Except in a church.

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In many ways, my faith journey is a fairly common one. I grew up in a Christian household where we took turns saying the blessing before each meal, read the Bible together daily at breakfast, and attended church as a family at least once a week. Starting in college, I needed distance from the religion of my childhood, as one often does. I wandered and I wondered for nearly a decade. In my late twenties, I finally found a church that encouraged such seeking and questioning but shared the rhythms and rituals that remained so familiar to me. I stayed and have continued to seek and question as a member of that community since then.

What I haven’t yet shared with you is that my parents are missionaries and they have been my whole life. You see, you may not have recognized the meals that we blessed, understood the cultural references we made to scripture readings, or even spoken the language of the church we attended. I moved overseas when I was four months old and returned without my family to the United States for college. I am what they call a “third culture kid” — one who lives between cultures, languages, and worlds.

My faith journey was also inevitably influenced by my parents’ perceived “spiritual superiority” as missionaries. As a child, I revered them for their sacrifice and resented them for forcing it on me. They included us — my brother and me — in their work as much as possible, sending us to local schools even if at first we didn’t speak the language and never sheltering us from the poverty and suffering they encountered daily. 

I lived on three continents and in four countries by the time I was 18. This nomadic existence focused on sharing hope and serving others was incredibly rich. And it was incredibly lonely. Looking back, there were just a few anchors that kept me grounded. The first was my faith, the second my family, and the third the Church.

Having many homes around the world means that you never feel totally at home anywhere. In the United States, I felt very foreign. Overseas, I clung to my American identity even if I didn’t understand it; I just knew I didn’t fit in wherever I was. For decades I felt uncomfortable discussing my childhood—the traveling, the languages, the unusual experiences—because people thought I was bragging. Neither would I discuss my parent’s job because frankly most people simply didn’t understand or they passed judgment. There were few places I knew how to be or felt I could be just me. Except in a church.

Most summers we would return to the United States and my parents would speak in churches across the country. Each church was a refuge. These were places where I understood those all-important rhythms and rituals. I knew what was expected of me — what to wear, where to go, when to sit, when to sing. We were welcomed and loved and while perhaps not wholly understood we were certainly celebrated. It was okay that I was different and I was encouraged to be as peculiar as I felt inside.

In many ways, churches took care of me during those summers of my childhood—physically and emotionally. The people in them fed us and gave us places to stay. They would take my brother and me shopping in American malls and to amusement parks and did their very  best to help us understand the place we were born.

These churches and the people in them were havens, safe places where I could stop pretending, stop trying so hard. Still today, when I walk into a church for the first time, I remember what it was like to be that 6-year-old, 10-year-old, 17-year-old who finally felt like she had found a home.

Guest Blogger Christen Kindard is the founder of both Digital Churches and Threads by Nomad/The Off Ramp, and sits on the board of the Association for Smaller Congregations.

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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