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Church Lingo: Restoration vs. V+M, Part 2

(For more background on Restoration and Valley and Mountain, check out Part 1 here.)

As a churchgoer who is friends with plenty of non-churchgoers, I have become self-conscious about some of the lingo that all churches use. For example, growing up Catholic, the word “saint” means something to me that it doesn’t mean to a lot of other Christians or non-Christians. To me, the saints were a part of the furniture of my religion, like churches themselves and taking communion. I didn’t pick up on how weird saints were to other people until I got a student Bible for my confirmation that had a handy FAQ about Catholicism (no joke). One of the questions saint-marywas “How can I explain the saints to my non-Catholic friends?”

The answer is that the saints can pray just like we can pray–and if we have more people praying for us, isn’t that great? So we don’t pray to the saints, we pray to the saints to pray for us.

The distinction is hazy at best, and to other non-Catholic Christians, it sounds like we are praying to someone besides God (which we are). And that sounds like we believe that things besides God are God (which we, in theory, don’t). So early on, I figured out that some things that I think of as completely normal are strange and even evil to other people. The disagreement is made evident in the words that we choose to use; my grandma often tells me to pray to the Virgin Mary, which someone outside the church might interpret as me praying to someone besides God as though they were God.

Every church, no matter how liberal, conservative, old-fashioned, or new, uses lingo that non-churchgoers do not get. Non-churchgoers don’t get it on two levels: sometimes, they don’t understand the word at all, and sometimes, they understand the word, but it means something different from what they think.

3350849917_fe67b6346a_zFor example, at Restoration, the evangelical church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year writing a book, Pastor Nate preaches a lot about accepting Jesus as your savior. This doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. To those who do know who Jesus is, it means something quite specific: 1. That we are sinners and would go to hell without Jesus and 2. That Jesus is the only way we can be “reconciled” to God. “Accepting Jesus” also means taking on certain responsibilities: going to church weekly (or as close to that as you can), reading the Bible often, praying to God, and asking other Christians for guidance. When you do these things, you should discover some specific directions for your life, and some universal truths that other evangelical Christians accept. Depending on the church, you might be led to discover that homosexuality is a sin, that premarital sex is wrong, or that drinking to get drunk is wrong.

This is one of the things that annoys, scares, or angers folks outside the evangelical movement. Evangelical Christians use “general” modern language. They talk about “Jesus saving,” but what they really mean is “Jesus will only save you if you do X, Y, and Z.” And it turns out that X, Y, and Z are creepy and weird, or in some cases downright wrong.

(For the record, Pastor Nate would tell you that Jesus saves you no matter what your sins, so even if you don’t believe that drinking is wrong, if you have accepted Jesus, you are saved–even if you get drunk every weekend. In fact, that’s kind of the point: Jesus saves you even though you are a sinner, and even though you continue to sin. The problem still remains that Pastor Nate believes that certain things are sins, but that is for another essay.)

The image of using general, open-sounding language to “lure” people into their churches is a battle that evangelicals are constantly fighting against. On the one hand, they want to reach people who have never heard of Jesus before. The best way they have come up with to do this is to talk about “Jesus saving” and “Jesus accepting” everyone. On the other hand, they believe in certain parts of the Bible that other people think are outdated and crazy. They would not try to deny either allegation.

Valley and Mountain, at first glance, seems to have less lingo. It doesn’t have the trappings of an intentional, specific experience: there aren’t free Bibles lying around, there isn’t a moment at the end of the service when you can get saved. But sometimes John, who calls himself the “convener” of “Celebration,” which is V+M’s name for services, says things that would make no sense to those uninitiated into liberal, progressive American culture.

For example, John talks about “The Empire.” The Empire as a real, evil, driving force that keeps lower and middle-class people down in Dorothy DayAmerica and around the world. It’s not clear who The Empire is, but from the photos of protests and the topics of sermons (racism, radical hospitality, how best to spend our money) that fill the ether of V+M, it’s clear that The Empire is big business, corporations, and at times, the government. John told me once (quoting Dorothy Day), “It’s a dirty rotten system.” By that he meant (at least) the way that the American economy works: most of our money goes to big corporations who exploit poor people, keeping them poor.

