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tears in an eye

The Choice to Look Away

tears in an eyeI do this thing in the mornings. I wake up and check the Rubycam in the nursery, and if Ruby is still asleep, I spend a few minutes in my bed on my phone, checking various email inboxes and my calendar for the day, usually scrolling through Facebook, before I go wake her up to start her day. I do this despite an admonishment years ago from my spiritual director that checking email first thing was the worst way to start a day.

This morning, as I read Facebook in the dawn’s light seeping through the bedroom shutters, I found myself face to face with the image of a tiny boy in Aleppo, covered in grime and dust, staring starkly back at me. He had been pulled seconds before from the ruins of a bomb blast and deposited in an orange safety chair in the back of an ambulance. It was a video, and so I watched as this child—maybe six months older than my own—in literal shell shock, sat slack in the chair, looked around a bit, rubbed absently at his forehead and hair, stared blankly at the hand that came back covered in blood, and then returned his eyes to the camera peering back at him. He was completely alone. I imagined his view in the back of this ambulance: of a stranger with a camera pointed at him, God only knows what raging in the background.

I had to turn it off. I’m not proud of that. I remember being told that once you have children, it changes the way you experience stories of children being mistreated or hurt or ill, because you can’t separate the hypothetical child from your own. Maybe that’s true.  Read more

A View From the Pew

I am a newcomer.

That is an identity that I haven’t worn in 18 years.  But as a newly-staying-at-home mom who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, a priest whose family spent several months seeking a church home, I see church through new eyes….the eyes of one sitting in a pew.

My husband, two year old daughter, and I have visited about ten churches in the past three months. I am here to tell you that you all are doing a great job—the preaching has been very, very good, I am inspired by the opportunities for engagement in my own spiritual formation and that of my daughter and husband, and I see plenty of places where I can jump in to serve the wider community and world in the name of Christ.

But what I don’t know, is where to find the nursery. Or the bathroom. And I’m not sure where to park, or if you expect me to volunteer in the nursery, or if you consider me a member of your church.

When I reflect on my time as a parish priest, specifically one who worked with children and youth, there are a few things of which I so wish I had been more aware.

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs (or not)

Once my GPS has finished its work and I am parked somewhere near your church, I am 100% at your mercy. God blessed me with an excellent sense of direction, but even I don’t know where to go. Churches have many, many different entrances, at least 600 per church, and most bear not one sign. We newcomers really do read signs. Maybe ask some folks who don’t worship at your church to do a site visit, and have them tell you where they need direction. Those signs are a welcome sight for a newcomer, and they speak volumes about the hospitality of a congregation.

First Responders

Now that I have made my way into your church, I might need a little more direction from a live human being. I might need to know where a certain Sunday school classroom is or where the bathroom is. Churches are doing a much better job of appointing people to serve as “greeters,” a separate ministry from “ushering.” The challenge is that these greeters like to talk—with each other! I like that people are happy to see each other! But they forget to welcome newcomers! Train your greeters to be on the lookout for newcomers and to make a step towards us. (We are easy to pick out. We look lost and gravitate to the pews in the back.)

First Responders Part II

I was in charge of our church’s childcare ministry. I’ve been the one to receive the 8:55 phone call saying no one can work in the nursery at the 9:00 service. These things happen. And not every church has the finances or the ethos to offer childcare during worship, and that is okay. But, if your church does have a nursery, know that it is both a wonderful gift and an awesome responsibility. We newcomers are nervous about leaving our most precious treasures with you. If you are calm (not rushing in a minute before the service starts), ask about allergies, ask about preferences around being called if our child is upset, and ask about pottying, we will rest much easier. I sat through one service not listening to one word because I was worried about my child. A calm, professional, warm childcare provider makes a hugely positive impression!

Website

Not every church has a website, but if yours does, keep it up to date. Yes, a nice, crisp website is a good start. But if the information is outdated, the value of having a website is severely compromised. An outdated website does not a good first impression make.

Vocabulary

Even those of us who are well versed in church talk are sometimes at a loss when it comes to announcements about ministry gatherings. For example, “St. Margaret’s is meeting on Sunday, March 3, at 5:00 in the Parlor. Newcomers welcome!” I am wracking my brain to remember who St. Margaret is, and what the focus of her namesake group might therefore be. Many announcements use insider language. The person who proofs announcements serves newcomers well by asking if the language is inviting or informational to those who have forgotten Saints 101.

Expectations

My final thought is that the “welcome” stage is but the first phase of embracing newcomers. The second phase is newcomer integration. Now that we’ve decided to make yours our church home, what are you going to do with us? What are we supposed to be doing? Pledging? Transferring our membership? Volunteering in the nursery? Making cookies for coffee hour? I dare say, the newcomer integration part is probably more critical than the original welcome. We newly-committed newcomers are nervous that we’re not doing something that we’re supposed to be doing. Tell us what you expect from us, whether that is via newcomers classes, being connected to other members who can shepherd us, or a meeting with the clergy.

