Editor’s note: This is another installment in our occasional series, “How do we come to be the ones we are?”
My parents would have said they were Episcopalians, though they never went to church when I was a child. However, every Sunday morning my mom got me and my sister dressed to go to Sunday school at New Lots (Reformed) Community Church in Brooklyn. Although she was not familiar with the Reformed Church, my mother believed God was God, the church people at New Lots were nice, and it was important to her that her daughters grew up knowing about the Christian faith.
Early on Sunday mornings, mom would walk us to the corner and then watch us go the rest of the way into the beautiful white clapboard church built by Dutch farmers in 1824. The building always seemed so out of place in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Although my sister and I were allowed to go home once Sunday school was over, we stayed for worship. I loved being in a place that made room for the mystery of God—who was everywhere, all of the time. I loved being among people who acknowledged that mystery and knew it was real. I loved the old wood smell of the church building. I loved watching the organist, Ms. Bolt, play the instrument with her feet. I loved watching the choir sing their anthems. They were sometimes off key, which made us laugh, but they always sang with conviction. I loved looking up into the adults’ faces as they stood with their heads bowed in prayer. “What were they really thinking while the minister was praying?” I would wonder. I loved watching the elders in their black suits and white gloves march down the aisle on communion Sundays. I even loved being grossed out by Mrs. Williams’s chinchilla stole. She sat in the pew in front of our seat. My sister and I would stare at the heads of the four animals sown together and thrown over her shoulder and wait for the moment when they would blink or growl through the eyes and teeth that faced us.
The year I was confirmed, the church held a special congregational meeting. As a new member, I was allowed to attend. Unbeknownst to me, the agenda was whether to dismiss our beloved pastor. My beloved church family quickly forgot that God was present. I had been taught by these people that we were bound together by the Holy Spirit and that the expression of love was our greatest witness of belonging to Jesus Christ. And yet in our beautiful sanctuary, voices were raised and faces contorted by rage. Members that I had known and loved began cursing at each other and using words in this sacred space that were sinful to think, let alone say out loud. Some members even came close to blows and had to be separated.
By the end of the meeting, the majority had voted to dismiss the pastor and I left devastated. Christians weren’t supposed to act like that. We were different. We had Jesus. We knew about forgiveness, grace, and love in ways no one else did. Weren’t we supposed to model that? My 14-year-old faith was shattered and by the time I got home, I was done with church. As far as I was concerned, they were nothing but hypocrites and liars who never really believed what they had been teaching me all along. “I’m never going back,” I promised myself. Yet I would learn never is a really long time.
Seven years later, as I was driving home one afternoon, I happened to look over and saw the church as though I were seeing it for the first time. Even though I had gone past the church hundreds of times before, during those seven years it was though a veil had covered the church and made it invisible. I had stopped seeing it and, as a result, stopped thinking about it. Later, I would learn I wasn’t the only affected by that meeting. It nearly killed the church, fracturing it when quite a number of families left and never returned. I can only imagine the aftermath among those that stayed.
No one had called me to find out how I was and why I was no longer coming. Maybe there wasn’t anyone who could call me in the midst of the trauma. I didn’t know that, I only knew the lack of outreach or expression of concern confirmed my decision to leave.
Surprisingly, my parents never asked why I had stopped either. Maybe they figured it was a natural evolution since my sister had stopped going long before that. Maybe they thought now that I had been confirmed I would do as so many other teenagers had done and move in other directions. Or maybe they had heard about the meeting and its outcome and decided to leave everything alone. I will never know.
During those seven years, my life took on other priorities. I had a new circle of friends and was immersed in activities that I enjoyed. I was preparing to graduate college and was working a part-time job while searching for a full-time position in my field. Life was great! Those seven years were good for me. They had given me an opportunity to stretch and grow and also afforded me space and time to heal. Someone once asked me if I had stopped believing in God once I left the church. I answered that it wasn’t that I no longer believed in God, I no longer believed in the church. Yet during my time away, God had simply stopped being a part of my reality. God no longer had a place in my life and just as the church had become nonexistent to me, so had God.
