Dear American Church

by Rachel Pieh Jones on July 18, 2019

Dear American Church,

Sometimes I feel cynical about you. This should not sound surprising, especially coming from an expatriate. I haven’t engaged deeply with you in almost sixteen years. My ‘church’ has been a motley crew of people from all nations and all denominations and all manner of theological bent in terms of eschatology, gender roles, predestination (or not). My pastors rarely speak English. My family is usually the only white family.

My other church, the BODY, has been women I take long, sweaty, dusty walks with, sometimes chased by wild dogs or men with AK-47s. We pray, we hold hands, we shout, we weep, we fight, we forgive and ask forgiveness. We try to untangle the world’s brokenness and our own. We babysit each other’s children, counsel through hard marriages, donate blood in the hospital. We do Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, baptisms, baby dedications, and grief in each other’s homes. We don’t attend services together inside a building but we live worship together in the world.

We are a small community and a constantly changing one, which means we cannot stagnate. We have to try, really hard, to not close ourselves off to each new arrival or to isolate in sadness after each fresh departure. We know we are a hot (literal) mess.

So sometimes when I come back to America for a visit, the church feels so big. So impersonal. So unengaged in relationship. Focused on politics and national pride. So rich, so much pressure to buy certain books or to dress well enough to look presentable in services. So homogeneous.

And I judge.

Oh God, forgive me, I judge. While I’m away, I cry about loneliness and limited relationship options and the exhaustion of the revolving expatriate door. But then while I’m in the US, I judge.

This is a common and besetting weakness in all of us who have lived abroad. It is something I don’t like about myself or about how life overseas has changed me. I like some things about how I’ve changed, but this is not one of them.

So I’m admitting it, confessing it, going public with my yuck.

I’m so sorry.

I sit here and judge and criticize and wonder if there is any love and community left in American Christianity. I wonder if faith has been co-opted by ideology, if religion has left behind Jesus and declared itself a political party.

***

And then you go and TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELF.

You have taken my weary and questioning heart and have not been afraid of my anger, my disappointment, my own brokenness.

You have heard my criticisms and gently challenged me to be more open-hearted, to not only hold cynicism but to make space for grace.

You have asked of me the same thing I demand of you: to choose love and mercy.

You show up. In imperfect ways. Like me.

You are generous with shoe boxes and your time. You donate to schools and feed hungry children. You baby-sit kids who need a safe place for the afternoon. You spend hours hanging gently used clothing on racks for single mothers to buy for pennies. You visit each other in the hospital. You mail cards with verses about God’s presence and I Voted stickers, for encouragement and for laughs.

You bring meals to neighbors with cancer, when someone in your own household also has cancer. You tutor immigrant children. You offer really soft hugs. You take an interest in work and projects on the other side of the world, things so many can’t summon compassion for. You invest in the marriages of your people. You give money, so much money. And time, so incredibly much time. You choose to live simply, so others can simply live. You refuse to sink into fear or cowardice, you are willing to learn and grow. You ask good questions and care about the answers.

You want, so sincerely, to be a healing force in the world.

And so, I’m sorry. For how I’ve judged. And thank you, for loving me.

There is so much wrong with just about everything.

And there is so much hope in just about everything.

These are the words I receive from you as you embody them:

Redemption. Beauty. Hope. Humility. Generosity. Compassion. Love. Empathy. Sacred.

Thank you for being with me.

Love, your in-process sister in Christ,

Rachel

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: https://amzn.to/2P3BWiK Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter http://www.djiboutijones.com/contact/

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