Updated: May 13, 2020
(I want to preface this particular journal/blog entry with a disclaimer: This is about MY journey. This is NOT a slam on any particular church, church leader, denomination or faith group. I have been a part of several churches over the years and have had positive and negative experiences at ALL of them. So if you are reading this trying to figure out who did what and when, don’t. In fact, don’t read it at all and continue on your merry way. I have no desire to church bash, gossip or join any bitch fest about any particular church, church leader, denomination or faith group. At all. ALL churches have amazing people and amazing ministries and ALL churches have people with crappy attitudes and crappy agendas. It’s called PEOPLE. Carry on.)
For a variety of reasons over the last several years, I found myself slowly drifting away from the church. Not from my FAITH, but from the CHURCH as in the “show-up-on-Sunday-and-sing-shake-hands-attend-our-membership-class-join-a-small-group-see-you-next-week” kind of thing. I wouldn't say that it was one particular place or one particular person that planted that seed of disdain. I think it was the result of several personal and collective experiences and seeing a growing disconnect between the church leadership and the people it served, both within its walls and in its communities. (Again, ALL of the churches I have ever been a part of have had some amazing programs that have served their communities deeply. This is not a slam on those.) Because of my own experiences, I found my jaded eye landing more easily on the stories of how the church was failing the people, particularly in America. It was discouraging, frustrating and even angering to see church leaders exposed again and again as hypocrites and even criminals, taken down by their own mistakes and sometimes even by the cruelty of the people that they served. Watching pastors lose hope and give up. Watching huge gloriously beautiful buildings be built while the people inside crumbled from despair, greed, distrust and selfishness. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that a large part of the American church (not all… definitely not all) had turned its back on the most vulnerable people in our communities and world. I didn’t know what to do about it or where to go but I knew I didn’t want to be a part of any group that talked about God and His love for the world but couldn’t get past their own schedules, agendas and doctrine to actually BE the hands of Jesus to a world that needed it desperately. I felt hopeless. So I chose to just walk away.
The ensuing years I spent reading my bible daily, developing my prayer life (birthing a surprise prayer doodle ministry) and giving of my time and resources whenever I could. Even though my life was full with serving, being in the Word, praying, and spending time with my friends (both believer and non-believer), there was still an emptiness inside me. I missed the closeness of fellowship with fellow believers I saw every weekend in a church service but every time I would attend a church service I always walked out feeling discouraged. Annoyed. Uneasy. I could never really put my finger on it – and I tried, TRUST ME I tried - but I kept hearing the voice of one of my old pastors saying, “the Church is the bride of Jesus… to hate the church is to hate His bride…” Well, I’d been to plenty of weddings where I wasn’t a huge fan of one of the stars, so it wasn’t too difficult to picture myself sitting down with Jesus (really arrogant of me, I know) saying, “I know that I’m not supposed to say this and you might strike me down for this but Mr. Jesus… your bride is a bitch. Are you AWARE of how absolutely awful she is being???” (Please save all of your helpful advice on my sin of pride, or how I was being REALLY judgmental of my fellow “Christians,” or my arrogance in assuming I can just walk up and say such things to Jesus Himself, etc. I’ve been there with it ALL in my own head, taken it to Him in prayer OVER AND OVER again… I’m working it out with Him. Just pray for me and keep it to yourself, please.)
There were a few attempts to “push through” my obvious negativity and, surprise, they didn’t last. Then one day, I found myself scrolling through Facebook and pausing on a post about going to South Africa by my friend Shannon. She wrote that her church was sending a team of people to South Africa to teach an agriculture course and that the church itself was subsidizing part of the cost for each person, making it far more affordable than in the past. Well, I had always wanted to go to Africa and I had just gotten my passport the year before for our trip to Ireland. I knew Lee wasn’t too keen on going to Africa himself and thought, “Hey, this is a great opportunity! I can go see Africa and do something good in the process!” I was pretty sure that I could raise the money I’d need in time so I asked Lee if he would be cool with it and he said “yeah!” (I think he was secretly grateful I wasn’t asking him to go with me at that point. 😊) I sent Shannon a message that I was interested and asked what I needed to do be a member of the church so I could go (I was that desperate to go on the trip). I was shocked when she said that wasn’t a criteria. She said that non-members were welcome, everyone (members included) just had to pass background checks. I was intrigued by this inclusivity and I signed up, soon finding myself on a jumbo jet headed to Johannesburg with 16 people I didn't know. I only knew Shannon. I was nervous and guarded, but I was also hopeful and excited.
The next ten days were a whirlwind of emotions, experiences, sights and connections. I became friends with the people on my team, who accepted me and took me in as their own, no questions asked. (And I only had one emotional meltdown brought on partially by travel exhaustion and stress.) The couple who ran the house we stayed in and the organization we served with inspired me with the strength of their love of Jesus and their humble service to the people around them. The village where we taught an agriculture class (also stressful for me… I am a very reluctant gardener) was in a rural community and the people were friendly, funny and welcoming. They sang for us EVERY day. They welcomed us openly and completely. While I was there, I forgot I was white. They didn’t care what color I was. Just that I was there with them, spending time with them, laughing and sharing stories. Every one of the people I met there endeared themselves to me in a way I can never really put into words. (I’ve been trying for over a year.) I looked around and saw how they took care of each other, these people who had nothing compared to what we all had back home. And yet, they took in children and raised them, without question. Sick and elderly people took care of their fellow sick and elderly neighbors. No one was left out. At one point, as we sat in one villager’s home and prayed for a young man struggling with illness, I looked around and had a very deep sense of belonging… of purpose. I thought to myself, "THIS is what the church is SUPPOSED to be." I began to feel some stirrings of hope that perhaps the church wasn’t completely awful and there was hope that the church back home could find its way again. I left South Africa not only with a new family (my teammates as well as the villagers we met), but also with a willingness to at least walk into a church building on a Sunday and attend a service again.
