Sample image of the sticker we received for each child.
It's even harder when you have a congregation in the thousands of dots in the crowd, and about 10 percent of those in attendance brought their little ones along. The kids aren't sitting in a pew with their parents like they did back in the olden days, marking up the offering envelopes with the short pencils and ignoring the sermon. Most mega-churches have these "kiddie corral" areas where the kids can play Jesus-themed games and learn a little about the Bible.
With so many members and guests, the workers and volunteers obviously don't know bio-dad from step-dad, or grandma from mother. And with rotating staff and activities children stand a good chance of getting lost in the shuffle. No one wants a government investigation or a lawsuit, so there are systems in place to make sure the kids leave with the ones who brought them.
At first we were impressed with how much attention was being given in the children's education area of one of our nearby megachurches (we'll keep its identity private). It was a little strange to fill out such a paper form for each of our three kids, ages 8, 6, and 1.6. But that was understandable, and gave us something to do while waiting in line.
Things became a little stranger when each child was given a printed sticker with a numeric code and room number, to be placed on their backs. There's even a place for allergies and special instructions.
Then we were directed to other lines (one for each childcare area) to be admitted. Another form, including parents' names and cell phone number, had to be filled out before the registration process was complete. I took Charlie to the infant area and Katrina took big brother and big sis to the elementary school zone.
There were no more than 8 or 9 babies and toddlers in our particular infant nursery, so it wasn't a cattle pen or anything. The second form seemed a bit much in light of this, but ... ok. Rules are rules.
When Katrina and I regrouped and went to the theater-like sanctuary/auditorium, we were confused by an occasional three-character code that would pop up on the obligatory video screens. They were apparently "child codes" which correspond to each child's sticker. We were told by a friend that when there are problems with a particular child, kiddie kommand signals the sound booth to put that child's code on screen. We must've forgotten to memorize them as we're new. Or at least that's what we thought ... wondering if one of our kids was profusely bleeding. But we were in church, so time to trust the Lord and his provision.
We enjoyed the message about "the art of neighboring," the skits, and even the perplexing songs about the human condition and not so much God and his glory. But we left the dark auditorium more inspired and ready to serve Jesus in our immediate community. This church does what it does well, and anything we missed we would make up for at our house church meeting that evening.
When I went to go pick up the baby, it wasn't entirely strange for me to be told that I forgot to wear my corresponding "parent sticker." They only gave us one at the front desk, and Katrina had dropped hers somewhere. I had no idea.
Sample image of the sticker we did NOT receive. (D'oh!)
'Tis a minor detail, so I read off my cell phone number so they can verify with the form they had on hand. That wasn't proper protocol, apparently.
Little Charlie hollered and wailed "dah-dah-dah" while reaching his arms to me. Rules are rules, and one of the ladies in the nursery escorted us to the "main desk" to fill out a form acknowledging that we did not have our parent stickers. That's perfectly understandable, even if bureaucratic.
Then came the moment of truth: the front desk had to have bona fide evidence that I was the rightful father. Charlie managed to wiggle out of the nursery workers arms and wobble across the counter to me. With a smirk, I handed him back to the woman and said "Sorry, Charlie, rules are rules." (Don't think that I wasn't tempted to make a run for it!)
Another form. This time, it asked for more details, including my driver's license number.
"Sir, I'll need to see your ID."
Then things started to get a little Big Brother-y. A hundred thoughts started dashing through my head -- what if I were an illegal immigrant without proper documentation? What if I forgot my driver's license? What if she meant some kind of special church membership card that we didn't have? Are churches calling driver licenses "IDs," now? What if ...
"I walked," I said -- which wasn't exactly a lie because of the immense size of the parking lot.
"Yes, we walked. Good day for a stroll, wouldn't you say? Don't need a driver's license for that!"
"Well, we can't give you your child back unless we have your driver's license number."
"I don't have it memorized. I'm doing what I can to preserve my individual identity as best I can, so I don't really use it much unless I get pulled over for speeding."
"Well, ummmm ..." she hem-hawed, as she thumbed through a three-ringed manual of policies and procedures and motioned to a helper to make a phone call.
"I do have the Mark of the Beast," I fired back, trying to add some humor. "Would you prefer wrist or forehead? ... Wait, don't tell me you're in cahoots!"
Crickets. It has been awhile since the "Left Behind" books were all the rage.
The director of the whole children's wing came by, apologizing profusely for the confusion and assuring us this only happened because it was our first Sunday -- that we would get used to the rhythm of things soon. I explained we're part of a VERY small church (she has no idea!) and are used to nursery workers getting to know each parent.
"You know, a chance to minister to parents," I added. You could cut the awkward silence with a knife at that point.
Before I could make a flippant suggestion about them babysitting our kids for a couple of hours so I could make the journey home to fetch my wallet and then walk back, Katrina and our two older children had arrived, having experienced a similar situation. Like a daytime talk host, she successfully assured the ladies I was "the real father." (I'll presume it's non-custodial father-figures they're mostly on the lookout for). Thankfully there was no DNA swab or blood sample taken. They asked for her "ID" and I interrupted "I explained to the ladies that we walked!"
Katrina gave me that all-too-familiar begrudging stare. She doesn't like it when I lie. (And I'll confess here that it was a lie, and a sin worthy of confession.)
Come to find out, the rules and regs did indeed require a driver's license in lieu of a lost sticker. No way around that. But the chief muckamuck there decided it was ok for us to leave together since the kids were demonstrably familiar with us. Grace, despite our sin.
We thanked them for their time, for their dedication to child safety, and wished them the best.
Walking out of the building, passing by the concession stands, and dodging various landscaping elements, Katrina grinned and calmly summarized the situation:
"Andy ... we just broke the system!"
What else can I say? We didn't choose the house church thug life. It chose us.
Who wouldn't want to hang on to this little guy for a bit longer? I mean, really? I can't say I blame the nursery, can you?