Earlier this month, I relocated to Philadelphia, a city about 700 miles from the place I was born and have called home for the past 10 years. I've decided that in my new community, I'm committed to finding a church home.
This desire to find a place to worship and serve regularly surprises me somewhat. Feeling unfulfilled, disillusioned, politically conflicted and spent in terms of spare time, I had all but abandoned church in Louisville over the past several months. It wasn't just my church; even visits to other congregations left me with the feeling that I was out of place and that I should have been doing something else with my time. With my mission for the next two years being to concentrate on my writing, build a social life and be paid through some meaningful employment, I wasn't sure I would want to give up time every Sunday morning -- or whenever the service might be.
But now I'm sure that whenever the service is, attending will be worth it. My move to the City of Brotherly Love that is currently more like a City of Strangers has prompted me to remember the social significance of church. In my experience, church is a welcoming space (most of the time), full of people who are delighted to see another person whose values they presumably share. They embrace the new person, literally and figuratively, and are often eager to help them in any way they can. There is a feeling of family in small congregations, where everyone knows everyone almost instantly, and the larger congregations often offer small group ministries and so many opportunities for involvement related to one's interests and talents that church becomes as much a social outlet as it is a spiritual one. Church provides community.
Church, however, also can be a place of condemnation, judgment, fear and sometimes outright oppression. Church teachings can lead a follower to believe that if she or he is a woman, is gay, transgender, unmarried, divorced, sexual, politically liberal, young or a number of other largely uncontrollable factors, that follower is, at best, a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God. They are treated as a person who doesn't deserve to be treated with respect, kindness or equality, though they receive salvation, forgiveness and God's love. I hope to avoid even entering a church building where I would hear such things from the pulpit or the membership.
I'm looking for a church that is affirming to all types of populations but that is also able to help people make the changes in their lives that they should make. I want to be where women are in all sorts of leadership positions, where I am challenged to approach the Bible from cultural, historical and theological perspectives and where my discomfort with the Word's inconsistencies are acknowledged and discussed rather than glossed over. I desire a place where I find other women like me, women who often are scoffed at in academic and/or feminist circles because they believe in an unseen God who is traditionally thought of as male, and who are misunderstood or silenced in faith circles because they question their belief's doctrine. I want to feel at home.
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As much as I normally hate the search for a church home almost as much as I detest apartment hunting, I approach this particular search with positive anticipation. I made this move to make some drastic changes in my life, to bring myself closer not just to the writer but to the woman I envision myself being. That woman is a spiritual woman who loves Jesus for justice, loves the body of Christ and takes comfort in the fellowship of believers. And surely, she can find a place somewhere.
[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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