When I moved from Colorado to Pennsylvania in 2012, I not only moved away from friends who became family, our first home, the best weather in the world, access to all the best National Parks… I moved away from my local church. This local church was really special. It was a small church with just two rows of pews and an extra all-purpose room with folding chairs for the busier masses. It was one of those pioneer churches that I came to love so much. Nothing fancy, no air conditioning, just the tabernacle and some people in a room. Those people sometimes wore torn up jeans, sometimes had tattoos, sometimes came with their same sex partners, sometimes came smelling like weed.
And the music! The music was this amazing guy with a guitar and his kids and a few youth group kids. On Christmas Eve when I knew I was moving to Pennsylvania, they played Casting Crowns “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I don’t even like Casting Crowns, but the humility and love and talent and sacrifice that this youth group band had in their hearts and the warm cozy feeling in the church with about a foot of powder falling outside… We were in the second row and I was openly weeping. This was a special, sacred place. It wasn’t perfect but it was mine.
When we moved to Pennsylvania, we joined a church that was huge. Just really massive. It was gorgeous inside too. The stained glass, the architecture, a great sound system. Everything was new and shiny. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t greeted at the door and nobody said hi to me when they knew I was a stranger. I dug into the youth group as a volunteer, but I constantly felt like I was searching for something more in my community. I kind of said hi to people in my pew, but they never became friends. I had some struggles moving out here and nobody really noticed.
I opened up to a few other groups I joined. I know the people were trying their best, but every time I opened my mouth to say something, I was met with confused stares and probably a little judgement. I seemed to have this alien perspective that didn’t fit with what they thought a nice Christian girl should think or say. I saw a reality of a pilgrim church on earth in the foothills of the Rockies where everyone belonged. Nobody else saw that because nobody else went there.
For some, their faith was wrapped up in a culture and identity I didn’t share. They did things because that’s the way it was always done, not because it necessarily brought them happiness and a fresh new reality. Some of them mixed up culture wars and American political conservative values with our faith. And if I didn’t dress the way some of them wanted, or say the things some of them expected, or had a viewpoint that didn’t fit, I was kind of on my own.
I started to feel really alienated and it led me into all kinds of rotten weaknesses: grumbling, complaining, judging, murmuring (to put it biblically). I mean, here I am years later, and I guess I’m still murmuring! It’s hard to shake off hurt and rejection. It’s hard to remember the good things and the good people I encountered because all the other stuff left a bigger impression. I had what’s called negativity bias: my negative experiences allowed me to survive and keep going, but blurred out any other feeling or impression. I was NOT living my best life.
It’s taken me awhile to unpack it all and to allow God to rewrite that script a little. It’s taken me awhile to trust that I was plucked up from Colorado and placed in this exact place at this exact moment for His purpose. I left my home in Colorado through a lot of trust and obedience and listening to God’s call. He doesn’t do things casually and hope for the best. He works with purpose and certainty. I had to set aside my negativity and listen for Him to make sense of the change and use it for His purpose and glory.
Through me obeying and through me just being me, I attracted a bunch of people into my circle. With youth group and with teaching, I often joke that I was the “Island of Misfit Toys” from that old Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie. All kinds of kids started trusting me with themselves and their hearts. They felt safe around me. The outcasts. The lonely. The flamboyant. The wacky. The funny. The unpopular and rejected. I didn’t do anything specific and I certainly didn’t disclose too much about my identity or my past. I guess I was just a safe haven, and I tried to love them for who they were, not who the world wanted them to be. I also think that when we are authentic we welcome authenticity in others, and draw it out from them.
I looked around at the youth of the church and I found the home I was searching for. I went to a giant youth conference a few times and felt that same passion and inspiration that the kids did. I fit in with the young church, not the old. The future of the church was bright and optimistic and full of energy. It was exactly what I needed to grow in my faith and inspired me to keep going.
The problem? I was old enough to be their mom. I had a very select few tight friends in my faith, but I didn’t have a lot of peers on Sundays saying and thinking and doing and showing me a reflection of myself or something to work toward. I was like, “ok, I’m going to be strong for the misfits and the alienated and the weird and lonely,” but that left me a little alone sometimes. I was bereft of example or a path forward.