“The Empire” is a pretty harsh assessment of the American economic system. I think many folks, my friends outside of V+M included, would roll their eyes at “The Empire.” Do we really think that someone else is keeping us down–that we can’t achieve all that we want? Do we really blame the system for personal shortcomings? What about all of the people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps in America? What about the fact that poor people aren’t saints? What about all the things that I have achieved? The Empire certainly isn’t holding me down.

But this is what V+M sees as (part of) its role as a prophetic community: awaken the world to what is “really going on,” to the injustices of the system.

Is that naive? Brave? Wrong?

I think you could ask the same questions of Restoration’s mission to save as many people as possible. Is it admirable? Or a waste of time? And while it turns out I think one set of answers about V+M and another about Restoration, they are two sides of the same coin: a focus on achieving what each community believes is its mission on planet Earth.

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Does Activism = Not Being Happy? And other concerns.

When I first started going to Valley & Mountain, it was like fireworks went off. I literally went home beaming. I had just made sandwiches in the cool community-hub Collaboratory with a whole bunch of folks I never would have met or spoken to if I hadn’t walked into church (I mean Celebration, they call it Celebration) that afternoon.

I felt like I had finally found my place. It’s cliche, but I had never felt that way about a church before and bam! It happened. It wasn’t like fireworks, actually. It was more like sliding into the seat of a roller coaster and clicking in the bar. It just felt like it fit.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in a plastic orange chair inside the Collaboratory, gazing at the brick walls and listening to a local leader talk about her role as a community servant. She was inspiring and confident. I felt like I could feel her confidence beaming over to my seat. The way she stood tall made me want to stand up taller; her fancy brooch made me want to dress better. She was an activist, but she had total control over her story. She told it clearly and she told it well. This was her thing–she could do it without notes.

After the leader spoke, we split into three groups, like we usually do during the service. I had been planning to go write found poems with my friend Jaime but the speaker was so interesting that I decided to go into a small group discussion with her. We filed out the glass doors from the main room (the “Mixing Chamber”) and into the back room, where there are lots of long tables and chairs and more exposed brick.

Five or six of us gathered around a wood-topped table on rolling plastic chairs and the leader leaned against the wall, holding court in the corner. We could ask whatever we wanted. Another member of the church, Ulysses, who is mild-mannered but passionate, a thin guy who is always doing something to protest or organize, asked what would become of the speaker’s field, which he saw as aging. How were they going to get more young people?

The speaker said, “We need to bring our children to the table.” She meant bring them to the discussions about protests and activism and organizing. “Young people don’t have anything to lose.” They don’t have families and jobs to take care of. She mentioned Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father. “He was a great activist,” she said, “but he had a lot to lose.” So MLK Jr. was the one who led protests and became a hero.

To answer Ulysses’s question, the speaker reiterated, “Bring our children to the table.” “There’s so much of this,” she said, miming playing a game on a hand-held device, flicking her thumbs. “When I was a kid, we didn’t know what was going on. Imagine how little our kids know now.

I was like…huh?

First of all, anything that smacks of “the kids these days” is a pet peeve of mine. Literally every single generation has complained about the kids these days. It is documented in countless bitchy, ineffective newspaper columns. Do not talk to me about the kids these days.  If you are talking with some kids and explaining to them why you think their way of doing things is wrong, by all means, continue (though I doubt that is the most effective tactic). But if you are talking to a crowd of adults about “the kids these days,” you are not trying to actually change anything. You are trying to get an Amen.

Second of all, activism, to this leader, meant losing a lot, or at least putting it at risk. Your family, your home, your job, your quality of life. I am into all the things that activists care about: equal rights, higher wages, better jobs, better training, better education, more opportunities, radical change, a new system. Does that mean I have to be willing to sacrifice children to get there? Dear Lord, I hope not.

