In a conversation, it won’t take long for me to tell you that I don’t like church. By this, I mean the traditional 21st century Western practice of church services and the general practices of organized Christian religion. As I’ll explain later, I truly love the Church when defined as the community that follows the practices and way of Jesus.
I don’t really enjoy going to church. I’m skeptical of churches asking people for money. I’m concerned about the racial and gender divides in the church. 90% of sermons bore me. People and institutions that have huge amounts of community power and wealth are automatically given a bit of side eye from me. My list of questions and critiques towards the 21st century Western church is very long. Which is why it’s probably surprising to some that, starting in August 2017, I’ll be working for a church in Washington, D.C. Here’s the story.
My journey of doubt in the church began in a place that was healthy in some ways and unhealthy in other ways. Born out of a desire to see God move in miraculous ways, I began attending two churches. One was my “home” church, where my parents and grandparents went, and the other was a small charismatic church. I loved both for different reasons, but grew to love the charismatic church more. I wanted to see the same miracles happening at my home church and started getting bitter and cynical when they didn’t happen as quickly as I would have liked. Despite my bitterness, I was very involved at both places and was told multiple times by numerous people that I should consider going into ministry. I thought that’s what I wanted and would tongue in cheek tell people that I wanted to be a “professional Christian” (I hate myself now for even saying those words…) I learned how to be an “insider” and how to speak the church language.
The seeds of my discontent with Christian churches grew even quicker as I delved into studying ecclesiology (the study of the church) and found a vision for Christian community that I longed to see take place in my world. I left the “organizational” (or “institutional”) church and began seeking community in smaller groups, in house churches. As this journey continued, I found it harder and harder to be even inside a church building. Not only was I rethinking if churches should have their own massive buildings, but I felt stifled by the performance aspects, the limited participation, and lack of connection. I questioned the structure, the mechanics, the purpose behind the entire expression of Christian churches that I saw all around me.
All of this might feel like complaining (and in my early days it was), but over time I learned to see the church as wonderful and longed see even more of God’s kingdom come on earth. The church is the visible representation of God’s wisdom and love and I wanted to see people with disabilities, people from different racial backgrounds, men and women, people from all social classes, discover the beauty of the gospel to them. I came to a place of accepting that I just didn’t really fit into the church world anymore and that was okay. Throughout my college years, I attended church off and on, but primarily because I had friends going to church and I wanted to continue building my friendships.
During college (and afterwards) I also started becoming friends more and more with people who didn’t really fit into the church and some who had been forced out. These were friends who had experienced true and deep harm at the hands of Christian communities. It ranged from people being pigeonholed into racial stereotypes to LGBTQ friends not being accepted to women who had experienced sexual assault in the church. As I looked more and more outside the church, I saw people who had been very seriously injured by Christian communities. As I brought up these people in conversations with other Christians, my dislike of church intensified. A common response was something along the lines of “God didn’t do that, people did, we have to live by faith in God and not in people. Every community is going to hurt you.”
As I was having these conversations, I was also deepening my understanding of trauma and healing. There is a major difference between a community hurting you (because yes, people aren’t perfect) and a community inflicting harm on you because of your race, sexuality, gender, class, or other identities. Anyways, all of that to say, I started getting heated up around church communities and feeling more and more like an outsider myself. I found it harder and harder to connect with Christians and began to find my primary source of community from my activist/community organizing circles. By 2016, at the end of my first year in Washington, D.C. I had basically written off Christian communities. Like Howard Thurman, in his wonderful book “Jesus and the Disinherited”, I asked “what does the gospel and the community of gospel believers mean for the oppressed, for those whose backs are against the wall?” Increasingly, I wondered if the modern church had any meaning in light of the global crisis of displacement, the national injustice of mass incarceration, and seemingly endless war on poverty that often feels more like a war on poor people.
