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I went to church, and I liked it
Blessed are those who have a community to lean on.
On Sunday morning, I stood in front of the congregation at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and spoke about finding signs of hope during times of grief. I was there for a weekend full of events called Grief Fest, organized by my friend and fellow widower, Nation Hahn. Later that afternoon, I returned to the pulpit to introduce two women I admire greatly, Nora McInerny and Kate Bowler.
McInerny, who has suffered her fair share of losses, is the incredibly prolific host of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and author of three books on grief. Bowler, who has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, is a religious scholar and author of several books, including her memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).” Together, they spoke in front of hundreds of guests at Pullen, offering up humor, wisdom, and grace as they described their experiences facing and making sense of death.
It’s been a while since I spent Sunday at church. Growing up, my brother and I would join my mom nearly every week at the Presbyterian church she attends. After I went off to college, I visited a few different churches around Atlanta, but quickly traded Sunday morning sermons for sleeping in. Now I never go to church, save for weddings or funerals, or the occasional historic cathedral visit while traveling. In my youth, I identified as Christian; these days, I’m firmly in the “spiritual but not religious” camp.
Because of my long absence from church, I was nervous — not just about attending Sunday’s service, but because I would be speaking at it. I stressed over what to wear, what to say, and whether I’d be viewed as an obvious outsider.
None of that mattered at Pullen. I felt welcomed, especially by pastor Nancy Petty, who has one of the best Southern accents I’ve heard in a long time. I found peace in the quiet moments of prayer and reflection. I was moved to tears by the choir’s songs that echoed through the sanctuary. And I was surprised and encouraged by how progressive the church was; at one point, we all sang a hymn that included the line, “any-gendered, any-loved — here all belong.”
Several times during her sermon, Petty referenced Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It was a message I needed to hear. To me, it meant, go ahead and fall apart; we’ll be here to help put you back together.
As I sat in the sanctuary on Sunday, I was hit with a surprising pang of longing, followed by a slew of questions. What was happening? Did I really miss going to church? Is it possible to feel comforted by God, if I’m not sure He exists?
After giving it some thought, I realized it’s not the religious teachings or traditions that I miss, though I do sometimes find comfort in those things. I think, rather, that I miss the community church provides. There’s an even deeper comfort in knowing that, no matter what happens in life, there are people to support you.
During the discussion later that afternoon, Bowler talked about the times when she’s not feeling strong enough to be inspirational — the moments when, whether exhausted by cancer’s toll or overwhelmed by the severity of her diagnosis, she needs to fall apart. She explained that sometimes she feels like nothing more than a crumbling old cathedral wall, one that’s only propped up by the various buttresses supporting it. Bowler said she takes note of the people in her life who are buttresses during her times of need.
It was a beautiful thought, and it made me reflect on the various people in my life who have kept me upright. It’s hard to imagine how I would have made it through my first year of widowhood without friends here in St. Pete to support me. And now, as I am wondering whether I can still become a mom, I’ve found myself thinking about the support systems I currently have, as well as the ones I’m lacking.
I’ve been craving community more and more often lately, and I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. Recent studies have found that millennials are much lonelier than other generations. We don’t see friends as often, in part because it’s increasingly hard to make plans. We feel alone, and that never feels good.
Church is one place to find community, but I’m curious about the other environments where we can reliably feel connected to others. My partner, who’s more outgoing than I am, has found community at a local coffee shop he visits multiple times a week. My friend Keeley, who’s more musically talented than I am, has found community in her a capella group. While I’ve had success finding kinship within virtual spaces, I’m still trying to figure out what community looks like for me, and where I can find it in my own neighborhood.
Where have you found community? Let me know in the comments, or you can reply to this email.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “City of Girls,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve been holding onto this novel for weeks, waiting until life slowed down a bit so I could fully enjoy it. I’ve just begun, and I’m loving the story so far. Thank you for the book, Dhiya!
I’m inspired by: All of the people who showed up to Grief Fest. We so often shy away from talking about grief, and it was incredibly heartening to see so many folks willing to listen and share.
I'm aiming to: Slow down! The past few weeks have been really hectic, and now that I’m back home, I am very much looking forward to getting more sleep, catching up with friends, and settling into a calmer schedule.
I wasn’t kidding about Petty’s wonderful Southern accent. You can hear her voice and learn more about her story in this interview with WUNC.
Listening to Kate and Nora talk about grief this weekend was such a treat. You can listen in on their brilliance here on this episode of “Everything Happens”.
Americans are rejecting church at a higher rate than ever. This article in The Atlantic explores why that trend may be causing more cultural conflict.
For your sweet dumb brain
Who are the buttresses in your life? Think about the people who consistently step up and offer support when you’re feeling shaky. Now take a minute and send that person a text or message (or, if you’re feeling especially generous, send a card in the mail!) thanking them for being there for you in the hard times. We all need buttresses, and we need to acknowledge their support.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who should honestly dress up as a buttress for Halloween. She’s a really good one.