I'VE NEVER REALLY thought about what church ladies do when they’re not at church. My interactions with them have always been tied to the building and its activities. In pre-pandemic times, I would see them at service and maybe hug or shake hands, chat briefly, or just wave goodbye on my way out the door. But easy smiles and they’ve-got-it-together appearances belie the “less presentable” parts of everyone’s story, bits that, if shared, could create a space where we no longer feel isolated, but instead are comforted by the fact that each of us is trying to deal with at least one hot mess in our lives. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw unflinchingly tells the stories of a few of those messes, stories of the things that we hide.
Each narrative in the collection aches with a desire for connection, and Philyaw provides the reader a sometimes uncomfortably intimate view of how these “church ladies” try to meet this need. Some characters turn to intimate affairs, choosing partners with whom they can envision more or partners with whom there can never be more than fleeting and secret arrangements, sometimes due to the damage of homophobia. Other stories aren’t about romantic desires at all, but feature characters longing to connect with family, carrying a deep-seated, perpetual wish to simply be seen, valued, loved, and embraced for who they are by the people they thought could be expected to do so.
I particularly love that this collection features characters of diverse ages. I’m so tired of how not-entirely-subtle ageism has crept into various avenues of storytelling, as if all significant human experience, growth, and formation is wrapped up by the time you’re 40. Philyaw rejects this notion and delivers fully formed characters of all ages.