It’s a bright, warm Sunday morning, and I have arrived exactly where I intended to go perfectly on time. I’ve planned this visit all week. Still, I feel anxiety tighten my chest and sudden tears sting my eyes. I want and need a new church home, but walking into a church building alone, sitting alone, and being an outsider in a room where everyone else seems so comfortable takes every ounce of courage I possess.
Of course, I am not really alone. God is with me as He has faithfully been throughout the last five years as I lost my husband to melanoma, fought my own battle with an aggressive breast cancer, and learned to live alone for the first time in my life. I was raised in Oklahoma City, but we had moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area almost 30 years before and raised our family there. I loved my job, friends, and especially my church family in Texas. More and more after my husband’s death, though, I felt the pull to move home. My mother, sister, and many other relatives still live in OKC. My daughter is nearby in Tulsa. I decided to move back to the city where I grew up.
I have no trouble finding a house near my sister, new stores and restaurants to frequent, and in some cases get reacquainted with places I used to go. It is much harder to find the right church for me. The church where I grew up no longer fits me, nor do churches my relatives attend. As I keep trying to put a new life together, I move the puzzle pieces around and realize that nothing will fit until I have at its center a church I can call home.
It’s an important decision. I do my homework and decide to try a variety of Bible-based churches. Over many months I visit non-denominational megachurches, well-established Baptist churches, and newish churches meeting in converted strip malls and pre-fab buildings that feel like warehouses. Some of these visits are pleasant. At others, I feel painfully invisible or out-of-touch. At one growing, very lively church I carefully peruse the 500+ congregants and realize I am probably the oldest person in the room. At another, I count heads and discover that over 70% of them are gray. Now, only my hairdresser knows for sure if I am also gray, but these people have reached the age where, as a group, gray is no longer something to fight.
In some churches, the music is so loud I feel like I’m being assaulted. In others, I seem to have slipped back in time to some old-timey church meeting where the most recent song harkens to the 1800s. I discover many churches no longer have adult Sunday School departments; I also discover that age descriptions about Sunday School classes are meant to be taken with a grain of salt. After visiting a 50s Single Adult department where I am the only one under 70, I decide that if I go back, I’ll visit the 30s department to see if that’s where the 50s are hanging out.
At all of these places, the Bible is being preached and ostensibly the people there love the Lord. Without the comforting armor of a spouse or friend entering and sitting with me, though, I have the uncomfortable vantage point of a loner to observe whether they also seem to love others.
Throughout this process, I gave every church more than one chance. Still, there were places where nobody spoke to me except to shake hands and say good morning when the pastor said it was time to greet each other. There were questions I left on church websites or dropped into the offering plate that were never answered. I knew, of course, that I was unusually sensitive to feeling alone because my husband wasn’t by my side where he always had been and where I wanted him to be. Still, I was surprised at how hard it all was. I didn’t have to be convinced that I should join a church and support it with my time, energy, love and resources. I was a fish that wanted to be caught, and some churches just let me swim on by.
And so, on that bright Sunday morning, I was scared of doing it all again. But, from the instant I walked in the door, I didn’t have time to stay afraid because I was so busy talking to people. I was approached a dozen times that first visit. I was asked about myself, starting with my name but not stopping there. I was given other peoples’ names and details about their lives. I received an invitation to sit with a lady I just met. She then invited me to attend a Tuesday morning Bible Study.
The next time I visited this church, I sat somewhere else. I had a similar experience there. One gentleman I knew from another context came up to greet me and introduced me to others. Over the next couple of months, I visited different events and people remembered who I was. Of course, it takes a while to learn names, but they cared enough to keep trying. The new women’s minister invited me to join a group that would be planning events. The pastor spent time talking to me and discovered I liked to write. He then introduced me to others in the church who also like to write. A new friend in the Tuesday morning Bible Study invited me out to lunch and told me about her Sunday School department. When I visited it, she sat next to me and introduced me to the class.
There are many reasons why Cherokee Hills Baptist Church was meant for me. The sermons are theologically solid; I feel God’s presence here, and I love the focus on community outreach, charitable service, and evangelical commitment. I might never have realized all of that, though, if the members of this family didn’t have the heart to look at a stranger and believe that she deserved a chance to join the family, too. She was worth their attention and their time.
This morning the worship pastor looked across the entire congregation as we rose to sing and said to all of us, “Welcome Home!”
Yes, that about sums it up. It feels so good to be home.