I remember being in middle school and during lunch time I would stop by the table with the special needs children. I would say hi and ask those who could communicate with me how their day was going. I would sometimes even sit with them and talk for a little while before heading on my way to my next class. I’d like to think that it was comforting for some of them to be surrounded by people that were like them but that it hopefully brought some joy into their lives that someone who was not quite like them took the time to engage in conversation with them or to just say hi. Even though this kind of thing was frowned on by my peers and no one really understood, I did it anyway. Instead of being the one picking on them or laughing at them I choose to be kind and love on them.
While this is a good memory and a kind act, I didn’t always make these types of choices. I’m sure that we all at some point have had choices to make and didn’t make the best one because at times I think we make choices without regard to how they will affect the future. For example, I grew up in the baptist church. And for so long the encounters and experiences I had with church I thought were limited to just me. But as we grow older and meet more people, we start to talk about our experiences more. The more I talked about how I grew up and the things I experienced in reference to baptist churches (not all of them were the same just some of the ones I went to with my parents) the more I learned that I was not the only one that had this experience.
Going to church was not always the greatest experience. I do have some memories of fun things such as going to vacation bible school or sunday school with kids my age. Most of my experiences that I can remember are tied to having to always wear a dress. How you looked when you went to churh was important. Girls wore dresses, not pants. I had to wear panty hose or tights. I also had to wear a slip under every dress or skirt I wore. As an adult I don’t own one single slip. I haven’t worn one probably since I was a child! I also recall being older and just growing in life. I was a responsible young adult. I worked a full time job. I was also coming into a space of freedom. I didn’t attend church as regurlarly as I used to but when I did attend I didn’t feel welcomed. I felt judged or like I was being reprimanded for missing church. Because of this feeling it lead me to gradually stop attending. Not to mention I didn’t really understand why I needed to go in the first place. I got baptized at the age of 9 and while it was explained to me I don’t think I got the full magnitude of it until I was much older.
I moved back to the town I would consider “home” in many ways because it was the place the military had allowed our family to live in the longest. I started going to one of the churches I attended as a teenager. The church was familiar to me so when my friend invited me to attend one Sunday morning I said sure. I was always warmly welcomed every time I went. I always enjoyed service (even though the first month I cried every Sunday. God was doing something new in me). It became my church home and later the place I would work at.
When I first started working there one of the main challenges I encountered was my attitude. My face often told what I was thinking or feeling and I often responded before thinking about how my response would be interpreted (rude is how it would be interpreted). It took many moments of me getting scolded, watching how people looked when I responded or even having people tell me that they didn’t like my response before things started to eventually click. I often thought in my head that I just didn’t like people and that’s why I responded the way that I did. Even though I had loved people all of my life and hadn’t always responded in this manner. However, at this time in my life I had gone through and was still going through some very tough things. It changed me in ways I did not like. Over time I came to learn and understand that it wasn’t that I didn’t like people, it was more so that I didn’t like me. I had some things that I needed to change about myself. I had some growing to do.
When life has taken us through tough situations we often don’t want to connect with people because we feel ashamed, hurt, and often times people can see the things in us that we are struggling with but we don’t want to face. Being around people consistently and building relationships means we have to grow. If we’re in the right relationships they will push us to grow and change. Sometimes we just aren’t ready to face it. We aren’t ready to deal with the hurt and pain so that we can grow. But with the people I surrounded myself with I really didn’t have a choice. And as I began to make the necessary changes I started to see things differently. I started to think differently which then resulted in my acting differently.
I got to a place where I really loved the people that I came into contact with each week either during Wednesday or Sunday service or during the week in the office. I didn’t have to constantly tell myself to be nice or to respond in love or to smile because I genuinely already felt those things inside and that resonated with the people I came into contact with. I stopped seeing the looks people gave when I responded poorly. I started hearing things like “You bring so much light into the room.” “Your smile lights up the place.” “You’re such a pleasant person.” “You are so kind.” Hearing these things further encouraged me and reminded me of how far I had come. I started making it a goal to learn people’s names and to learn a little about them. I interacted with people more. What I came to realize is that I had come to a place where I loved myself and that showed. Because I loved myself it was much easier for me to love and connect with other people.
How does this tie into my experiences at church when I was younger? God put me in a position to be the change. He put me in a place when I was wounded and needed growth. I needed to be stretched beyond my comfort zone. And then after all of the changing and growing and discomfort He allowed me to be the opposite of what I had experienced. Although initially I was similar in attitude to what I had grown up in, I allowed God and the influences around me to change me and grow me up so that I could be different. I wanted people to come to church and feel welcomed and loved not judge. We had a great team that did that when people came on the church campus but that didn’t have to just stop with them. We convince ourselves sometimes that because someone else is doing the good thing or volunteering to help that we don’t need to. We make ourselves believe that we aren’t needed or that we don’t need to be apart of the change.
I hear so many people complaining about churches. They have things they don’t like, experiences that they’ve had that have deterred them from attending church or other events. And I get it. But I wish people would think more along the lines of their reasoning for attending church…..is it so that everything will line up with their list of demands so that they will feel comfortable or it is it so that they can change? Is it because they’re seeking something and they know they need to go to church to receive it? Churches are often full of damaged people. No one is perfect. Everyone is in some way trying to be better. But whether it’s church or sitting with kids who are different at school, connecting with the strange co worker no one talks to, be the difference you want to see. Find something to connect to in that church or school or job, examine your reasoning for going and then be apart of the change there. If you want people to experience something other than what you’ve experienced learn to be the change. We too often wait for somene to change things in our enviroments when we can be the actual change.