My feet pound over the soft red velvet lining the floor. The pew creaks as I jump up, my knees on the soft seat cushion while my hand reaches out and grabs the bulletin. I add it to the collection clutched in my other hand. I have lots, I don’t know how many, but a lot of people left their bulletins today. I look over the divider to the other side of the sanctuary. My older brother is three rows ahead of me with a fistful of bulletins at least twice as big as mine. I scramble off the seat cushion, pumping my fists, my legs churning over the carpet as fast as I can make them move. No matter the odds or how much bigger my brother is, it isn’t inside me to give up.
I don’t make it to the front of my aisle before my brother finishes the last pew. I grab one more bulletin and race to my mom. She’s standing at the back of the church talking with Dad and Grandpa. My brother gets there first.
When I was little, yes, little enough that the three or four years between my older brother and myself created an advantage for him, my grandfather was the custodian at our family church. I was always told his father was a founding member of the church; whether that’s true or not, I have no way of knowing. When my grandfather retired as a sign painter, he took a part-time position as a janitor. It wasn’t until I look back at this memory as an adult that I realize he had my brother and I doing part of his job for him.
But back then, in my earliest memory of my church, it wasn’t a job, it was a game. Church was a place where I sat with my brothers on the boys’ side of the kid’s worship service and sang songs while the adults listened to their sermon. Where I had to wear itchy tights and my red velvet dress that matched the carpet. Where my brothers and I got to go downstairs and draw on the chalkboard while our parents listened to the service through a speaker. Where collecting bulletins was a game and a race all at once.
We are a result of not just our personality traits and genetics, but of everything that has happened to us. Every success, every failure, every memory that makes your heart soar and leaves you smiling, every what-if that keeps you up at night and makes you look back with that empty feeling in your chest. Each experience is a piece of the puzzle that comes together to create you. The things people say to us, and what they don’t. The stories that we share and the ones we don’t.
Decades later, I’m sitting in a creaky pew and my five-year-old daughter is running up those same red-velvet covered walkways to the front for children’s time. They’re introducing this year’s Vacation Bible School. My daughter is so excited for her first year that we signed her up as soon as the flyer came in the mail.
The minister gives the children directions for how to sign up when suddenly, over the speakers for the whole church to hear, comes my child’s little voice: “We did it already. I did it, I’m already signed up.”
The entire service pauses while she comes racing back to me, the beat of her shoes on that red velvet carpet the only sound I can hear. She jumps up on the pew next to me and says, loud as possible, “I told her, I told her about signing up.”
I’m completely shocked and sure every eye is on me. I give a shaky smile and say, “That’s good.”
She gives a laugh, not catching on to my shock at suddenly being the center of attention and races back up to the front, eager to join the other kids on their way to children’s worship.
Minutes later she gives me a bright, cheery smile as she passes, skipping along at the front of the line, talking the worship leader’s ear off a mile a minute and my heart swells with pride and happiness. I might not be comfortable with the entire church staring at me, but my little one doesn’t have that same problem. She’s so confident and happy.
Maybe everyone was like that once.
More time passes and a few years later I’m sitting in the same church, one that has been added onto and redone since I was a child. The sitting rooms full of old furniture and flower and fruit still-life paintings have been replaced with gathering spaces with minimalistic seating and trendy artistic renditions of bible stories.
And somehow, I find myself in a knitting group.
I never picked up a knitting needle before the day I, three months into the pregnancy of my second child, wandered into the library. I was searching for a place to sit that didn’t make me look like an overprotective hovering parent while my oldest child was downstairs in the kid’s activities. The knitting group was already there.
Knitting was something old people did.
But the women there were varied, took pity on me, gave me my first set of knitting needles and some yarn to play with. Over a year later, I was really getting the hang of it, and feeling as though I had found a place to belong, a place to be accepted and even welcomed.
If nothing else, it was a place to sit and not look like a hovering parent just hanging out waiting for my child to be released from her room downstairs.
