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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Overcast
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Celebrating Palm Sunday in Kentucky
Baptists and basketball
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The warm rain pours down on Palm Sunday in Louisville. Old Testament stuff. The drops must weigh a half-pound apiece. They thud across the tops of our umbrellas that keep the rain from splotching the dress suits worn by the men and boys and the pretty dresses chosen for the day by the women and girls.

I'm wearing a suit, too. We're on a Palm Sunday mission standing in front of Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church, where I was baptized and confirmed. Reverend Chris has deputized us, made us deacons for the day, and now we gather in the deepening puddles, umbrella in one hand, palm fronds in the other. Across the street, our destination: the Highlands Baptist Church.

Southern Protestants who are not Baptists look at the Baptist Church with the same anxious curiosity that the rest of the nation reserves for Mormons. You know the Baptist jokes, right? Like this one:

Why do Baptists object so strongly to premarital sex?

They're afraid it might lead to drinking and dancing.

These are jokes among friends, mind you. And nothing levels the Pentecostal playing field like the tragedy and triumph of Holy Week. Rev. Chris has cooked up a terrific plan. Many Christian congregations create an entrance procession at the top of Palm Sunday service. Members enter and circle the sanctuary, waving the fronds, as the choir sings and the organ sounds. Like Jesus and his followers' arrival to the city of Jerusalem.

Chris' idea is for members of his church to join the Baptists in their procession, then scoot back across the street for our own.

Everyone looks like a million bucks. Dressing up for church is a key difference between the Presbyterian Church in which I was raised and the Catholic Church into which I married.

Presbyterians get dressed up on Sunday. They feel very guilty that day. However, they're pretty much guilt-free the rest of the week. Catholics wear whatever they want to Mass. They don't feel guilt about that or anything else on Sunday, but they battle it all the other days of the week.

Rev. Chris leads us toward the Baptists, pausing in the middle of the street, holding up his palm frond to ward off cars like a crossing guard.

We stack our umbrellas in the outer foyer of the Baptist church. We're strangers, like soldiers behind enemy lines. But hey. The smells are the same as those in our church: a dusky fragrance made of polished wood, middle-aged carpet, lady perfume and tears.

We come around the corner. Wow. The Baptists totally gots their sanctuary going on. It's much brighter than ours. The amphitheater feel accented by the half circle of a second-floor balcony makes it a cheerful, welcoming doxology factory.

"Welcome!" says the deacon at the doorway, an old woman as pretty as a painted egg. "Happy Palm Sunday! Come on in, y'all!" In another entranceway I spy Highlands Baptist members gathering, holding their own palm fronds.

Baptist ministers often preach without robes, just dress clothes. The Highlands preacher sports a gray-blue suit. He takes the pulpit. The morning murmur boils away.

"We want to welcome some special guests," he says. "Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters from across the street are here to join our procession." I'm totally unprepared for the emotion that flashes through me at being called a brother in this context.

"We'll go around the sanctuary twice," he instructs. "At the end of the second, our friends will depart the building for their service and we'll begin ours."

He pauses.

"Please do not follow the Presbyterians across the street to their church!" The congregation bursts with laughter. The bell choir chimes. The circle is set in motion.

After our two laps, we look behind us in the outer foyer and sure enough, one of theirs has joined our flock! A 10-year-old boy smiles behind the fan of his frond, following us, an unwitting convert. His mother appears from behind to snatch him back. "Almost got one!" says one of our group.

Back in our church I'm overcome for the second time this morning. This time with the presence of my childhood, a childhood gone yet forever burnished into these dark wooden pews. I miss my parents. The music starts and I see my sister and her son in their place up with the choir. I fear I'm going to lose it so I bury my watery eyes in the morning's bulletin.

In Kentucky, in March, God wears a referee's whistle around his neck. There in the bulletin, among the prayer requests for the infirm, is proof. On this Final Four weekend there's a sly prayer that lifts me from my emotional panic.

"For those both disappointed and those celebrating the outcomes of March Madness basketball games. Help us to remember the virtues of humility and graciousness."

Kentucky and Kentucky, amen.

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