Welcoming newcomers is intentional work, and it takes time, training, and money. And, it’s often difficult for existing church members to have an objective perspective about their congregation, because they already speak the language and know every nook and cranny of the building. Don’t be afraid to visit other churches (hard for clergy) or have members of the newcomers committee visit other churches to walk in the shoes of a visitor. Or, think about the most hospitable places in your town (ours is probably the YMCA), and talk about what it is that makes those places feel so warm and welcoming. Then, do what they do! In the eyes of a newcomer, a little bit….a sign, a “Hi, can I help you?” or “Does your child have any allergies?”…. goes a very long way.

 Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rev. Mary Davila and her husband and daughter are new members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, which does have a wonderful childcare ministry, greeters, and signs galore.

Abundant Grace

In retrospect, I should have just skipped the meeting. Everyone would have understood, after all, we had just taken custody of our first foster child three days before. She was not doing well. But the stupid part of me, the part that wants to be mother and pastor simultaneously in all its glory with none of its brokenness, that part of me sent me to the meeting, nine month old foster daughter and two year old biological son in tow while my husband was out of town.

She shrieked for the first ten minutes of the meeting before we left, with all the moms in the group smiling comfortingly and knowingly, the teenage girls looking like they might have reconsidered premarital sex for a few more weeks.

It wasn’t really going how we thought it would.

Our firstborn child came hard. He was a great baby, but rounds of church conflict and a rough pregnancy landed me on bed rest for the last month of my pregnancy, and then recovering from a C-section. But after all that he was great. Easy baby, good eater, slept through the night before he was twenty-five. The church loved having a baby around, especially because it had been a while. They were forgiving of sermons that sometimes took detours before getting back to the point, patient with me nursing in my office while they stood outside waiting to speak with me, and charmed by his easy smiles and first steps.

We were not foolish enough to think that all babies were as easy as he was. But we were not really prepared for how challenging our girl would be.

My husband and I are both ministers, so we know what it means to be called. I was called while in college, and went straight to divinity school. Ben spent more time navigating the world before returning to school and being ordained. We had felt the same sort of call to serve as foster parents. My husband’s grandfather had been a foster child, cycling through several families until he finally ended up with the right one who saw him through high school and loved him until their deaths. His foster sister attended his wife’s funeral, sixty years later. We knew what a difference it could make.

And we felt like we could be useful. We had a spare bedroom, all the toys a child could need, extra time given my husband’s halftime work situation and my flexible schedule, and the desire to parent another child. We thought we could be useful.

We knew that there are too many families in the system. We knew that resources are tight in state budgets and children’s’ services are the easiest to chop, after cutting their mothers’ services, of course. We knew that whatever we do to the least of these we do unto our Lord.

When people ask me why we’re foster parents, if I feel like giving the short answer, I say “Somebody has to do it. And Jesus told us to.” That’s how we began. And we continue because of the children. They say that in child welfare there are two kinds of people: child savers and family preservers. Foster parents are asked to play both roles. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for us or for our congregation. Often I get to model forgiveness and grace and hope through the example I set in how I speak about our daughter’s other mother and father. It would be very easy to blame them, scapegoat them, and gossip about them (and it’s some GOOD gossip, let me tell you). But that’s not helpful to our girl, or to the faith lives of my parishioners. They need me to set a better example.

But what has been a blessing has been their example to me. They have been wonderful. We did lots of preparation, both for our family and for the church. After we were licensed, but before she came, I wrote a letter to the church telling them of our dreams and reasons for taking in a foster child and how wonderful they had been to our son. (True of most of the church). They were ecstatic and so excited to partner with us on this crazy journey. “Any news? When is the new child coming? Have you heard anything? What are you going to need from us?” were the questions on people’s lips as we waited.

And when she came, broken, tiny, with a shriek that sounded like a pterodactyl on steroids, they were still ecstatic for us. They caressed her tiny feet, laughed with us as she got bigger and sassier and stopped shrieking. They encouraged our son in his role as big brother, and gave me a lot of grace when I was frazzled or telling the fourth story in a row about how cute my kids were.

One member of the church, a gruff eighty-seven year old great-grandfather, carried her around from place to place as she directed him with points and laughs. Another member who is a lawyer in the local prosecutor’s office answered all my questions about the court process. Parents with adult children reassured me that the sibling rivalry would abate, probably.

And they only laughed a little when we provided respite (short-term) care for a pair of brothers in March for ten days. Their questions weren’t about how we would manage with four kids under the age of six in one house, and taking two cars to get everywhere. They asked when they could meet them, and how they could help. And one of Ben’s church members made us a huge lasagna and tray of brownies. Grace, grace, grace, abundant.

They give me a lot more grace than I would ever think to ask for. And it is so rewarding to have people who haven’t seen her in a while (cough- Christmas and Easter Christians – cough), see her with me and ask incredulously “Is that E?” “Yes”, I say proudly. “That’s our E.”  A tiny little spitfire of a girl who has taught all of us about grace, thriving, hope, and the value of pink shoes.

The Rev. Kerry Waller serves in the suburbs of Chicago as a Disciples of Christ Pastor. She is also a wife and mom of two (usually). She makes cards, cake pops, and coordinates children’s art projects as often as she can. She blogs, mostly about cards, at andthenthereweremore.blogspot.com.

Artwork by Lindsay Waller.