself using the power of its citizens. Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans saw women as equal to men. Not only were they allowed to own property, but they were expected to be as athletic and combat-capable as men, including them in the campaign to become the strongest army in all of human history. Through the unity of all its citizens, the miniscule Spartan army stood up fearlessly to the Persians at Thermopylae, even though they were outnumbered one to one thousand. Their downfall was the disbandment of the tribal structure, which also led to the collapse of many other city-states following the invasions.” Elyon sighed. “I suppose it’s easy to be afraid of a tribe. As an individual, it is difficult to face something so large and singular. We don’t want to be absorbed by its power, so we isolate ourselves.”

“If you didn’t want me to resist the tribe idea, you shouldn’t have brought me to a church,” I said dryly.

Elyon chuckled. “My dear, skeptical architect, faith tribes have been around since the creation of human civilization. The tendency to form them is encoded in our original program, which is why they are so powerful.”

“And detrimental,” I argued. “It was because of tribalism that the Holy Wars ensued, causing ripples of violence that continue even today. I don’t doubt that it is powerful―hell, if the New Testament is proven true, then a lone man with twelve groupies is responsible for one of the single largest tribes the world has ever seen. But, if you recall, shortly after Jesus’s vision for redemption, the world was thrown into the Dark Ages for centuries to come.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, but I believe that you are only looking at it from a limited perspective. From the violence and chaos of the Dark Ages, humanity managed to transition into the Renaissance, a period of enlightenment and unparalleled advances in the arts and sciences. Without the Medici tribe and the artist guilds, we would never have been ushered into the light―”

“Followed immediately by Absolutism,” I countered.

Elyon continued, “From which the Scottish engineer James Watt and his tribe of technologically minded people began a movement that became the Industrial Revolution.”

“Which then gave rise to the communist tribe and proletariat takeovers, followed by the Nazi party, which to me is a prime example of the dangers of tribal mentality. They deceived and manipulated an entire nation into committing the worst atrocities that history will ever bear witness to,” I said, my voice tightening around the words as I remembered the gas chamber from the simulation.

Elyon gave a solemn nod. “It’s all true. In fact, the German Nationalist Party was structured more like a tribe than a conventional political party. Still, you are looking at the part instead of the whole, the negative instead of the positive. Tribes with malicious intent have been responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities, it’s true. But let that be an example of the sheer power of their unity. If you analyze human history, you will find that the common denominator among every major social movement, every revolution, every advancement, every colossal human shift, is the tribe. Nothing substantial can be created at the individual level.”

“I disagree. That may have been the case when we were limited to the confines of the physical world, but we live in the digital era, where virtually every person on earth can interface with one another. Europe has essentially consolidated into a single country, not to mention that the United States has practically homogenized pop culture consumption for the rest of the world. We are connected, united already, so the tribe is obsolete.”

“It may very well appear that way, but if you peek behind the glittering curtain, you will find that tribes are the ones pulling the strings to make the marionettes dance. Steve Jobs, who was considered by many to be the father of the new Digital Age, actually built a small tribe of people who shared his vision of harnessing the power of technology and design―called them the A-players. It was more than simply hiring the most-qualified candidate for the job; Jobs set out a number of specific characteristics to describe the people he wished to recruit, because in the end, he wanted to find people who shared his vision and drive. The A-players did more than simply work together―they spent weekends and their off-hours with each other, bound by their common purpose, and the results went beyond that of a mere tech company. Under Jobs, Apple became the behemoth that now holds the key to billions of lives, and when they fired him, his family followed him to Pixar, revolutionizing the world of animation entertainment and modern storytelling. The Microsoft empire didn’t stand a chance against the combined ingenuity of the A-players, and under Linux, they created the first open-source program, which fostered the movement into the true Internet Age. Every rule and boundary within the Digital World as you know it has been in some way crafted by this united tribe of dedicated coders. Not even the most powerful nations in the world could smother their influence, as they demonstrated through Wikileaks. Bitcoin is another good example: Ten years ago, an unknown coder who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto was so disgusted by the banking crisis of 2008, that he decided to create a self-sustaining virtual currency, which would never have achieved any prominence without his tribe. Wikipedia was built by a tribe that believed in the necessity for free and universal access to information. We may have changed the medium by adding technology, but at the core of it all, the tribe is encoded in our DNA.”

We sat in silence for a moment, listening to the music through the door. The song had shifted from lively and energetic to something slower and more melancholic. A lone soprano’s voice rang out like a bird’s, floating high above the alto monotone of the congregation. Someone let out a whoop of exaltation.

“I have always been somewhat jealous of the happiness that most religious people have,” I said.

