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“Spiritual Experiences”

Growing up, I didn’t talk about “spiritual experiences” with my family or my friends. We talked about things like: where do jokes come from, how many times can you say “ha” in a row before you actually start laughing, what is the long form of the name “Biff,” would it be worse to have to drive to school every day in the world’s ugliest, rusted out, most beat-up pick-up truck or in the world’s biggest, shiniest Hummer. 

My unwillingness to write about spiritual experiences without imaginary air quotes is silly. I am embarrassed because it’s important to me, and I don’t want to sound silly when I talk about it. It’s like when my little sister Sonia used to practice a dance she made up in front of us. “You can smile,” she said, “but you can’t laugh.”

I had a spiritual experience the other day. I was biking home from work on the I-90 bridge. It was the perfect storm: first of all, biking to work is an empowering experience. A couple of mornings a week, I braid my hair, strap on my messenger bag, and haul ass over Mercer Island to Bellevue. There’s a beautiful bike path over the island, and biking up its hills sometimes feels like I’m on a treadmill in a pool of molasses. It’s a serious workout. At work, I take off my sweat-soaked t-shirt and shorts and put on a dress. I flip my hair extra hard those mornings.

But biking home from work is really where it’s at, because not only am I done working and on my way to an excellent and gigantic meal, I don’t have a clock to beat. I leave my watch in my bag and I cruise over the molasses hills (that’s a lie–I pump my legs very slowly and methodically up over each one, and when I get to the top, I exhale so damn hard I think I scare the pedestrians). Biking home from work, I’m usually a little punchy and tired, but also exhilarated. Maybe it’s the runner’s high I so rarely experience while running; I feel like a queen. I think, “World, eat my dust.” (I should tell you that I get passed by 100% of other bikers.)

Regardless, this was the mood I was in while on the I-90 bridge the other night. It was a key ingredient to my spiritual experience; I was primed to feel good about something, because I felt so good about myself.

The second ingredient was the bridge itself. The I-90 bridge is a floating bridge, meaning it rests on the water. When I bike across it, right around the middle, I am literally feet away from Lake Washington. Mount Rainier, the snow-topped behemoth, is over my left shoulder. Over my right is the smaller but no less snowy Mount Baker. And up ahead is a wall of beautiful old two-story houses in the neighborhoods of Leschi and Mount Baker, evergreen-filled Coleman Park, and the city’s skyscrapers.

It’s an amazing spot.

So that was part two. Part three was, I think, an oxygen deficit. I had just pumped my legs so hard up Mercer Island’s last hill that I was exhaling as if I had been drowned. I was forcing the air out the way my track teammates taught me in high school: WHOOOOOSH.

I thought to myself, What am I breathing out? It was a prime opportunity for some yoga-inspired meditation. I’m breathing out fear, I thought. I’m breathing out imbalance. I greatly fear imbalance while biking on the I-90 bridge. I’m breathing out judgment. I’m breathing out comparing myself with other people: with Andrew, with my friends, with my family. 

Then I thought, What am I inhaling? I tried a few different things. I’m inhaling joy, I thought. But joy? What’s joy? Joy’s what you get to feel when you do something great, when something wonderful happens to you. I’m inhaling happiness, I thought. Didn’t work; what’s happiness? I don’t think it’s just lying around waiting for me to breath in. I don’t think it works that way. I’m breathing in pride. Well, that was a little better. I like pride. But pride isn’t really objectively good. It’s not something you necessarily want to fill your lungs with. I’m breathing in God, I thought.

Ahh, that was better. I pumped my legs while the breeze blasted the sweat on my stomach and shoulders and breathed in again. The headache I’d had all afternoon at the base of my neck lessened for a few minutes. I saw the blue lake and the green trees and the cars whizzing by my protected path, and I breathed in again, still thinking, I’m breathing in God.

Afterwards, it made me think of a meeting I went to in college. My roommate (and best friend) Megan had been going to the Christian fellowship on campus and I tried it out for a while.The meeting was always held in a while linoleum-floored humanities classroom, with flimsy fold-down-desk chairs and a high ceiling.  One night, there was a speaker. It was dark outside but the lights buzzed overhead. The room was full, maybe with thirty people, but not crowded, and after the leader welcomed us and led us in prayer, another girl from my hall, Christina, introduced the speaker.

Christina held her hand over the man, who stood behind a podium perched on a desk. Our guest was Mark Potter, a very thoughtful and smart person who speaks about God and spirituality for a living. He was maybe late thirties, early forties, with dark hair and an easy, understated manner. He closed his eyes while Christina prayed in that free-form, evangelical Christian style: “Father God, we ask that you bless this speaker. More of you, less of him, God. More of you, less of him.”