So I left church that afternoon feeling disappointed. I walked back along the sidewalk from Hillman City to Columbia City, past the telephone poles with flyers for a bar’s karaoke night and a survey for women who sell sex stapled to them. I felt kind of empty. This was what I’d been worried about before I joined–that everyone there would be a super-serious hippie, and I would have nothing to talk to them about. There was so much to change in our community–more karaoke, less selling sex, for one thing–and I thought that by joining Valley & Mountain, I would be a part of changing it. But maybe I had to do more. I didn’t know what that meant: protesting all the time, sending angry letters in, making phone calls, writing bills?

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The problem is I care about nice things: I like living in a house with my family. I like spending time doing things like making quilts and decorating my office (and hiking up by Mount Rainier with my friends Mike and Lindsay). I don’t want to pour all of my energy into changing the system. But at the same time, I feel bad that I’m not doing more to change the way things are in my community. The biggest way I’m changing it is by being part of the new wave of young white people who have bought affordable houses in the area, pushing out the mostly lower-income black people. Gentrification.

I walked back down the alley to our house, into the nice little courtyard where the neighbors put up a sign if the kids are playing on their bikes. My neighbors care about doing good things–they spend their time biking and playing with their kids, making dinner for each other. They cleaned up our weed yard before we moved in, when our house was still empty.

I don’t want to have a split personality again, where I feel like I’m living in two worlds. When I went to Restoration, the evangelical church, I felt as though I had to keep some of my interests on the down-low at church, and some of them on the down-low when I was with my friends. I couldn’t tell the nice folks at church that I had taken a shot after I talked to their visiting faith healer. I couldn’t tell my friends at the bar that night that I believed what the faith healer told me.

I turned all this over as I walked into the house–it was burning hot outside, and I was sweating by the time I got home. Andrew was getting ready to grill us some food on our brand-new grill (which is ridiculously large). I poured myself a glass of wine. Maybe wanting and caring about having a nice home could be a good thing. Maybe it gave me something to relate to other people about. I’ve always found activists–real, hardcore activists–to be kind of detached, as if they’re so busy fixing everything, they don’t have time to enjoy anything. As if enjoying anything is time away from fixing other things.

I don’t actually have answers to these questions: what my role in Valley & Mountain is, if I should try to be more of an activist, if the leader was right that the most important thing we can do is educate our children about the problems with the world. But I have made a conscious effort to not try to hide how I feel about all of these things from anyone. We should talk more about how best to change the world–what else could activism look like? Does it have to be lots and lots of time away from your family and the people you care about? And more about gentrification–how can we make places safer, prettier, and richer, without losing the people who already live there?

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Valley + Mountain vs. Restoration: Part 1

I have been thinking about this for a long time: how does Valley and Mountain compare to Restoration?

Restoration Church is an evangelical Assemblies of God-affiliated church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year trying to wrap my head around their sincere belief that everyone who isn’t saved is going to hell. They are a fairly young church, congregation-wise, and that intrigued me. They met in a movie theater. I made friends with women who dressed and acted like me (i.e. they wore leggings and ate too many Oreos), but really truly (“honestly, seriously, yes, Alicia, why do you keep asking us, will you please talk about something else, literally anything else”) believed that homosexuality was a sin, that men should “lead” their wives, and that Jesus was their savior.

This last part gave me the most trouble–saved? I wondered for a year if I was saved. (If you are interested, I’d be happy to send you the book I wrote about it.)

And then, I stopped. I quit church for real, pretty much without noticing. Andrew, the tactful instigator, even encouraged me to go to church at some point last year, just to “keep my hand in the game” (the game of writing about American Christianity in the 2010’s). I didn’t even think about it. I always found a way to go to church before, but for most of last year, I stayed home guilt-free.

Then I stumbled upon Valley and Mountain, and I was in heaven, pretty darn literally. A super-liberal “church” that was more like a conglomeration of people who do things like make sandwiches for shelters during “church.”

But several times, I have had a twinge. I’ve thought, Whoa, this is the liberal equivalent of Restoration. 

The most obvious similarity between the two churches is their names. Restoration always struck me as a little too purposefully ambiguous name. To me, it epitomizes the evangelical phenomenon of using universal language to discuss something very specific: for example, being “saved” could mean almost anything (saved from what?), but to evangelical Christians it refers to acceptance of a very specific version of God.