I first heard about Grace Capital City (GCC) through Twitter. The details are iffy, but somehow I saw them through a tweet on Greg Boyd’s twitter. I was intrigued by a church that seemingly was in line with Boyd’s stream of thought. It was another six or seven months before I decided to go to Grace in person. It was the first time in almost six years that I had gone to a church for the explicit purpose of going to a church. At this point they were a small group meeting in the basement of a hotel and I went in with all of my barriers and walls up. That first impression reminded me of my charismatic past, in a good way, but to be honest, I wasn’t overjoyed with the experience. The people seemed incredibly friendly though. It felt like a dinner that tasted sort of bland, but had potential to be delicious. Afterwards, as I was biking home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that GCC was a church on a mission for this city and that I was supposed to join. So I kept going, but my barriers stayed up. The church barriers started coming down when I heard Chris, our pastor, talk about justice and the importance of black lives matter, as well as the need for disagreement within the church, but they were still there.
It’s hard to explain this to people who haven’t felt it. The unshakeable feeling that you don’t fit in. That you’re an outsider. The stifling, almost imprisoning, feeling I had when I walked in a church building. I’ll admit openly that some of this had to do with my own inner struggles. I went from an insider to an outsider and didn’t know how to live with those dual identities. I just knew I didn’t feel like I fit in. There were several times I got to the hotel, only to turn around and head back home. One vivid experience was at our pastors house. I believe it was for a newcomers event and we were going over the church’s statement of faith. I remember my heart starting to beat faster, my throat constricting, my stomach turning into a knot and a feeling of panic coming over me. I couldn’t stop thinking of my friends who didn’t have the same faith as me, my friends who did have the same faith, but were sincerely expressing it in different ways, and wondering if they would feel welcome here. Despite my misgivings, I started going to a house church and continued attending the church.
I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was out of place. But that began to change for me after I lost my bike. I was having lunch with a friend near DuPont Circle and walked out to find my beloved Pudgy the Porcupine (my lovely bike) gone. Given that I had just spent $200 repairing Pudgy and relied on my bike for transportation, I was bummed. I knew I would find a way to make ends meet, but it still was upsetting and a definite financial hit. As I walked dejectedly home, voicing my frustration to God as I often do, I felt the Spirit nudging my heart and whispering the word “Grace”. I took this word to heart and prayed for God’s grace to meet my needs and provide. It was the next week at my house church that I understood what God meant. Before we got started for that evening, a friend called us together and announced that, unknown to me, the church had raised a sizeable amount of money for me in order to purchase a new bike. I was in shock. I wasn’t being treated like an outsider or an insider, but like family. The thawing process started in my heart and I began engaging more and more with the church.
As time has gone on, I’ve found a group of people that care about me, even in all my strangeness, obsession with social justice, and crazy life schedule. I still don’t feel like I fit in, but I feel like I’m loved and cared for. Applying to work at Grace Capital City was not an expected decision, but I felt moved by the Spirit to become even more committed to this new family. It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. If you were to ask me about the questions and concerns I have about church structure and mechanisms we would be talking for a very long time. It doesn’t really feel comfortable for me to say that I will be working for a church. However, I can’t shake the feeling that the Spirit has led me into this.
Washington D.C. has captured my heart and I truly love this city. I believe that Grace Capital City wants to be a community, a family, that makes their home here and that blesses this wonderful place. As someone who goes between activist/community organizing spaces and faith spaces, I feel like my experience of being ostracized and skeptical towards the church can help our community learn to love others more. I also believe it can help others to see a different side of faith and religious communities.
I spend a lot of time with people whose lives have been marked by injustice and inequality, who are cautious around the church and who have every right to do so. I also spend a lot of time with people who have found the church to be a beautiful place of connection and love. Really, all I want to do is bring people together and help us all understand each other better. We need to stand up and fight for each other in this crazy world full of evil and injustice. My prayer is that I’ll be able to serve as a catalyst for that in some ways through Grace Capital City.
In many ways, I’m still a cynic. I’m still skeptical. I still don’t really like church. Joining the Grace Capital City family as one of their ministry apprentices is a way that I believe the Spirit is healing me and healing the world.
In the words of my favorite disciple of Jesus “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoice in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the lowliness of his servant…he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”-Luke 1:46-47,53.
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