Over a decade ago, I had the incredible good fortune of meeting Erin Lane in a nonfiction writing workshop. I instantly adored her. In addition to being a fantastic writer with a clear, true, unique voice, Erin is the best of souls. She’s whip smart, thoughtful, funny, ironic, stylish, reverent and vulnerable and just so, so dear. Also, she loves cupcakes. Clearly, she is kindred. I’ve loved reading her blog on faith and feminism over the years and am now so excited to share with an excerpt from Lessons in Belonging from a Churchgoing Commitment Phobe. As someone who has always struggled with belonging (not just with churches but EVERYTHING), I was especially excited to dive into Lessons in Belonging. Reading Erin’s journey and her wisdom has given me perspective on my own journey in belonging.
I have been to Outpost Community Church once or twice before I decide that it is a serious prospect. It is the kind of place that makes you take a second look after you compare it to other suitors. You’ll have to forgive its annoying quirks. But perhaps you hadn’t had the complete picture when you first met.
I try to give it a real go this time in the hopes that I might catch a glimpse of the Spirit, the lingering presence of God that has me scheming for ways to catch it in its natural habitat. This church seems to be one of those places.
Outpost has two primary things going for it. (1) I can bike to it and, from what I surmise, most people who go here can do the same and; (2) Said people seem to care. And it isn’t that they care about the right stuff (my stuff) but that they care about caring for each other. These criteria seem sufficient.
When I walk into the sanctuary, with its honey-colored walls and stately pillars, I see Bess sitting in the pastors’ pew, her petite body wrapped in marled yarn. A southern woman, raised in Waco and married to a Oklahoman, Bess entered the ordination process while working as an intern at Outpost. I think her brave. She lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Durham. She watches the two little boys down the block when their mother runs to the store. She attends the art opening of the woman who shares her duplex. She knows the names of the homeless men who stand outside the church and expects them to learn her name, too, if they are going to be real friends. She even tells them so, pressing her small, heart-shaped face close to theirs.
Bess and I became close in graduate school. We met in the opening chapel service and quickly discovered that we both liked to bike; the following day we made plans to ride to school together like some middle-school gang. All that was missing were the playing cards fixed to our spokes by clothespins. There were other things we held in common, too. In addition to staving off addictions to sugar-free gum and Diet Coke, we loved talking theological trash. We’d be walking around the perimeter of campus and I’d say something about how taking communion helps me remember who I am and she’d say something like “You could get into a lot of trouble with that kind of sentimental hogwash.” Maybe that is another reason I am here, too; a young woman like me isn’t just in the pulpit but walking around giving name tags and shaking hands and acting like there is nowhere else she belongs more.
I told Bess I would commit to coming to Outpost for the summer. An end date for commitment is like a lifeboat to one terrified of time’s expanse. Twelve weeks of going to the same church with plenty of Sundays off for summer travel? I can swing this. Plus, I hope it will appease Bess who has always been wary of my critiques of the church lobbed from the safe distance of a blog post. Better to actually build something up from the inside than tear it down from the outside.
My first Sunday back at Outpost, I notice three things:
One, it is a singing congregation. The worship leader, an older man with box-framed glasses, shouts out instructions to the congregation over the top of his piano. It’s ridiculous – shouldn’t someone give him a mic? – but the voices around me are so strong one has to strain to hear herself.
Two, it is a dancing congregation. This mainline, Protestant congregation is full of clappers, the type of folk who are always an eighth of a beat too late but look so happy doing it one forgives them their clumsiness. They clap and sway and even put their hands up like Perk does when she’s really feeling the Spirit.
Three, it is a peace-passing congregation. When it comes time to shake hands with a room full of strangers, people actually get out of their seats – and even their rows! – to shuffle around the sanctuary giving blessing upon blessing. They even make an effort to learn my name and stick their hands out without being all smarmy.
The people are so earnest here that I try not to focus too much on the fact that we are mostly a bunch of white folks in a city where two-thirds of the population are black and Latino. I try not to be too critical that they don’t bother to make the language gender-neutral in the prayer of confession, let alone in the sermon or songs. I try not to think about it too hard when we kneel and say that we are depraved, that “there is no health in us,” even now, even with all this grace. The people are so earnest, in fact, that I nearly forget to care about any theological differences we have.
We celebrate Pentecost, the occasion for the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles in first century AD and causing a flurry of miracles and misunderstanding. The day marks the fulfillment of not only Christ’s promise to dwell with his followers and equip them for service in the world, but also the vision of the prophet Joel who testified on behalf of God to all of Israel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28). The message of Pentecost was one for Jews and its converts alike, both those who belonged to the original covenant and those wondering if they could be adopted in.
And it all began with a sound from heaven and a hungry wind.
Excerpted from Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (Crescendo, 2015) by Erin S. Lane. Erin works for the Seattle-based nonprofit Center for Courage & Renewal as an assistant program director for clergy and congregational leader programs. She has a master of theological studies degree from Duke Divinity School and is coeditor of Talking Taboo. Find more of her writing at www.holyhellions.com.