I reach the end of my row and hold my masterpiece out to look at it. My rows are all relatively the same height, maybe not always the same length. The prayer shawl I’m making weaves in and out in a wavy line of shorter and longer rows almost like waves on the beach.
That’d probably work better with blue yarn instead of blood red.
I just begin my next row when a woman around my age walks into the library. I honestly can’t remember her name. Little secret about me: I’m horrible with names. I usually make up something that helps me remember details about the person I met. Like side-of-the-road-guy, mousy lady, Mom’s friend from high school. Some people might think I’m doing this in this story solely to protect identities. I’m not. I’m really, really bad at remembering people’s names. Let’s just call this woman Jill.
“Oh, Jill, how wonderful of you to come and join us.” One of the women is already pulling her knitting bags and purse off the overstuffed couch cushion next to her. Judging by the look on Jill’s face, she didn’t plan on joining us, but was just cutting through the library and is now caught sitting on the couch. I adjust my butt on a plastic stackable chair.
Jill smiles, returning greetings. I smile and say hello. Our daughters are close in age and were both baptized at the front of the sanctuary on the same red velvet carpet I used to run on in my bulletin collecting races. At the time, I could even remember her real name.
Jill is asked about her career, her husband’s career, the kids. Jill’s career is doing well. Her husband’s career is doing well. The woman who cleared off the couch cushion listens with a smile, nodding. We hear about the younger child and the cute things that happen as young children grow. Everyone smiles. I keep knitting my row, smiling and nodding, giving an aww or appropriate hum sound at the right times. The daughter who is close in age to mine is doing well in school.
“Of course she’s doing well, look where she comes from.” The remark comes from the woman beside Jill on the couch. Everyone else nods in agreement with indulgent smiles on their faces. Then I meet one eyeball, which turns quickly away from me. I look in another direction and meet the same result. Suddenly, everyone is focused on looking anywhere but at me. My cheeks feel hot, I might be blushing, but I can’t help it.
I feel so put down and compared to as all eyes are kept away from me. They realize it too but don’t know what to say. To say anything at this point would be worse than the comparison already made, one that I hope was unintentional, but from the smug look on the woman’s face as she turns back to her knitting, I’m not sure. My daughter is beautiful, talented, creative, reliable, caring and kind. But in that moment, all of that is beyond my speech ability because the girls are no longer the ones being compared.
“Look where she comes from.”
I don’t have a career. Most of my jobs have included me having to run the checkout, and sweeping and mopping the floor at the end of the night. My husband doesn’t have a college education or a career. He’s what is referred to as a cement dweller. He goes to a factory and spends his days standing on a cement floor bending and twisting metal all day. We don’t own a large house—up until a year earlier, we were living in a basement.
Even though I feel my daughter is just as talented as any other child, I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I can defend my baby, or myself. At that moment, it’s not the children who are being compared anymore, but their parents. “Where they come from.”
Comparing people is a dangerous thing. Comparing yourself to others is even worse. There’s no good that comes from seeing people as better or worse than each other. Our differences are just that: difference. I’ve spent years with the feeling of inadequacy I felt in the knitting group rolling around in my stomach until I realized that God has made me who I am, put trials into my life, and brought me through all the experiences I remember for a very specific reason. God doesn’t want me to fit in, God doesn’t want any of us to fit in. If that was the plan, we could all be perfect copies of each other.
Covid happens and two years go by when we don’t go to church in person. First, the virus made church into something that we watched on Zoom. Then we started reaching out, trying out other places, the vaccine was out, things were getting back to normal, but we still hadn’t gone back to our family church when I got an email. I read it once, then read it again before I went to my daughter.
“They’re having all the kids in your age group take turns reading a prayer in front of church.” I can’t believe it. I smile as I hold my phone with the email on the screen out to my daughter.
My young teen doesn’t have the same reaction. Her forehead crinkles. “Which church?”
I tell her it’s our family church.
She takes the phone, looks at the email for a few minutes, then puts it down. “I don’t really want to do it.”
I’m speechless with no idea even what to say. Where did my little girl who wasn’t afraid to talk in front of the whole church and came running alone down that red velvet covered aisle go? “Why not? Do you not want to talk in front of the church?”
