I lived for a few years in the strong-hold of the Bible Belt and left without a smidgen of consequence.
An invitation brought me to a large room filled with folding chairs. On signal, they circled the wagons, asked us to bear witness and cried “Brothers and Sisters!” I felt an overwhelming need to flee. I wondered how they could be so familiar while so distant, leaned as far back in my chair as I could and said nothing.
It was a cold day in November, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. When we were done at the church, we drove together through neighborhoods where children were playing toward an urban hub that was quiet on a Sunday afternoon. We stopped at a large rambling dwelling that in its prime might have housed the growing family of a banker or lawyer. As far as I could tell, it was home to no one now, save a litter of kittens lying in a hollow under a bush by the front step. Its human occupants were temporary.
It was not my cup of tea, this sort of thing, and I still hoped to escape. I had been persuaded to join my colleague from work who persistently pushed me to visit her church. I, not being big on organized religion or mega-churches, resisted as long as I could before giving in and saying yes to get her off my back. It just so happened that I agreed to go on the day the church produced its annual Thanksgiving dinner in one of the toughest areas of the city.
I was trapped. I was trapped next to a man on my left who had a broken arm and an eye puffed black with a tinge of green. I was trapped next to the elderly woman on my right, who, I remember, had very bright red hair and lots of eyeliner. I was overdressed for the occasion. I felt mostly uncomfortable, with a bit of sadness and compassion mixed in.
I said very little but there was more than enough talk to go around. I listened and heard about the troubles that got them there, the breaks they didn’t have, the bad twists of fate and the tough times that followed. Everyone seemed very hungry and very tired. It was a gathering of the poorest of the poor, the collective misfits, the lost and the worn out. I heard their stories and when it was over, I wrote a check.
The folks I met that day remind me of the tree that my father cut down this fall. It had grown unruly and too large and had become an eyesore. There are people who struggle to grow where they are planted and have a tough time putting down strong roots. They are problematic and are not pretty to look at. They are a blot on the landscape. We look the other way, but they are there. And, but for the grace of God, go we.
I never returned to the church of my friend again. If their ultimate purpose was to change me, however, there were consequences of a sort. I, who had become immune to the poor and weary, changed course. I quit looking the other way and have since been humbled many times by people who were down on their luck or just plain suffering. It is true that after the rain the sun shines brighter. Even in places where it rains most of the time, a glimpse of sunlight is brilliant. I didn’t always know this.
Soon, I am going home. I have not lived there for more than 30 years but I still call it home. It is a day’s drive, easier than flying at this time of year, even if the route is wearisome. My car will head east over browning prairie and flat land till it arrives on the far end of the next state over. I make my way once a year to the place where we gather to laugh and eat and drink and reconnect and to notice that there is no longer a kid’s table now that the next generation has been launched and to ponder how that could have happened so quickly.
How good it is to know and understand that having a place to still call home is not a given, but something to recognize as a gift. And, for that, I am immensely thankful.