I guess the “you’s” were really “You’s” because she was talking to God. I was surprised that Mark stood for this sort of thing. More of God, less of your creative genius? Didn’t we ask him to come speak because he was awesome? But Mark, eyes closed, nodded his head as if in affirmation.

That’s what came to mind after I breathed in God on the bridge the other day. More of you, less of him. 

It was strange.

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Going to church

I have been to a lot of churches. I grew up Catholic, attending mass every Sunday with my little family. When I was little, I liked getting dressed up for it. Before Easter, my mom always took me shopping for an Easter hat. They were all white with different colored ribbons (at least in my memory). I chose the ribbon to coordinate with my dress and my shoes.

Being Catholic meant going to church. We went no matter what; when we were on vacation, my dad found us a church to go to, or we went with whoever we were visiting. Denomination wasn’t critical. When we stayed with my mother’s parents, we went to their Lutheran church. I preferred that church to the Catholic one nearby, because at communion, we ate real bread instead of the papery wafers we usually had at Mass.

I didn’t know then that the real difference between communion at my grandparents’ Lutheran church and my Catholic one was that I was eating a memorial to Christ in one and the literal body of Christ at the other. I wasn’t all that interested in these quibbling-seeming theological differences, though the church split over it. I did sometimes feel guilty (revealing my true Catholic nature) that I didn’t have to go to confession at the Lutheran church.

At Valley and Mountain, my new “church,” the service is called “Celebration.” I can’t get down with the name yet, though the people I’ve met say it easily enough. When I mentioned to Jaime, my welcoming friend, that it was a strange time for church–4 pm–he said that he didn’t like to attach that name to it. Fair enough.

Church weirds out a lot of people, my husband Andrew included. It makes them feel uncomfortable, or unhappy, or out of place, or just odd. Sitting in a pew watching a man in a white robe hold up a circle of bread towards the heavens while someone rings a bell to signal the exact moment the bread turns into the flesh of Christ is only normal if you do it every Sunday from birth. Seeing an emaciated body hung on a cross with a well-placed torn rag and a crown of thorns would be terrifying if I stumbled upon it in real life. But I looked at a ceramic crucifix about nine feet tall weekly until I was twenty-three.

Going to church is weird. It didn’t take me long to figure that out in high school, when everyone’s parents (except mine) let them sleep in. But I didn’t rebel all that hard–I liked going to church. I liked thinking back responses to the priest, the ritual of eating a piece of bread to remember someone, and occasionally enjoying the homily. I liked sitting in silence, about one-third against my will. I liked doing something that I didn’t have to do because I felt like I had to do it. It made me feel like I was part of something larger, because I wouldn’t have chosen to do it on my own.

Celebration at V & M is very different from Catholic Mass. It starts with everyone sitting around and talking. There are no songs to gather people together, though last week this man was playing the piano when I walked in. He’s a local, Mr. Joe, and he comes in to play the piano in the big refinished warehouse-y space often. We sit in our fold out chairs and talk to each other, introduce ourselves (in my case). Then someone from the group–not the minister, John–leads us in a prayer for other people.

They read off of the same folded pieces of white printer paper that we all read the prayer off of. Their name is part of the program, as in “Chad” for one part and “Chad and everybody” for another, to show who is supposed to speak when. After we pray for community needs, the day’s leader reads a part of the Bible. Then John gives a “message” which is like a homily or a lesson.

This is all fairly normal components of a mainstream Christian church service, albeit with some major language differences (at V&M, we don’t pray for “life from conception through natural death” like I sometimes did at Mass). But then things get really different. First, there’s time to respond to the lesson. What the other people in the group have to say is often as interesting and surprising and amazing as what John had to say–like the week we talked about body image and how Christians have this disconnect between loving their bodies and loving God, and one woman talked about how growing up fundamentalist Christian, she was taught that her body was sinful and bad and eventually, she started changing her mind. She felt torn, could she love her body? Was she allowed to have sex, allowed to make what others might call mistakes? She was driving around Seattle thinking about this when she saw graffiti hearts everywhere. She took it as a sign that God loved her and her body.*

Then we split into three groups: a meditation group, a Bible study group, a gardening group, or a service-doing group. My first day, I made PB&Js with Jaime for Nightwatch. I’ve always wanted to do community service instead of church–it was pretty cool. I got to talk to a really cool family, the Joneses, who spend their time helping others in their community. (Note to self, I need to find out how they do that, because it seems like they literally walk around finding people to help and then help them. How do they pay their rent?)

After twenty minutes of this second part, we all get back together and sing one song (“Guide my feet,” a less-cheesy sounding folk song than you might thing. I’m trying to like it, it references running). John and the rest of us bless a meal that someone has cooked and then we eat it. My first couple of times, it was soup and bread, but last week, V&M started hosting community cook-outs.