“Not really, I hate doing things in front of people like that.”
That statement puts a tiny pain in my chest. Somewhere in the years between five and thirteen something happened to my bright smiling girl to make her just as afraid to be in the spotlight as me.
“Also,” she says, giving me my phone back, “I don’t want to miss the other church.”
Wow. I don’t say anything. This other church started out as just a place we went sometimes for a change. Then, it became the place we attended when our family church was still shutdown because of Covid. Now, suddenly, it’s the place where my daughter would rather go.
She’s still sitting, playing idly with a fringe on a throw blanket. “Actually, I don’t really think of the small church as my church anymore. I like going to the other one and helping with the babies.”
“You could help with the babies at our church too.”
“How many babies are there?”
“Um…” I chew on my lip. I’m not sure there are any babies at all.
I feel my overprotective mommy side rearing up from its dormant state. Is this what happened to my bright smiling five-year-old that made the shy young teen in front of me? “Were they mean to you?”
She shakes her head, “No, they never said anything mean, they just smiled or maybe said a little something about what I had said and then after a minute they would go back to just talking to each other like I never said anything at all, like I wasn’t even there. At our other church it’s not like that, the other kids who help in the room with me talk to me, not just each other. I like it better.”
Then she throws out the real bomb, “I don’t actually think of that as my church anymore. The new one is the one I think of as my church.”
My throat is tight. I’m fourth generation at our church. My daughter, who is now old enough to officially join church, but hasn’t, should have been the fifth generation. My father claimed that my great-grandfather was one of the founding members. I love history and legacies. I was not supposed to be the generation who dropped the ball.
But I think back to all the times I have felt not good enough, not appreciated, maybe even not welcomed. I wonder if that is what my baby felt too, down in the children’s activities, and I never knew.
And just like that Our Church has become My Church.
We are a result of how every interaction and experience has affected us. How others treat us and how we treat ourselves. The praise they give us or the way they avoid our gaze, or ignore the fact that we said something. We are every reaction we’ve ever had gathered into memories.
Another year passes and I’m sitting in My Church’s outreach group. The small group has become my lifeline to My Church, the thing that holds me and keeps me involved when my duty to my kids brings me weekly to another church that they enjoy, where they just need to be right now. Yet this is my place, where I need to be, a link to my past and, for better and worse, part of who I am. The people in the outreach group are the people who talk to me, see me, hear me. I feel accepted here, comfortable, and maybe even valued as a member of the church.
“I think we need to start with a paragraph or two in the newsletter to attract attention to the organization. Who is willing to write a little something that we could put in?”
At least three sets of eyes turn in my direction.
“You’re our writer, and a good one.” This comes from a woman who used to be in the knitting group, not the woman from the other story, but someone more like me. I smile. I’m actually getting compliments. And now I can’t refuse.
Afterwards, I’m walking out with one of the other members who has been one of the biggest supporters of my writing and one of my sources of inspiration in the last year. Someone who thinks my writing is good enough to cut the articles out of the paper and save. Now we’re talking about an article he helped get me started that will appear in a journal.
“I think your writing is important, so many people can learn from it. This is read by a lot of people; I think even in different countries.”
Different countries? “Wow, no pressure, huh?”
He stops. “Do you think it’s too much pressure?”
I shake my head, “No, just like everything else, I just have to be myself.”
Let the real you shine through.
There’s something more to us than experiences and memories, another element at our core, the natural us that seems to persist through it all. That little person inside that somehow seems to survive every storm, leap the hurdles, and come through the other side of every challenge somehow still intact. The real you.
This is the you intended by God. Where we really come from. Each of us has one. The you that persists through the changes and trials of life. Like that little girl who kept trying to outrun her older brother, the little girl my daughter was who wasn’t afraid to speak in her loudest voice in front of the whole congregation. That little person is always there, through all the moments that hurt, the hard times, and our trials. God protects it, tucks it away and keeps it safe for the days when we’ll be stronger, when we’ll find our voice, and someone will listen, smile, and even talk back.