The Perpetual Stranger: On Being Known
Church has been a part of my existence since birth.
I was at church, cuddled and coddled and passed around, from infancy onward. In 43 years, I’ve attended just four churches as a regular participant. The one of greatest duration, the Campbell Church of Christ, has been my home and family for a combined total of 34 years.
I’ve left the Campbell Church twice. The first time, I was moving to New England – Maine – to be closer to my then-boyfriend, Gabe. I remember vividly the Sunday I left, voices lifted in worship trailing behind me as I slipped out mid-service through the side door for the airport.
The second time was seven months ago, ironically, for similar reasons. I was moving back to New England – New Hampshire – with my husband of 18 years, Gabe, and our two sons. I posted this the week we left:
For nearly 40 years I have been nurtured, loved, supported, and a few times, carried by, the imperfect, authentic, and compassionate people who make up the Campbell Church of Christ.
We leave here with heavy hearts, knowing we will never find another family quite like this one, but hopeful in the belief that God will provide us with another imperfect, authentic, and compassionate group to walk beside in this next chapter.
Thank you for showing interest in me when I was an awkward and angsty teen.
Thank you for carrying us through loss, illness, disappointments, even death.
Thank you for cheering me on through 16 years of school.
Thank you for welcoming me back as a newlywed, for enveloping my new husband into the family.
Thank you for getting us through the early years of parenthood, three moves, endless hands to help remodel and haul and landscape.
Thank you for so many hot meals on the darkest days.
Thank you for mothering me when I was motherless.
Thank you for loving my boys, for offering childcare and education that loved them and taught them and nurtured them.
Thank you for the sacrifice of literally hundreds of volunteers, for years of VBS, and camp, and Christmas programs, and so much more, just so that my kids would feel connected, inspired, and engaged.
Thank you for your transparency, for your willingness to grow and change and refine.
Thank you for the worship. Every last note, every a Capella, every keyboard, and every guitar, for four-part harmony, and Great Songs of the Church.
Thank you for looking past our flaws and failures, for empowering each of us to see ourselves as He sees us.
Thank you for all the unconditional, grace-filled love.
Never once did we ever walk alone.
We are grateful.
Upon arriving in New Hampshire, we set about promptly trying to fill that emotional and spiritual void. With open minds, we pulled into a new parking lot nearly every week, little white churches with charming New England steeples, optimistic and hopeful of what we’d find within the clapboard walls.
But we didn’t find Campbell.
Sunday after Sunday, I sat in a strange pew in a strange building, trying to warble along with songs that are somewhat familiar, looking around and seeing no mortal soul that I have ever met before. Sunday after Sunday, different strange buildings and different strange pews, but the same stranger – me – every time.
Many of those Sundays, I sniffled and gulped through the service, trying to keep myself from all-out sobbing.
I was not prepared for this schism, this painful extraction from my spiritual kin. It was agony. Longing for, but not fully understanding why, the gift of being known.
To be known – to walk into the room, and like it or not – be enveloped in bear hugs. Pestered over weekday duties. Anecdotes offered. To see faces I’d known for decades or more.
I was a daughter of that church. I even remember my first Sunday there, it was June, and my parents had just moved to the area from Blacksburg, Virginia so that my dad could attend graduate school. We slipped in the side door then, late, a bit lost, and my uncle, who was working for the church at the time, jumped up from his seat to envelope us all in a giant hug.
From that point onward, it was home.
I knew how to welcome the stranger, but I never learned how to be one.
And thus, every Sunday for the last several months, my heart cracks wide open in these places of worship. Weeks have turned into months and I’ve found that what I used to anticipate I have begun to dread. Another Sunday as a stranger. We would stay with one church a while, a few weeks in a row, trying to find a place for ourselves. The people we met were reserved, but kind. Good people, who loved Jesus.
But it wasn’t Campbell.
Even still, we’ve been blessed by the experiences of all those different churches. We took the opportunity afterward to talk with our boys about how they felt and what they experienced. Some things were very unusual to us (much to his horror, my 13-year-old inadvertently took a cup full of wine instead of juice in one communion service). In another setting, my 9-year-old noted that he was the only child in the entire service — a good indication that it wasn’t the family-oriented body of believers we were looking for.
And as so many have said before, there is no place quite like Campbell. I knew this when we left, but I didn’t fully understand.
In hindsight, I would have lowered my expectations on finding a new church right away. We should have simply attended and visited with no intention of deciding, not for several months anyway, allowing ourselves – or rather, me – time to grieve the loss. Time to fully accept, head, and heart, and soul, that we would not ever have exactly what we left behind, but we would find a family again. Realizing that wherever we go, community is what we make it out to be. It won’t be easy, to rebuild, but it is possible.
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