We all eat together and talk about whatever** we like, John and whoever else has an announcement shares it, and then John blesses us with an on-topic blessing and we leave.

I like it. It’s relaxed. It’s cool. I actually have gotten to talk to people during church.

*This story is remarkably similar to another story about a woman from Restoration Church, the evangelical church where I spent a year. This particular person sees hearts in everything, from a puddle of seawater on the beach to a necklace puddled on her dresser, and she takes it as a sign that God loves her. She takes photos of hearts that she sees on her phone.

This hearts thing really freaked me out when I heard about it–it seemed nuts to me. I mean, who believes in random hearts? But I was almost tearing up at the graffiti hearts story. So…

**Remember when I mentioned that I only alienated one person (so far)? So at soup time, I talked to someone who had gone to school in a city that I know of and instead of being like, “Represent, New Jersey!” I said, “Holy crap, that place is scary. I’ve driven through and hoped I would get out without getting shot.” And then when she told me what she was specializing in at med school, I told her that my best friend had planned to do the same thing but found it boring. I was going to try to blot these two insults from my mind but instead I decided to immortalize them on the internet. Judge away, I deserve it.

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I got to my first service—the “celebration” as Valley and Mountain calls it—on Sunday at four. It was a strange time for church, at least, for me. I’m used to Mass at 9 or 10:30. But at Valley and Mountain, everything is intentional, and a lot of things are different.

For one thing, the building. Valley and Mountain meets in an old corner brick building in Hillman City called the Hillman City Collaboratory. It’s a huge, open space with a storefront that used to be a furniture store according to this story, published in Real Change this past April. To me, it looks like the massive loft-warehouse apartment from New Girl: exposed brick, random structural columns, and a beat-up hardwood floor. Since I would like nothing more than to live in Jess and Nick’s (apparently massive) loft, I really like the space. It’s cool; there’s a rotating art exhibit from a local artist on the walls (last month, geometric patterns. This month, bodies), and the great big bright canvases make open space a little more cohesive.

There are a couple of couches and comfy chairs, and each Sunday, members set out orange plastic chairs for the congregants. That’s because for the rest of the week, the Collaboratory is used for all kinds of things: workspace that anyone can rent, a drop-in spot for Catholic worker services, and yoga. There’s a kitchen that’s used to host cook-outs and the aforementioned Backyard Bazaar.

The Collaboratory is shared between Valley and Mountain and Community Arts Create, an organization that is “building community through experience,” with a focus on culture and the arts. So, in my last post, when I wrote about there not seeming to be anyone in charge, I was wrong—there wasn’t. Though the Bazaar I went to had a lot of the church folks there, it was a part of both organizations’ goal to enliven Hillman City and highlight the awesome arts and cultural stuff that happens around here.

At the celebration on my first Sunday (which is now three weeks ago, holy cow) I tried to sit “in the back” but there were only three rows of chairs—and no one was in the third row. So I sat in the second row, behind a couch. But my friend Jaime, who I’d met at yoga the week before, and who encouraged me to come check out Valley and Mountain when I showed mild interest, turned around and talked to me, asking me how my week was, the usual small talk. Eventually, he came and sat with me.

It was normal, natural, and oh-my-God, the right level of welcome.

I’ve had many welcomes at church before. There’s the raised eyebrow: “What’s a gal like you doing in a place like this?” The over-warm smile, usually followed by an over-hearty handshake: “You obviously haven’t been saved yet. Let me help you!” The total ignore: “It starts at 9, not 9:02. Shut up and open your hymnal.”

This was an actual welcome. Like the kind I try to give to people who come to my house for a party. Hey, how are you? Welcome to my home. Hope you like it. I’ll be your friend til you get to know everybody.

I didn’t think this was possible–I thought the initial welcome stage was something I’d always have to get past, because the welcoming committee at churches is almost always full of over-friendly types. But this wasn’t a welcoming committee. It was awesome.

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Me and churches: A long fatal love affair

I was out for a walk one night with Andrew (my husband) a few weeks after we finally handed in the keys to our old apartment. It was cool, the perfect temperature, as the evening often is in the summer in Seattle. It was still quite light out—the sun doesn’t set until around 9:30 here.          

“I was thinking maybe you’d start going to church again,” Andrew said to me. We had just passed by yet another church—there are five or six different ones in the few blocks around our townhouse.

“I was kinda thinking the same thing,” I told him.