But I had not become nonexistent to God. I’ve always loved the story Jesus told of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep in order to go in search of the one that was lost. It’s so easy to think of being lost as being in a place of hardship or struggle. We imagine the sheep hungry, in danger, and alone, hoping someone will find them and bring them back. But it is possible to be lost and not know it. You can be happily enjoying new surroundings, experiences, and opportunities and not realize that you are nevertheless lost. I’m reminded of a time, pre-GPS, when some friends and I were travelling to see another friend. We were so excited and spent the whole trip laughing and talking only to realize much later that we had missed the turnoff somewhere along the way. We had been lost for some time and never knew it.
I had been living my life, charting my own course, going and doing what I wanted, and trusting and relying upon myself. I didn’t know there would come a time when I wouldn’t be enough, a time when I would be so broken and buried that I wouldn’t be able to find my way out. I didn’t realize that it is possible to be lost to yourself. In those moments, what a blessing it is to have the scriptures, whose words are able to crack open the darkness and shine a small ray of hope. There is strength in experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit and knowing Jesus as a friend whose arm is there to lean upon.
In many faith stories, there is often a “come to Jesus” moment, when the person realizes that they need Christ in a way they never appreciated before. My story isn’t like that. In my case, it was Jesus who came and got me. It was as if he said, “Ok, you’ve been gone long enough. It’s time to come home now.” And I guess I was ready. Once the veil lifted and I saw the church again, my first response was not anger or hurt. It was curiosity. I wondered what was going on in there. Did I know anyone anymore? Were they doing some of the same things I remembered? Who was the new minister? Were they still open? Yet none of that mattered because I was working on Sundays and couldn’t go to church even if I wanted to.
Six months later, I was fired. Coincidence? Serendipity? Jesus? Who knows? I had been working part-time as a cashier in a department store while I was in college. I was a model employee–punctual, polite, precise, and pleasant to be around. I had never been written up or reprimanded during the three years I was there. However, the week I was fired, my drawer came up twenty dollars short. Strike one! A few days later an undercover employee notified the office that I did not say the prescribed salutation when I bid her farewell. Strike two! And at the end of the week, I yelled at my supervisor and told her to “Just shut up, already!” A huge strike three! That was on a Saturday. When I arrived at work Sunday morning, the store manager notified me that I was out.
Without a Sunday job, the only thing keeping me from visiting the church was me. I was hesitant and afraid, and the old feelings of hurt and disappointment rose up anew. But just as I started to talk myself out of even considering going back, I heard the voice of God say, “I am God. People are people. Neither are the same. Go back and be with those who are about what you are about.”
Almost forty years later I can still hear those words spoken so clearly. Their truth cut through the emotions I was feeling. They helped me take Christians off the pedestal I had placed them upon. For too long I had expected the followers of Jesus to be the closest things to Christ himself. But I was wrong. God is God. And we are not. Neither are, or ever were, or ever will be the same. I needed to hear that.
The church is the Body of Christ. We are meant to be the hands, feet, heart, and voice of Jesus in the world. How wonderful it is when the world knows us by the love that we share, sees our good works, and are moved to glorify God because of it. But we are not perfect. We sin. We fall short. We cause hurt and inflict suffering. We are not all in the church for the same purpose, reason, or intention. Rather than being a body that is whole and unblemished, the church is a body that is scarred and yet alive, and at work purely by the grace of God. The church is like Christ’s resurrected body that still bore the marks of crucifixion. We are Christians not because we are perfect, or pure, or holy, or righteous. We are Christians because we have faith in a Savior who, while we were sinners, died for us. Not only that, but Jesus has awakened us to the truth that we are beloved children of God. God’s love for us is steadfast and God’s grace is more than enough.
The Sunday after being fired, I woke up early to get dressed for church. I didn’t say anything to anyone about my intentions to go. My resolve was fragile and I didn’t want anyone to influence me otherwise. My parents wondered where I was off to so early in the morning. I simply said that I was going to church. Then I left the house and walked the old familiar route. When I walked through the doors, I saw some familiar faces—there were people that remembered and welcomed me. I introduced myself to the minister, the Rev. Tom Coles, and told him I had grown up at the church. Then I sat in my old pew behind Mrs. Williams. I breathed in that lovely smell that only old wooden churches emit. And I opened myself to the presence of the Lord who had come for me and brought me back home.
After the service was over Rev. Coles said, “Anna, I hope you come back.” I smiled because he remembered my name. I did come back the following Sunday, and have been coming back ever since.