The Church Lady Steps Out

By Emily Olsen

While many members of the Bryn Mawr campus are still sleeping off Saturday night, Mariah Pepper is out of bed and walking toward the train station. She hopes to reach Old First Reformed Church in time for their 11 a.m. service. Last week she attended the service Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, a five-minute walk from her dorm.
“That’s where I go when I want to sleep in” said Pepper.
Pepper, 21, a senior a Bryn Mawr College, has visited many of the churches in the Bryn Mawr area as well as churches in Philadelphia. Her trips have included United Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, and Episcopal Churches and even Quaker meetings.

The reasons for Pepper’s wandering worship are many. Above all, she says she is curious about other denominations and religions. She also likes the different tastes in music she sees in each church she visits. These include the enthusiastic, but off-key, UCC choirs and the semi-professional Presbyterian Hand bell performances. In addition, Pepper is charmed by church communities.
“The regular church goers are all slightly odd in a way that’s really friendly,” she said. “I’m comfortable in any church I go to and enjoy having an affinity with the worshippers.”
On the train, Pepper eats apples and peanut butter from a Tupperware container. The dining halls don’t open until after her train leaves and she usually doesn’t get back to campus until 2 p.m.
Pepper thinks Old First, a UCC church, is worth the trip though. She especially enjoys the church community there.
Not all of Pepper’s visits have been so positive. Once when she was attending a service for the first time at Lower Merion Baptist Church, a member accosted her with the church directory.
“I’m sure she meant well, but it came off as if she just wanted another butt in the pews” said Pepper. She hasn’t been back to Lower Merion Baptist since.
Then there was the Presbyterian Church that used Wonder bread for communion wafers. Still, Pepper says she has largely enjoyed her visits to other churches.
Pepper feels most at home in UCC churches. As a child she attended Church of the Covenant, which combined UCC and Presbyterian practices.
Church of the Covenant was made up of a diverse community that encouraged Pepper’s interest in other religions through discussion during Sunday school and the celebration of the Passover Seder during Holy Week.
“It made me consider my religion to be one of many and made me curious” said Pepper.
At Old First, Pepper is in her element. She shakes hands with the families in the neighboring pews and glances over the worship program. The congregation is on the small side, but diverse. There are elderly members, but also families with young children. There are a variety of races and sexual orientations.
Pepper especially enjoys the welcoming and tolerant atmosphere of Old First. It is similar to her home church.
“From early on I associated church with social justice” said Pepper.
This association was only strengthened when Pepper switched to another UCC church when she was 13. This church had a strong homeless ministry and a refugee immigration ministry.
At Bryn Mawr College, Pepper used to be a leading member of the Visiting Houses of Worship Program run through the Interfaith Alliance. Visiting Houses of Worship sponsored field trips to different worship centers. For a variety of reasons the program is no longer in existence.
“It’s a Bryn Mawr thing, we needed strong leaders to plan and organize transportation and everyone was just too busy,” Pepper said. “People were also interested in non-Christian religions and there just aren’t that many places around Bryn Mawr.” .
The program visited Our Mother of Good Counsel, Old First Reformed Church and a Sufi Mosque.
“I found the mosque especially interesting because I’d been to Friday services with Muslims, but never to an actual mosque” said Pepper.
Other than the Interfaith Alliance, Pepper has usually kept her distance from campus religion groups. She mostly finds them to be too conservative.
“I’m not evangelical by any stretch of the imagination” said Pepper.
After the service at Old First, Pepper shakes the minister’s hand on the way out. She says likes how he encourages a personal relationship with God.
“I go to a UCC church when I need the community and Quaker meetings when I need the quiet. I go to the Methodist churches when I need the spiritual, but not a formal service and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian is the best place for music” said Pepper.
While Pepper will always identify herself as a member of the UCC, she’s glad to be able to visit so many churches.
“Going to different churches opened me up to different forms of worship and has helped me figure out what I do believe.”