And that’s where you come in.
No matter who you are or where you’ve been, you belong. No matter what you say or what you do, you belong. No matter what you believe or what you doubt, you belong. No matter who you vote for or who you root for, you belong. No matter what you look like, you belong. No matter your abilities or talents, you belong. No matter your outlook, no matter your upbringing, no matter your race or ethnicity, no matter you gender or sexuality, no matter your past, no matter your future, you belong.
How many time was Jesus Himself the Island of Misfit Toys? Pretty much every day! He had a pretty strange collection of friends and disciples: tax collectors, adulterers, day laborers, unbelievers, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, the unclean, the needy, the rejected, the alone. I mean, look at the Beatitudes! It’s a listing of all the people left behind. The meek. Those who mourn. The poor in spirit. In His culture at that time, the people around Him weren’t always the people who fit, who had a place, who were admired or sought out. They were just an odd collection of people who needed Him. It was that simple. And it was through them that His light was shining the brightest.
If you’re feeling left out or alone, I ask you to come to church on Sunday. Not because you are going to feel welcome or it’s going to be easy. Not because people are going to be super friendly and love you right away. Not because you agree with everything you hear. Do it for me. I need to see you in the pews so I can see myself there too. I need to see people bravely trusting God despite their past or the way they look or who they love. I need to see people working on it and working through it.
When I was in high school, I had a radical conversion to Christianity (despite being a Catholic from infancy). I thought I knew what that Christianity should look like. I spent a bunch of time throwing out my novels about vampires and my explicit pop music and embracing this wholesome ideal I thought I was supposed to be. I thought if I chased after modest skirts and positive, encouraging music, I would be a Christian. And it was that splitting and that conflict that caused me to walk away from my faith a few years later. I wanted all the things I wasn’t supposed to want. I had fun doing the things that I thought I wasn’t supposed to do.
My journey back to my faith was long and a little complicated, but as I got closer to now and to Him, all those disparate parts started fitting together. I didn’t have to hide from God. I could be my whole self with Him. Good and bad, modest and immodest, crazy and sane, conforming and rebellious, curious and secure, content and discontent, questioning and believing, rejecting and accepting. God saw my wholeness and didn’t require the splitting of everything into “good” and “bad” in my heart. He called me to righteous living, but He knew I liked all that other stuff, I had fun with all that other stuff, and my heart was in a lot of that other stuff. With Him, though, nothing went to waste.
I wish back then I had met someone who accepted all of that. I think it would have been a little faster and easier to follow Christ. And in that giant, lonely, anonymous Church I found when I moved here, I think it would have made it easier to be myself and stick around. We packed up and moved to a different church, but I wish I could have stayed and uplifted the misfits in the pews next to me. It was just too hard and too much of a fight.
So if you feel like you don’t belong or you look like nobody else you see on Sundays or you have a past or a present that don’t fit the mold, please stick around. Please keep attending. Please stop taking out your piercings and covering up your tattoos. Please stop censoring your speech or your opinions. You may not be in the pew next to me, but someone else needs you there. Be braver than I was and stronger than I was. Stick around. Fight the good fight. Welcome everyone like the brothers and sisters of Christ people really are.
Because we are all on a journey home. We are all messing up and saying and doing things wrong, but we are all trying to get there the best we can. Home is where the heart is, right? And whether that’s a heart-shaped locket or a heart tattoo with mom scrolled in the middle of it, you belong. You belong in front of the altar and in front of Christ. You are welcome here. I want to see more of us in the pews because I think there are people who don’t attend because nobody showed up to say it was ok to be themselves. Nobody was there to tell them that we’re all being formed and crafted and changing and moving forward together, through the strength of God. We’re not supposed to be perfect or acceptable or ok or wholesome. We’re supposed to be sons and daughters of a King who love and are loved.
Next time you consider hiding yourself in the back of church, please move to the front so I can see you. So I can see myself. So I can know it’s ok and that there are others. I need you. Christ needs you. And you belong.
P.S. These fun pictures are from one of my trips to China. My traveling companions were funny, sweet, kind, joyful, and just who I needed to spend my days with. As Vonnegut once wrote, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I couldn’t agree more.