In October of 2017, I began researching a new church I was interested in attending. Maybe. Someone at work had told me about it. I had said that I was interested in finding a new faith community. That I had been thinking about starting over somewhere new. They thought it might be a good match, being similar in style to my Catholic upbringing.
I followed their Facebook page and began to read the daily posts. Once a week, I would read the blog the Reverand posted ahead of the Sunday service. I began to research what this faith community stood for and believed in. How was it different from the one I was coming from? How was it the same? Were the differences things that I could live with, or were they going to be deal-breakers? Were they open and affirming, and how did women fit into their leadership?
In my investigation, I discovered that I had a lot in common with the Reverand of the church. We are both women, wives, and mothers. We both have transgender children. She, however, lost her daughter tragically to suicide in early 2017. She was living my worst nightmare.
What would it be like to be pastored by someone who has walked in my shoes?
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I read more about the faith community, and that church, specifically. Her daughter, I learned, shares a birthday with my oldest son. They have an outreach program that works with the homeless community. Several of their members partner with a local school to minister to at-risk-kids. They champion social justice causes in the local community and participate in Pride events in June.
It was like God was flashing a neon “Go Here” sign above that church, and all I had to do was walk through the doors.
The idea of starting over at a new church was scary. So, for two years, I put it on my annual goal list. Then, every month, Go to Church was the action step that got to me to Join a Faith Community. And every week, I had to decide, “Am I going to church today?”
For two years, the answer was no.
Part of starting over at a new church means leaving your old church behind. For me, it meant leaving my faith community as well. Saying goodbye to what, to me, felt like a fundamental part of who I am. The very core of my identity. I didn’t introduce myself as “Beth; wife, mother of two, Catholic.” Nor did I go around talking to everyone I met about it either.
But if you asked me what the core things that matter the most to me are, my identity as a Catholic would have been one of them. I can’t explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone but me, it just did. Leaving the Catholic Church, and starting over somewhere else felt like a betrayal. To my parents, who had baptized me, to my godparents, who stood by me at my First Communion and Confirmation, and to my husband, who married me in the church he was raised in. Leaving wasn’t something you did. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But I felt hurt and betrayed by the Catholic Church, and I didn’t know how to move past that. But I couldn’t move forward either. Not until I was ready.
It took me two years to realize that my faith was separate from my religious beliefs. Faith isn’t something you find in a building. You can take your faith with you anywhere. I could believe all the same things I already believed, and start over somewhere else.
Faith is what you believe in your heart. The church is where you go to practice that faith.
In October of this year, I decided I was going to go to church before Christmas. But not at Christmas, because I wanted to celebrate Advent at church. Which meant I needed to get there some time by mid-November. I talked about it with my therapist. Then with my husband. I talked about it with my writing partner. I wrote about it every morning in my journal. The first Sunday in November, I made plans to go, but it didn’t work out. Secretly, I was okay with that. It gave me one more week to mentally prepare.
The next week, I got in my car and drove to the church. In the parking lot, I texted one of my besties a photo of the church and said, “Look where I am.” It was totally for accountability. It meant someone knew where I was and was going to ask me about it after. There was no turning around and going home. Or driving to the bookstore and pretending that I was at church.
I walked through those doors, and this is what I saw.
I sat in a back pew and cried. Two years of waiting. Of doubting myself. Two years of questioning my decision to start over. Two years, I thought, that I could have been here worshiping if only I had been brave enough to walk through the doors earlier.
God’s timing is perfect, and I don’t think those two years were wasted.
I’m not the same person I was two years ago. My faith is not the same as it was in 2017. A lot has happened in those two years. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have been able to start over had I shown up in 2017. I think it would have been fine. But I might not have been ready, and I might not have kept going. Who’s to know?
Starting over at a new church is hard. There are new people and new prayers and new routines to learn. I still don’t know where the bathrooms are. It was only last week that I learned where they all go to congregate after church is over, should I ever care to join them. Every week I show up, and I’m still the new person. Someone will say to me, “I haven’t seen you here before, I’m so, and so” and I smile and introduce myself, even though I’ve been attending for seven weeks now. It’s fine; I sit in the back. I want to be known and part of a community but on my time and my terms.
If you are thinking of starting over at a new church, but aren’t quite ready, it’s okay. Go easy on yourself. Time is not the enemy here. That church you are thinking about attending likely isn’t going anywhere. Ease into the idea of it. Learn more about it. And if you need someone to message a photo that you are there that first week, connect with me on FB. I’ll be happy to ask you how it went after. So long as you don’t mind if I get a little weepy about it.
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