I used to go to church. It used to be my thing. I would go on Sunday mornings, while Andrew stayed in bed and played online bridge. I liked having a thing. I liked getting a little dressed up and sneaking into the back of the church just as the bells rang. At first, it was always Catholic Mass—I’d been raised Catholic. But I tried all kinds of churches: Lutheran, Episcopalian, Orthodox, Church of Christ – Scientist, and for one year, an evangelical church (more about that later).

I treated them all, to some degree, as experiments. What did they think about Jesus here? Were the people awkward, friendly, or cold? Did I feel welcomed or creepily embraced? Did anyone reach out to me? Did no one reach out to me?

A few days before our chat, Andrew and I had awkwardly stopped by a “Backyard Bazaar” held by a place called Valley and Mountain in the neighborhood that borders Columbia City to the south, a neighborhood called Hillman City. We didn’t realize that this shindig was being run by this church, and once we figured that out, we felt like we were crashing a church picnic. We wandered into the “backyard,” which was a community garden with peas sprawling in all directions like curled hair. There was a table with pints of beer and a few bottles of wine: “Suggested donation $2.” A few twenty-something and thirty-something women hung out in cuffed jeans and bandanas.

An older man with curly white hair pointed out a very tall man with long brown hair. “That’s the guy who’s in charge of all this,” he said. But the minister—if that’s what he was—just looked at us and kind of half-smiled. We waited a few minutes for someone to offer us a drink or show us around or explain to us what the bazaar part was, but nothing happened. Some kinds were making pizzas in a homemade brick oven with their parents. We weren’t hungry, so we hid awkwardly by a raised bed, and then left.

In all of my church-going experiments, I never really knew what the right answers to my questions would be. I knew what I didn’t like: I didn’t like when people were too friendly. But I also didn’t like when they ignored me. I didn’t like when they didn’t let me sneak out the back without a handshake—but I also got annoyed when a woman in one of the Catholic churches I went to introduced herself to me after I’d been going for months (and asked if I wanted to come to the youth group).

I didn’t like too much Jesus. I didn’t like mention of abortion or homosexuality. I didn’t like people talking about being saved, or how people who weren’t saved were going to hell. But then again, I spent an entire year in a church that openly embraced all of those things, just to see what it was like.

As far as beginnings go, my first foray into Valley and Mountain couldn’t have been less auspicious. I felt like I was being wallflowered by the rest of the party. I was literally hanging out with the plants.

But I went home and Googled Valley and Mountain. On their website, I couldn’t find a page with “tenets of our faith” or “doctrine of the XXX church.” Instead, I found “core actions/values.” According to the site, Valley and Mountain was all about three things: “deep listening, creative liberation, and radical hospitality.”

“Deep listening” threw me, but when I got to “radical hospitality” I started to feel a spark of something, like a circle of red at the end of a burning cigarette.

Their vision “is to spend half of our collective energy, time, and money on the creative liberation of our neighborhood/city/world.” They wanted to change the systems that made people oppressed, but in a way that would be creative, not destructive. They wanted to help the poor, but change the world so that it stopped making them so poor.

The glow grew brighter. Once, in college, I decided that I would give away as much money as I spent on things like clothes and food. It was hard; I didn’t have much money to give away in the first place. I remember telling my boyfriend at the time, who looked at me as if I were diseased. I kind of was. I felt really, really guilty about my new pair of boots.

I made this decision after hearing Shane Claiborne speak. Shane was the leader of a local movement in Philadelphia that started at Eastern College, a progressive evangelical Christian college. He looked like a modern-day Jesus: long shabby hair, goatee, torn jeans, a repurposed t-shirt. He spoke to a group of me and my friends one night. We went on a whim to the small classroom where he talked about how he and several other students moved into North Philly, one of the most blown-out, abandoned neighborhoods of the city, and started helping squatters buy some of the vacant homes there. He was arrested for sleeping outside with homeless people (a crime in Philadelphia) and the judge let him off; he was wearing a t-shirt that said “Jesus was a homeless man.” His voice was amazed and enthusiastic. I bought his book after, The Irresistible Revolution. “What if Jesus meant the stuff he said?” Shane asked.

I think this was the beginning of the answer to what I was looking for. Valley and Mountain’s website looked like an extension of Shane Claiborne’s mentality—and my own. But I tried to play it cool. “I’d really like to go to that church on Sunday,” I told Andrew a few days after the bazaar. “But I don’t think I ever could, because they just looked like such a bunch of hippies.” But I’m a hippie. Though I don’t wear bandannas and I distinctly do not like when Andrew grows a beard, I want to make things better and more equal in my community. I feel a lot of conflicting feelings about the fact that I live in the rapidly gentrifying Columbia City. Maybe I was afraid of being lumped in with the do-gooder crowd.

Curiosity got the better of me; I went.