I have almost given up on church multiple times. Once, when I was fourteen, my mother was accused of some horrible things by the church leadership, becoming the focus of a scandal. Today I can see how the unconscious, the shadow of the church, and the leadership was at work and driving that scandal. But at the time I was angry. And I was scared. This was my community, my circle of friends and place of love. How could this be happening? I watched my parents pull through with their integrity in tact. They spoke their truth and, thank goodness, it mattered. I watched them treat others with dignity and respect, practice forgiveness, and focus on what was working. Although no one would have blamed them, they chose not to leave because it was their circle of friends and love, too. They figured out a way to stay.
As a thirty something adult, I almost left when my own belief system started rapidly evolving. I did not believe some of the things I was taught. I didn’t believe some of the things I said on Sundays. I didn’t even believe some of the Bible. In worship I would choke on the language. I wouldn’t speak. Sometimes I couldn’t even listen. I cried a lot. My spiritual director encouraged me to stay, to hang in there. Let things evolve. “Give God the benefit of the doubt,” he suggested. My “church”, he prophesied, would be people scattered all around the world from whom I would get and give encouragement, challenge, and reassurance. But I still needed a local community. A place to land. Real people. A real place.
Years later another scandal erupted at a different church in which I was a member. This time my resolve was not so strong. My husband and I were deeply disturbed and we decided to pull away, at least from that church, and perhaps, we thought, from church all together. I spent time in meditation remembering friends and acquaintances who said they couldn’t go to church because of the hypocrisy so evident. I had always responded to this by saying we were all hypocrites, weren’t we? But now the level of cruelty and politics was more than I could stomach. And I knew too much. Was I hitting that wall myself? Was it time for me to leave?
I spent a year or so meandering. I would occasionally attend an alternative service: compline, evensong, morning prayer. My husband and I visited a few places, in and out of our denominational preference. We went on retreats to listen to people wiser than we are. We prayed and talked. And we came down on the side of trying again. We couldn’t go back where we had been but we wanted to find a place to join. Why? Here are my top three reasons:
- Good worship transforms us. When we worship, when we surrender ourselves to the liturgy, the Holy One uses that ritual to open us and change us. Once a week, or as often as possible, we are changed by remembering our past, being fully present, and having hope in a future. And we are changed differently when worshipping with others then we are when worshipping alone, which I also do. Receiving communion, that amazing sacrament of Love and belonging, and receiving the gift in community, still matters deeply to me.
- A church community can accomplish more for the world when many gather and join forces. Many hands make light work, my grandmother use to say. And so it is true. Many hands can feed a community, build a school or a hospital, take care of children, help the elderly, and handle terrible tragedy. Many can also gather to celebrate passages, to encircle families during times of happiness and joy, and to ease the sorrows of life. We can do more together than we can apart.
- Being part of a flesh and blood community. I have good friends here and many friends and family in far away places. But it is good to be joined with people in the flesh and to have to learn how to live and work together. I had missed knowing people and being known; there is a way that a healthy community holds one in its consciousness, and helps you hold others. I missed having a community willing to struggle with difficult questions. This is always true after terrible community or national tragedies. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacres, our new-to-us church community joined to talk about our fears, our concerns, and our hopes. I was asked to be a part of a panel of human development professionals to help people process this tragedy. It was good to be in a community that wanted and valued my gifts. It was good to offer my gifts. This is what community does. We value each other’s uniqueness and we need each other’s gifts and strengths. We also need a place to offer our gifts.
There are other things about community that matter to me. It is wonderful to sing in community, something the secular world does less and less of these days. It is chastening to fall to my knees and confess, give thanks, and offer my gratitude for my abundant life, and especially to do this with others. Last Sunday, when my husband and I knelt next to each other early, shoulders touching, I was grateful that we both believe there is something bigger than us, bigger than our marriage, and that together, we turn to the Holy Other for guidance.
And so, for now, I am choosing to continue to be part of a faith community. Even with all the trauma and drama, it has mattered in my life. My prayer is that my faith community and all faith communities will rise to the challenge of addressing the difficult questions and serious concerns in the world. I pray that faith communities will be willing to change so that they can be transformed in a way that will matter to the world.
Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min., has been a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage & family therapist and spiritual director for over twenty years. She blogs weekly at Amy Sander Montanez.