“It’s because they have something to anchor themselves to―a steady, consistent presence that follows and guides them no matter where they go. One of the reasons for the decline in tribes is the rise of consumerism―marketers convince us that we are better off on our own so that we end up filling the void with products that we don’t really need. Have you noticed that all of the best-selling books tend to center around self-empowerment? It’s always 5 Simple Secrets to Success, or The 10 Commandments of Happiness. I don’t know where the author did their research, but if you take a look at human history, you really only need two things to achieve happiness: a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. A tribe unites these two elements into a single entity in which you can flourish into something that is so much more powerful than you could ever be on your own. The modern era may have tried to shift the focus onto individual success, which is the reason that a majority of those who throw themselves off of skyscrapers were considered ‘wildly successful.’ Social media gave us the illusion that posting a picture with a caption to be seen by a few hundred casual acquaintances was enough to share our experience with others. In actuality, human social nature is inclined for depth, not breadth. Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number?”

I shook my head.

“When the first nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of humans were formed, they tended to not exceed 150 members. It didn’t matter if the tribe formed in the barren African savannah or the rich river valleys of the Fertile Crescent; the structures and numbers of all human tribes followed an uncannily similar program. The scientist Richard Dunbar concluded that, as humans with a certain cranial size and cognitive capacity, we are comfortably able to maintain approximately 150 stable relationships. These are the parameters with which we were designed by our Creators. When we try to exceed this number―for instance, try to find a sense of belonging within a Facebook fan club with over 5,000 members―we lose sight of our program, and we fall into depression or loneliness without being able to determine exactly why. Haven’t you wondered why depression is suddenly one of the most common illnesses of modern living? These kinds of ‘crowds’ do not fulfill the function of a tribe because there is no commitment, no sacrifice. Though it is true that we can make connections with others under our ideologies, we tend to congregate within our own tribe as a central place to ground ourselves. Christianity may have billions of members on Earth, but when it comes to the day-to-day practice, the median church congregation size is around seventy-five members. These people are the ones you see every Sunday, the ones with whom you sing, shake hands, and form true relationships. One of the reasons we are drawn to tribes is because we know that they will give to us what we are willing to give to them, and if we surrender ourselves to it, we will never be left unprotected. You must be willing to make sacrifices on the part of the individual for the good of the whole, with the trust that others in your tribe will do the same. A tribe will not fire you; it will discipline you and help you see where you can improve.”

His words were beginning to sink in. I thought about my own job―before today, I might have considered them my primary group, yet considering it now, I realized that none of us actually cared about each other. We did our work because we knew we would be fired if we didn’t, and there were many days where I sat at my desk with no other motivation than the possibility of losing my job, and the quality of my work would worsen as a direct result.

Elyon continued, “It’s interesting you mentioned the Nazi party; in fact, the word that the Germans use for ‘tribe’ is ‘Stamm,’ which also translates to ‘tree trunk’: a solid core from which you can constantly grow and regenerate. The trunk serves as the primary support for your branches and fruits, even when the strong winds blow. It nourishes and strengthens you, and when it is aligned with your true purpose, there is nothing you cannot do. Likewise, your tribe will never leave you without food or shelter, and when you struggle, your tribe will come to your aid.”

“You know, that reminds me of an old saying: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” I said, smiling wistfully. “It takes time to get to know a person, which goes against our culture’s need for instant gratification. We just want a small piece of an acquaintance before slapping on a label and washing our hands of each other.”

Elyon nodded. “Envy has become the new emotional currency; we garner the attention of others with expensive brands, fancy cars, and material proof that we are worthy of being envied, thinking that it serves as a litmus test of how successful we are. So, the young bright engineer studies until she is at the top of her class, gets a high-paying job for a company where the boss treats her like a machine, then she buys that Aston Martin car, but somehow still feels unfulfilled. Then, when she voices that unfulfillment, people tell her she is being ungrateful, and she becomes even more isolated in her suffering.”

The service had ended, and the congregation filed out of the church, into the lobby, and out the front doors. Elyon and I stood and followed them, swept up in the human flood. There was a general relaxed openness in the way they spoke with each other―I overheard a woman offering to bring dinner over to a family’s home. “I’ll be praying for Peter to find a new job,” she said, holding the wife’s hands in both of her own. The woman smiled her gratitude, then said, “Thank you, Grace. We’ll be praying for your son. May he come home safe.”

I watched the scene with the same bittersweet sensation that accompanies intense nostalgia for happier times. Elyon nudged me gently.

“In this version of the story, Peter finds a new job as a bank teller. Grace’s son will be killed in action on an army base in Iraq, and when he is laid to rest, the whole congregation will come to the funeral and sing his favorite hymn together. For months, they will all take turns visiting her. They will listen to her as she reminisces about him, tells them stories of the times when he made her laugh, even bring her meals to make sure she keeps eating. The winds of grief will be strong, but with her tribe by her side, she will weather the storm and carry on to the other side.”

I brushed the tears from my eyes and said, “Let’s move on. There’s no time to waste.”

“Indeed there isn’t,” said Elyon. “Onto the next.”

>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME

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George Papa

Architect, humanitarian worker, book author. Found his meaning in life. Believes in predestination.