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.