It was amazing to see the crowds as Pope Francis visited and celebrated mass in the United States. Although there were limited tickets, the media kept us well-informed of his every move and word. He’s energizing and reaching out to those previously isolated or disenfranchised with organized religion, but will it translate into people returning to church?
I’ve been a church-goer most of my life except for a “too busy” time during college. But it wasn’t until I went on a mission trip and felt the grace and caring of Christians who I hardly knew that I understood how much God loves me as his child.
It was my first mission trip to South Africa in 2007, traveling with a friend and his church group. We had planted a garden in a township outside of Soweto when I received a phone call from Nashville that my husband was leaving me. It’s an important turning point in my life and I included it in my memoir, Chasing My Father:
"That's fine. I knew you wouldn't care. Just remember these words, ‘I won't be here when you get back.’"
I heard the click of the phone and the conversation was over. I didn't know what to say, but handed the phone back to Naomi with a soft, “I’m sorry for causing so much trouble.” I climbed into the back seat of the car. One of my traveling companions, asked, "Is everything okay? You look white as a sheet."
I thought, It's not fair to involve my new friends in my problems. How embarrassing that my husband is leaving me while I'm on a mission trip. I wanted to be anywhere but in that car, and my mind took me away to a time when I was five years old and I’d run next door in the snow to the neighbors for help. My father was drunk and standing over my mother with a kitchen knife, threatening to kill her. But when I returned with the neighbors, my father and mother were quiet. "Nothing's wrong,” they said. “She has an overactive imagination for a five-year-old." My mother’s voice from forty years before echoed in my head, reminding me that family matters meant family-only matters.
I snapped back to the present when my friend repeated, “Is everything okay?” It was a split second decision. Should I remain quiet bearing this burden myself, or should I confide in my new friends?
Everyone seemed so nice and understanding on the trip, like I’d read about Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus seemed to always know when someone was embarrassed or needed to be comforted, and he never condemned them. I blurted out, "That was my husband and it sounds like he's been drinking."
My friend looked at his watch, "But it's 7 a.m. in Nashville!"
"I know. He called to tell me he wouldn’t be there when I get home, and that he’s taking the dogs to a kennel. I guess he's leaving me."
Another friend had listened quietly, but now he softly said, "Sounds like he's doing you a favor."
And then I heard the most comforting words I’d ever heard, "I am so sorry for the pain you are going through, but you know there's nothing you can do from here, don’t you? We will care for you."
I wanted to cry, but instead I was comforted by the show of love from my new friends. For the first time in my life I wasn’t keeping a secret to hide my embarrassment at a failure. These people cared about me in spite of what I was going through. I guess I would expect that from the priest on the trip, but everyone else exhibited that same type of love, too. I knew my marriage was over and I resolved to learn about forgiveness and judgment and make some changes in my life. We climbed out of the cars when we reached Soweto and I realized that this mission trip was less about me serving the people of South Africa, and more about what I could become by learning to love God and accepting His love.
When I hear about Pope Francis, I am reminded of that day in South Africa, when a human reached out in grace and kindness to show me God’s love. I keep answering the question, “Why church?” hoping that I can show that same grace and kindness to a stranger who I encounter on the journey.
Blessings, my friend,
My new book of forty meditations, Reclaiming Time was released on September 6, 2015 and is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99 on Amazon. Chasing My Father is also available on Amazon as a print or Kindle eBook.