~ Elizabeth Dilley
Whenever we travel as a family, I find out whether I know the pastor of the local church of our denomination, and if so, my husband knows I’ll be lobbying for church that weekend. He likes to joke that “we even went to church on our honeymoon!” (Even though it was in London, and we were within walking distance of the church where Oscar Wilde was married.) What can I say? I just love church.
I have the opportunity to see so many of my colleagues because of the nature of my work in our denominational setting. But this also means that, unlike when I was serving in Iowa, I often get to sit in the pews with my spouse and child, and help my husband wrangle our active child. When I accepted this position with the United Church of Christ, we joined the ranks of all sorts of people who “church shop” as we sought a place for us to do that child-wrangling and praying and singing and worshipping. Our commitments were few but clear: we wanted to find an intentionally multi-racial congregation that worshipped with fewer than 100 people and was explicit in its welcome of LGBT folk. Unlike the context in which I had been serving, several congregations fit the bill in our new city. So, off we went. I downplayed my role with the denomination so that I would know how an “ordinary” family would be welcomed. We were welcomed everywhere – sometimes very aggressively.
Then a new colleague (whom I had long admired from afar) invited me to visit her church. We were warmly welcomed, and so was our rowdy, still-nursing toddler. We went back a second time, and found ourselves pacing back and forth in the back of the sanctuary with our particularly active little girl. The usher, an older African-American gentleman in a sharp suit, smiled warmly at us. “You are doing it right, parents, making church a fun place for her,” he said softly, that smile telling us that all of us, imperfect and frustrated as we felt at that moment, were just where we needed to be. I remembered saying this very thing to parents who visited to the church I served. I remembered encouraging parents to bring their kids, even if – especially when – their kids were wiggly. But I never expected to be on the receiving end of this. I never expected to receive grace in this way. In that moment, I almost burst into tears.
Two years later, this is the only church my daughter knows. She is learning how to sing the songs of our faith, to sit in worship with other kids and grown-ups, to appreciate the different ways God speaks to us in prayer and story, and to know that she is a part of something larger than herself. The warm welcome we first received has deepened as we’ve deepened our involvement in the congregation, and we are learning how to take up the joy of church membership from the perspective of one who is not paid to be there. We are learning to listen to God in a new way – as a family, not as a pastor and her family. We have to navigate our own spiritual needs as we try to respect the needs of our neighbors and the needs of our daughter for worshipful time and space. We are grateful to have a diverse community of Christians to share in this work, because they love us and keep us accountable to our promises.
And still, whenever we travel, my family knows that it may not be “home,” but we will go to church somewhere.