Did I start attending church weekly and become a member of my “new” church? No. No neatly wrapped endings here, sorry. I attend occasionally in person, more often via the web. I have begun to attend other church events, meeting other people, getting to know them and letting down my guard a little more so they can get to know me. It’s slow progress, but progress nonetheless.
This year, I returned to South Africa. This time, I went to Cape Town and l knew more than just Shannon. Two of the girls who had been on the previous trip were returning with us and Shannon and I had FINALLY convinced a dear friend of us to join us along with her daughter. Once again, I was profoundly impacted by the people of South Africa – black or white – and how welcoming they were to us. Once again, I forgot I was white. (This is probably one of my favorite things about being in South Africa… When I am amongst my family there, I feel less different and awkward than I do ANYWHERE ELSE. Except maybe Ireland.)
Instead of being in a rural area like the year before, this time we served in a small section of Khayelitsha, a massive settlement of temporary metal shacks. There was a much different dynamic as far as safety and logistics of getting everyone around and such, but the general experience was the same. The church exists there to serve the community in a very real and profound sense. They reach out to EVERYONE, especially the most vulnerable people in their communities. They help teach basic life skills, agriculture courses so people can learn to grow their own healthy food even with limited space and resources, caring for the sick, feeding the children (for many, it’s the ONLY meal they get each day), education, even safe sex practices (in a country that has the highest rates of HIV/AIDS, this is a very real and critical need). They don't need a building to do ministry. They work out of tents and metal shacks. It doesn’t matter if the people they serve attend the church and it doesn’t matter if they have accepted Christ. The church shows up. And they LOVE.
And, oh yeah, they teach about Jesus, too. They teach about Him not only on Sundays in church and during the week in prayer meetings, but also when they pray over each other, help a community member with food or medical care, feed the children, etc. Like the year before, I met church leaders who blew me away with their humble service and quiet, profoundly inspiring faith. One day early in our trip, our team sat with several of the African pastors in a Q & A session. One of the pastors asked us why WE came and for those of us who had been before, why had we come BACK? His innocent inquiry was met with a thick silence and I looked around at my teammates and saw that several of us were choked up. (Mostly because we couldn’t find the words to adequately express why we had come back and partly because we were slightly delusional from flying 25+ hours around the world the day before.) I spoke up and tried to explain (through my tears) why I had returned. “I came back because what I saw and experienced last year when I was here gave me hope that the church isn’t dead. I came back because you showed me what the church is supposed to be – the hands and feet of Jesus in a very real way – and I needed to see that again. You have just told us how much it means to you that we come all this distance to see you and help you but what you don’t know is that YOU. TEACH. US. YOU inspire US. You give US hope.”
Yeah, I cried.
One day in the middle of our trip, the pastors had us go with them to several homes of community members to pray for them. As we walked through the narrow lanes between metal shacks, I heard my team members and the Africans with us talking about Jesus and the ministry we were all doing together. I thought to myself, “THIS is what Jesus did. He walked WITH people and talked WITH them as He did so. He didn’t always stand in one place with people gathered around while He told them what to do. It seems like He was walking a lot. SERVING and teaching AS HE SERVED.” I realized that is part of what I hate about Sunday church… Everyone is sitting, listening (hopefully) and then they leave. For too many people that’s it. They don’t get up. They don’t go out and work out that faith or apply the lesson. I think this is part of what frustrates me so much. I’m very much a “walk with me, teach me as we serve together” kind of person. I understand that not everyone is. I haven’t always been this way and I may not always BE this way. And I’m okay with that. I also acknowledge that I (personally) hate the light show and the fog machines because I just feel like I’m at a concert. I don't mind the sermons (but I admit that I’m grateful I can just watch them on the internet). I’m not a huge fan of the “turn-and-shake-everyone’s-hands” time (probably now dead due to the pandemic), but I know that there are people who REALLY love those parts of the Sunday church service and I am grateful it's there for them. And I am also okay that it's there. And I'm learning to be okay with the fact that I'm not okay with all of that. There’s a lot of people who are not going to be okay with me and that’s (yep, you guessed it) OKAY. God is there in the church with the fog machine and the lights and the people shaking hands. And he is in my studio as I listen to a sermon and I pray for the people that have asked me to pray for them. He is in a sea of metal shacks near Cape Town, South Africa where a pastor who wears a Hakuna Matata t-shirt prays for his people. He is in the village of Mareetsane with a pastor who teaches his villagers how to plant a garden. He walks the brightly painted walls of a preschool where African children play and sing and learn. God is everywhere. Everywhere I want him to be and everywhere I don't.
When I message with my new friends in South Africa I want so badly to try to explain how much they have ministered to me without even knowing it. They’ve shown me what is important. They’ve shown me what really matters. They’ve shown me what it’s like to belong, to be accepted. They have helped restore my faith in people, in church leaders and in the world at large. They can have no idea how much they have touched my heart and my very soul. They have no idea how much God has used them in the life of this quirky white girl in Arizona.
Africa has sown seeds of hope in me. Hope and trust. Hope that the church here can find its roots again and trust in a God that sees beyond borders, beyond color, beyond buildings, beyond resources.
God took me to Africa so I could hear His voice again.
And so I could find the other part of my family.