Pastors are People Too: A Review of Welcome to Triumph

Post Author: Ali Van Kuiken

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Have you ever gone to the grocery store wearing pajama bottoms, a tank top, with your hair a mess and run into a parishioner? Or worse a member of your church board? I know some clergy who do their shopping one or two towns over so as to avoid this type of awkward encounter. What if you’re the pastor of a rural church with one option of store, one yoga studio and one coffee shop? Then you may relate to Ara Grace, the new Pastor in Triumph County, Wyoming tasked not only with shepherding her flock but also with discovering and embracing her pastoral authority and navigating her own family drama and dynamics as well – namely a disaster of a sister who dumps her 17-year-old son on her just as Ara Grace is beginning her first call. To make matters more complicated the teenager, Johnny Tae, has his own identity issues to work out.

These are just two of the characters we meet in Brittany Kooi and Kendra Joyner Miller’s debut novel Welcome to Triumph. We also meet Birdie and Nel (two other clergywomen) and Sarah and Laela (two other teens). Told from the third person omniscient perspective, we get to hear several viewpoints throughout the book. As lives intertwine we see the dangerous and the banalities of life in small town, rural America.

A decorative photo of the book Welcome to Triumph by Brittany Kooi and Kendra Joyner-Miller on a table beside a mug and black kettle.

Pastor Ara Grace arrives in Triumph and is barely able to settle herself in when her sister drops off her teenage nephew for her to care for on a Sunday during church. Ara Grace finds herself unable to say no, although even in another setting on another day she would likely have reacted the same, having a soft spot for her Johnny Tae and fond memories of his growing up years. Still, raising a teenager, and one used to being shuffled from place to place no less, is no easy task and Ara Grace relies heavily on her newly developing support system: the two other pastors in town, Birdie and Nel, each of whom has her own reasons for relying on this group.

Johnny Tae is himself trying to figure out his own life and trajectory during a chaotic upbringing. He has a hard exterior, but finds it melting as he befriends the local barista, Morgan, Pastor Birdie’s step-daughter Sarah and Sarah’s friend Laela. Each of these teens is searching and trying to understand themselves. From dates to parties to church functions we see them moving in a spiral pattern as they repeat actions with harmful consequences. I found this cyclical aspect of the plot frustrating. How many mistakes must a person make before learning a lesson? Then again perhaps I find this hard to read because it reminds me so much of my life experiences. 

This novel is ambitious in its scope, telling the stories of six people, at times giving us a peek into the lives of an additional one or two more. I found myself confused initially as it took me some time to get used to the style and a quick shift from one perspective to another. Overall, I found I enjoyed the setting of Triumph County, the characters Ara Grace, Johnny Tae, Birdie, Nel, Laela and Sarah. I was most intrigued by Laela and Johnny Tae’s relationship and I wished I could have seen that develop more. I was also interested in the development of Ara Grace and Johnny Tae as they learned to navigate life with each other throughout the novel. I enjoyed the plot and found it absorbing as the action picks up midway through. 

I recommend this book. It follows the lives of pastors, parishioners, believers and skeptics, and provides a fun foray into a familiar world for churchy people.

Want to get a copy? You can purchase one via Chalice Press here or via YCWI’s storefront here. You can also request that your local library purchase a copy. See your library’s website for details.

The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, children, and cat.

Image by: Ali Van Kuiken
Used with permission
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