Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing stories of people’s church experiences—some inspiring, some frustrating, some encouraging, some heartbreaking. Today’s comes to us from the warm and talented J.R. Goudeau. J. is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers and a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees here. Enjoy!
My friend Sae, a 19-year-old Burmese refugee, went into labor last Monday. She hasn’t lived in Austin long; she moved here from a refugee camp in Thailand. Her scared young husband was at the hospital with her. When the doctor told Sae it was time, her husband called Tandy, an American woman who has been teaching Sae English for the last few months. Tandy got up there as fast as she could.
The hospital is one of the most stressful places for refugee women. The lights and sounds were bewildering enough for me the two times I went into labor. I only imagine how hard it was for Sae. I love that she wanted Tandy with her. Tandy stayed in the hospital room all night, armed with a water bottle, a granola bar, and her camera.
I know Tandy from church. When she called to tell me about Sae, I was already emailing with Rachel about this guest post. It seems fitting that all of this happened this week. If I hadn’t gone to this church, I would have missed the story that led to Tandy being in that hospital room holding Sae’s hand while she labored.
It took us forever to find a church when we moved to Austin. We tried out a few, including a church we loved that felt too far away. In the end, we picked a church in our neighborhood. It didn’t tick all of our boxes (we wanted diverse, it was homogenous; we wanted lower socioeconomics, it was pretty suburban). But it was close, it was multigenerational, and it was healthy.
It turns out, most of our criticisms of this new church were things they were already working on. Just before we arrived, they had started partnering with another church in a lower-income neighborhood. At a fall festival put on by these two churches, we met a bunch of Burmese refugees. When we began teaching them English, volunteers from our church came with us. When we found out the women were weavers, our church bought us yarn. When we learned they needed looms, an elder from our church carved the sticks.
When the artisans wove their traditional bags, our church offered the foyer for a fair trade festival. When we laid our first bags on a table, we all but sold out in four hours. We knew then we could do this project. That day we launched Hill Country Hill Tribers.
When a refugee friend came to us to ask for a job, we called our church. They hired him as a janitor on the spot. When we found out that man’s wife made jewelry, our church bought the supplies for her to crochet these gorgeous necklaces.
We watched that quiet woman become a leader and teacher for other Hill Country Hill Triber artisans within months; the money she earned and the respect that she felt from using her gifts to support her family made a difference in her life.
And so, that Burmese husband and wife brought their friends to our church. Thirty to fifty Burmese refugees, dressed in traditional hand-woven clothes, sit in our mauve pews each week beside suburban Texas families in their Sunday best. We look at each other and wonder, “Who but God could have made this happen?”
The truth is, my church is pretty average. Sure, there are some amazing people, but there are some really weird ones too. As an adult, I’ve gone to eight different churches on three different continents. Each had their own conflicts and points of contention. Every single church was as quirky as could be.
There are still things at this church I don’t like. There are still moments when I cringe at the comments some well-meaning person makes in class. We’re still struggling through several issues, some minor, some major. There’s always going to be something we’re working through. That’s OK. My church is not made up of ideological positions; it’s made up of people.
The younger generation is more comfortable with the principles of economic development we’re using at Hill Tribers than many of the older people in my church. My generation knows innately: You should listen and not impose your worldview. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to make a difference in the lives of others. A few tweets and scathing blog posts won’t enact systemic change like long-lasting development and relationships on the ground.
So here’s my question: Why can’t we apply these same principles to the churches we’re so quick to criticize? We’re comfortable with the idea of entering the lives of the poor. Why can’t we listen to, meet the needs of, and build relationships with the traditional, the awkward, or the uncool?
If you’re in a toxic, dysfunctional church situation, then don’t just walk out, run. If you don’t believe in God any more, that shifts this conversation quite a bit.
But if you’re just uncomfortable or critical or frustrated, perhaps those are the exact emotions God could use to change the course of churches everywhere. There’s a verse in Hebrews I’ve heard used legalistically: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” I read that verse not as law, but as a great call to bring groups together. The New Testament is devoted to teaching people how to be in community with the crazy, odd and wildly different people of God. Churches need all of our voices to encourage one another to do good deeds and truly love.
Churches need the younger generation to spur it toward social justice and equality on several fronts. We need young energy and young savvy and young brazen courage. We need young voices to cry out in anger within privileged U.S. churches that seem to spend more time sitting on our hands than changing the world. We need you.
And young people need the older generation to spur it into depth and rootedness. We need your patience, your wisdom, and your sense that this too shall pass. We need your bewilderment at the fragmented on-screen life that leaves many of us feeling scattered and disjointed. We need long marriages and family ties to give us hope. We need you, too.
George MacDonald prays that God will “make, make and make me, temper and refine.” My church has been the place where God has made and refined me. He has knocked off my rough edges, tempered my cynicism, taught me to wait as people process and change. I thank God he didn’t let me judge my church that first Sunday in the mauve pew, but gave me a space to grow and put down roots. I also thank God he helped me know when to speak in love. It was through some of us younger (or youngish!) people that the ideas took shape that became Hill Country Hill Tribers and our church’s annual fair trade festival, which now draws people who otherwise might never step foot in our building. It took five years for me to see my church for what it is—a place where God is building a unique community with friendships between people like Tandy and Sae.
When Tandy posted on Facebook that Sae had given birth to a handsome baby boy, she wrote: “Once again, I’m overwhelmed at the fact that our family was in the right place at the right time.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
What are some stories of healthy churches you’ve attended? What has surprised you about staying in your church? We’ve mentioned on Rachel’s blog some things churches need to do for our generation; what are some things our generation can do to bless or impact our churches?
Photos by Kelsi Williamson.
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