If you are an evangelical Christian, then “Restoration” might signify to you that Jesus restores us to God, heaven, and goodness. We are sinful and we need restoration. That’s a very specific type of restoration and it comes with many strings attached: once you are restored by God through his son Jesus, you are obligated to believe in certain things that are in the Bible and to save others.

But “Restoration” also implies restoration to a good life—salvation from addictions to drugs and alcohol, abusive partners, and truly shitty families. People who battled these things made up a not-negligible proportion of Restoration, and they would tell you absolutely that they are better off for being in this church. (For the record, I believed them.)

Valley + Mountain, on the other hand…well, not on the other hand. I don’t love the name of this church. It also strikes me as ambiguous, though Andrew likes it, which is a point in its favor. To be fair, I don’t love the name of most churches—I love only churches named after saints. (Basically, when I rejected Catholicism I doomed myself to cheesily named churches for the rest of my life.)

In this case, the ambiguity is also purposeful. Life is full of valleys and mountains, and this church will be there with you through them. Every Sunday, John (the “convener”/pastor of the church) welcomes everyone by saying something along the lines of “You are welcome here, no matter what kind of energy you’re bringing today. If you’re happy and excited, or if you’re depressed and anxious, you are welcome here.” The message of openness to all types of people is echoed when John says things like “No matter what your theology or your philosophy of God is, you are welcome here.” (That part I love.)

To bring things full circle, what John says reminds me of what Pastor Nate of Restoration used to say, early in the service and at nearly every one: “In case no one has told you, you are welcome here.” After I wrote my thesis about his church, Pastor Nate told me in an email “I’ve said this for years but you don’t have to believe what we believe to come to our church.” It’s true; I didn’t believe any of the things they believed, and they not only let me in, they put up with me at a small-group-style Bible study, hung out with me at church potlucks, and invited me to their parties.

The similarity between the two goes deeper than the name. Having a vague, non-saint-related name reflects a deep desire for both communities to practice “radical hospitality,” which just happens to be the topic of our sermons at V+M over the next few weeks. Both churches want to welcome everyone who will walk through the doors; they want to be a part of the community, not isolated from it. They want to help people outside their walls. Pastor Nate talked a lot about outward-focused churches, as opposed to inward-focused ones; similarly, Valley and Mountain’s motto is “Inward, Outward, Onward, Together.”

Pastor Nate and the other leaders on the church tried to come up with creative ways to reach out to Dover–they helped at the Dover Apple Harvest Fest, they invited people to nondenominational holiday services, and they helped with local food kitchens. V+M does similar things to be a part of the community: they rent the Hillman City Collaboratory, which operates like a community center for the Hillman City neighborhood; they (we) go to the community barbecues on Sunday after service, which are open to everyone; they run an art gallery within the Collaboratory, which is where we have services.

I don’t know what it means that both churches act so similarly when what they believe is so different. I think it shows something I figured out while spending all my free time with evangelical Christians: we are more alike than we would like to think. Even though these are only surface similarities, I think Pastor Nate and John have enough in common for them to compare notes at a conference on reaching out to your local community. Is that really cool? Or really strange?

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Why I am generally ok with God, or at least church

My friend Jaime from Valley and Mountain commented that he doesn’t like to use the words God and church because there are negative connotations for him associated with those words. He put it extremely well, and it got me thinking: why do I feel ok with going to church, even writing about it (constantly)?

Church-related information is the stuff of trivia questions now. I know because I occasionally kill it at trivia as the only person who knows who Lazarus is.

This is Lazarus. He rose from the dead.

But growing up, I seriously could not imagine not knowing who Lazarus is. I had to go to Sunday school (we called it CCD, and I had to go look that up just now to see that it means Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Really?) once a week from first through eighth grade, and I went to Mass every Sunday until I moved out (and for several years after that). In New Jersey, where 37% of the population is Catholic, it was standard practice. When we moved into our small suburban town, we asked our neighbors where to go to church.

