He was 45 and feeling a void. So he got up one morning and tried church.
It was school that first exposed John Greenlees to church.
The Lutheran school in his childhood neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., offered a better education than the public version. So that’s where John learned to recite all the books in the Bible and appreciate the beauty of the Christmas story when he earned a lead part in the pageant one year.
John attended Lutheran worship on Sunday mornings, too; it was kind of expected of the students, he said. And his mother went with him, but she wasn’t particularly religious.
“And my dad was what I guess you’d call an agnostic, so he came to the Christmas pageants, but that was about it.”
In the mid 1960s, John went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. “And like a lot of kids, I guess, I kind of slid away from church.”
It was a turbulent time to be a student, particularly at Berkeley. John’s high school girlfriend, Linda, also attended Berkeley, and was a year behind John. “Linda’s senior year, things just went crazy. She would walk between rows of National Guardsmen and could smell tear gas. They just pretty much cancelled the year at some point.”
After the two were married and John had earned his doctorate in economics, the Greenleeses moved to the Washington area. John took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They had three kids, and life was full of things like family museum trips, long hikes, afternoons at the pool, and Lego-building.
“All this time, we never went to a church service,” John said. “And I felt somewhat conflicted inside.”
It’s not a feeling he remembers talking about, even with Linda.
“I believed there was a God, so I didn’t really feel comfortable thinking of myself as an agnostic or an atheist. I had had the ethics of a Christian lifestyle pretty firmly implanted in me when I was a kid at school, but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the theology as I had learned it. So I felt an allegiance to Christianity, but I didn’t know how to commit to it.”
BPC wasn’t the closest Protestant church to their home, but Linda had some friends who attended.
So one Sunday morning, when he was about 45, John came to church here by himself.
He suspects he may have been a little nervous.
He doesn’t remember a lot about his day before he arrived. But he does remember thinking that the sermon was less formal than he expected. The place felt joyful, he said. People talked to him.
“Suddenly, everything changed,” John said.
Within the year, the Greenleeses were members of BPC. Someone called and invited John to help serve meals to the homeless, before work, at Miriam’s Kitchen in downtown Washington once a month. On those days he’d be up before dawn to make sandwiches, wash dishes, and sweep floors before heading into the office.
And before long, the Greenleeses felt part of a community. John admits he was surprised by the people he met at BPC, given a common stereotype about “church people,” that they are naïve, less educated or judgmental. “What we found were people who were dedicated Christians, really, really smart, raising their kids so purposefully—just very thoughtful about their lives. And on top of that, really welcoming.”
John has been many things at BPC, from clerk of Session to a counter of offering plate collections. He’s retired now, and these days he’s chair of the board of deacons, a group that works to help church members in times of need.
“I owe a lot to God and to the church,” he said. “It affected my family in a really good way. It filled a void within me.”