[Note: This was written as an oral presentation and given on November 20, 2016.]
So, a couple of months ago, Max White approached me one Sunday after church and asked me to be one of the storytellers this month. I got a little panicky. I kind of wanted to run away. Then Max told me that Brenda Raker had suggested that I would be a good choice. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking.
(Later, I sent her an email that said, What were you thinking???
And Brenda wrote back, First, let me say that I am so glad that you did not just go running when Max came to you with this request). But the reason I didn’t run away was that, while Max was explaining what he wanted me to do—Tell the story of how you found a “home” at Central Christian Church, how you were made to feel welcomed and loved—I suddenly realized that he was offering me the chance to do something I had wanted to do for years. And that is to share with all of you the things that you did, simply by being who you are and doing what you do, that God used to let me know that I had found a
home in The House that Love Builds.
I grew up in church. My adult life had been intensely church-centered in a series of very conservative churches, from Midwestern fundamental holiness churches to New England Calvinist congregations. I even spent a few years as a Quaker.
But we evolve, and my personal theology no longer fit into the prescribed boxes that most faith traditions insist on. In fact, it never really had, and I finally got to the place where I just couldn’t do it any more. I was okay with God, but I was done with church. When I first came into contact with Central Christian, I hadn’t been in church in over 10 years, and I wasn’t planning to go back.
At some point, I had a talk with God about the conditions under which I might consider going back to church—someday. I had a list of non-negotiable requirements for this hypothetical church. These were my demands:
Open Table. No exceptions.
Intelligent, compassionate theology.
Full equality of women and men.
Total acceptance into the full life and leadership of the church for the LGBTQ community.
Communion every week, every worship.
I wish it made a good acronym, but it doesn’t. Oh, well.
After I’d given God my list of demands, I felt much better. I knew I would never have to go back to church, because the church I’d just designed clearly did not exist.
Then my son Jesse started dating Natalie White.
The theatre ministry and the people in it were my first introduction to Central Christian. Jesse and my daughter Rachel were in Central’s production of The Secret Garden. I was freshly divorced and completely obsessed with how I was going to keep my family alive as a single mom. My children were struggling to cope with the changes in their lives and with having a mother who was too distracted to spend much time with them. But through the theatre ministry, they were folded into the arms of a group of wonderful people who loved them and nurtured them and became family to them.
After one evening’s Secret Garden performance, Rachel was very stressed about meeting with a particular group of people who had come to see her that night and who she feared might be critical of her performance, but she pulled herself together and went out to meet them anyway. Suddenly, several men from the cast and crew, including Steve Worland, Tom Snyder, Adam Aldridge, David Tarter, and David Snow, knowing how nervous she was about it, showed up—and stood with her through the entire encounter, giving her moral support.
Then Jesse and Natalie started inviting me to sing in the choir with them, and I kept resisting. But, about the third time that they asked, I heard it—the still, small voice of God—and I knew this was a door I was supposed to walk through. I’d been involved with choirs and church music all my life; it was something I knew how to do. And so, not really thinking beyond the first rehearsal, I said yes.
Well, the choir could not have been more welcoming and hospitable. Susan Smith immediately tucked me under her wing and made me feel wanted and safe. There was so much laughter. Everyone worked so hard and so earnestly to make beautiful music to worship God. It wasn’t until the end of that first rehearsal, when Aaron started talking about what we would do on Sunday morning, that I realized what I had done. I had just committed to going to church. Every. Sunday.
And so I attended my first worship service at Central. Then God really started showing off.
On my first Sunday here, Randy started off by invoking Anne Lamott, who is one of my favorite writers.
I saw women serving as elders, presiding over communion. I was in my fifties at the time, and that was the first time I had ever seen a woman in a position of leadership and authority in a church.
Standing in the circle for Communion, out of the corner of my eye I saw David Snow join the circle next to Max White. The two of them linked their arms together and swung them back and forth, grinning like two five-year-olds on a playground. And I thought, maybe I can do this after all.
And that was just the first Sunday.
There was the ASK Sunday School class, where I found people who were not afraid to question everything, to struggle honestly to define their own theology, and to look beyond conventional interpretations.
The feisty women of the Esther Oval revived my faith in women’s church groups. They approach issues of faith, service, community, and social justice in fresh, original ways. The company is good, the conversation is lively, and the food is always amazing.
Can we talk about the music staff? We are so spoiled here; not all churches have been blessed with musicians of this caliber who bring both deep faith and extraordinary talent to the table. Central Christian’s music staff is unfailingly gifted, competent, and dedicated, and their music is exquisite—a blessing to us, and a worthy offering to God.
And then there were the messages God sent me through the words and actions of other people that let me know I was in the right place:
When Randy preached, “We must learn to trust our experience to shape our theology.” That was a revelation.
When Glen Snow, who was then president of the congregation, said that, although he respected a certain friend’s right to his own choices, he personally could not belong to a church in which women were considered lesser beings than men and were denied access to the same positions of leadership and authority. That spoke volumes about the character of this church.
When Andrew Raker, filling in for Randy one Sunday, gave his invitation with these words: “If you would like a family to walk God’s world with, consider joining us.” That was eloquent, and it went straight to my heart.
And when I finally did make the commitment to officially join this family, it took three people—Randy, and Deb and Steve Worland—to literally, physically, hold me up in love while Randy looked me straight in the eye and I repeated every word he said.
All the acts of welcome and hospitality that brought me to a place of safety and belonging at Central Christian occurred in the context of the work of a staff member, a ministry, or a program we enable by our giving. But what makes people feel welcomed and loved is not a program or a specific to-do list. It’s all of you—kind, honest, authentic people, filled with the Spirit of God, being who you are, saying what you mean, doing what you do. Those are the warm lights in the window of The House that Love Builds that let people know they’ve come home.
-Lori Brown Patrick