Church was part of the furniture of life, the way that people get into the habit of having brunch on Saturday mornings or happy hour on Friday afternoon. It was the routine. The slight difference between brunch and church, though, is that it is obligatory to go to church, and most people assume that you don’t like it. Or if you do, you’re a bit odd.

So, let me answer your unspoken questions. What is there to like about a man in white robes giving you a papery cracker each week? Well, there is the camaraderie of all your friends from school and your neighbors being there on the hard wooden pews next to you. It was a blessing when I got to sit next to Gabrielle or Katie, my two Catholic BFFs. One time, Gabrielle and I giggled so hard that Gabrielle’s mom turned to us, nearly purple, and said in the loudest whisper possible, “SHUSH! THIS IS GOD’S HOUSE!”

There are all the random people you don’t get to see, people from other generations that I otherwise wouldn’t see living with my family and going to school. I taught myself how to wink when I was very little because old men were always winking at me (avuncularly!). The oldest woman in town, who had been around when my town was still segregated, was one of the Eucharistic ministers who gave us the papery wafers at the appropriate time.

When I haven’t gone to church (and there have been years, including this last one, when I haven’t) I miss seeing old people and young people. I miss little kids giggling too loud, avuncular gentlemen and town matriarchs. You don’t see those people at work or parties or happy hour. At least, I don’t.

The community aspect is a big part of it. Having moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Boston to Seattle to New Hampshire to Seattle again, my “community” has changed frequently. I don’t mean friends and family–it would be nice if they were in my community, but they are almost all scattered across America–I mean people who live nearby, who will keep your spare house key for when you get locked out (I need these people). A church is a fast way to find a friend. They are obligated to shake hands with you and chat before service.

The other reason I think church was appealing to me specifically–this is one harder for me to write about–is that nothing really big and bad  happened to me for a long time. I am a mainstream, easily acceptable person: straight, white, smart, and nice. I have had friends since high school, good friends who pick up the phone when I call and who come visit me when I’m sick or sad. I fell in love with the right person for me. I was periodically unemployed, but I always had a safety net–I moved back home for awhile. I got to travel on my severance pay when I was laid off. Like everyone else, I had rough patches, but they were not the type of thing that would destroy your life.

I’m not trying to sound smug, but this type of life, where things mostly go well for you and people jump in to help you when they don’t, made it easier for me to believe in God. Why wouldn’t I think that there is a great big being in the sky orchestrating things to go pretty ok? Why wouldn’t I attribute the blessings of your life to something beyond it? I didn’t think I was particularly worthy of being so lucky. I could have been born into a terrible family, an unhappy place, or with many fewer advantages: less money, less brains, less kindness in my life. And believing in God was what I had been taught since birth.

I don’t think this all the time, that having a good life made it easier for me to believe in God, but it is something I at least partially believe in. It makes it harder for me to understand why churches like God’s House of Glory and Haven of Peace, a Pentecostal church in a poor neighborhood I used to work in after-school tutoring in Chester, PA, the poorest city in the state (which, I always tell people, is pretty nuts considering there is all of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to compete with), was full of enthusiastic Christians who met not only on Sunday but on Wednesday night, too, and were more passionate and more matter-of-fact about their beliefs than anyone in any church I’ve ever visited. (And they had to follow a lot more rules than I did–when we went into the sanctuary once, one of the older women wrapped a white paper tablecloth around her legs because she felt disrespectful not wearing a full-length skirt.)

I don’t understand why church appeals to people who have hardship in their lives because the one time something really crappy happened to me–the time when my aunt died unexpectedly–I quit going to church cold turkey. I was utterly pissed at God, and I decided I didn’t believe in God at all. I didn’t feel guilty at all, not even a little bit, skipping out on church after a lifetime of clinging to Sunday morning Mass-related guilt. Three years later, I don’t feel guilty missing church, and it still sometimes surprises me. I used to feel so bad about skipping Mass that I would make myself stay home the rest of the day if I missed it. That had been the rule growing up.

It’s hard to write about this because it’s complicated. The reasons that I used to go to church were community and commitment–something like God had given me a whole bunch of good things, the least I could do was go to Mass. Now, the reasons are different–I’m not sure what they are. Community is still part of it. It might be almost all of it.