sometimes people ask me about when i first got “saved”, and i tell them the story of the old Pentecostal church and a preacher who spoke with a slow, Southern drawl. i was young, not yet 18 years old, and still finding sure footing in my new country, in my new family who had taken me in as their own. i sat in that church and listened to stories about Jesus, and then i went home and prayed like i never had before.
i grew up Catholic, not necessarily in practice but definitely in name. i was the daughter of an Italian immigrant, who went to mass and was taught by the sisters. religion didn’t have much of a place in our home, though; God wasn’t something we talked about or prayed to ‘round the dinner table. still–i believed, even then; it’s just that i didn’t quite know it yet.
i had a large extended family (mainly Protestant, mind you) who cared for me and nurtured me during my early years:: sweet aunts and sturdy uncles, sources of consistency and dependability amidst all the chaos surrounding my childhood. it was in the basement bedroom of one of my father’s sisters that i knelt and “asked Jesus into my heart” for the first time. i didn’t really understand it, to be honest. but i was young, and i was scared, and the idea of a savior who could somehow fix the problems i dealt with on a daily basis appealed to the deepest parts of me.
it was years later–nearly a decade, in fact–that i found myself in that Pentecostal church during a Sunday evening service, and my heart was beating so hard i was sure it’d thump right out of my chest. i don’t know how i knew, but i did. God was real–like, really real. and looking back, i suppose that’s where it all started. i guess it’s where faith became a reality, where God became more than a word to me.
as a “baby Christian”, i was naive, and i was unsure. but mostly i was ignorant, as is to be expected, i suppose, in the early days. back then, the world was very much black and white for me; i hadn’t yet been introduced to the beautiful in-between, the sacred space that exists in the gray areas. i had my carefully constructed ideologies of what was Christian and what was not, and i was merciless in holding everything–and everyone–up to impossible standards. looking back, i cringe to remember how critical i’d become, how far from grace i was living, how little i resembled the Jesus i claimed to believe in. i didn’t know any better, to be sure. still–i’m sure i owe many an apology:: for when i judged instead of loving, for when i criticized instead of caring, for when i was quick to speak and slow to listen, even when the scriptures clearly told me to do the opposite.
and then i got divorced. and everything i’d built my neat and tidy little life upon crumbled into nothing but dust. i suffered loss after loss, became fearful of holding onto anything too tightly lest it slip through my fingers. and then i went to Liberia, a tiny nation i knew very little of but felt drawn to nonetheless. nothing could have prepared me for what was waiting on the other side of that ocean. Liberia was both tragic and beautiful, and i scarcely knew what to do with everything it showed me, all the hard lessons i had to learn because of it.
here’s the thing, though, if we’re going to get right down to the heart of it. God is in this place; he just doesn’t look or smell or feel like he used to. now, here, today, he’s sweat and mud and sea breezes rolling in from the Atlantic. he’s hot sun and dust under my fingernails, and he’s a gulp of cool water, a blessed reprieve. he’s a handshake with snapping fingers, hugs with a kiss on both cheeks; he’s toothy smiles and weathered skin and little fingers that claw my legs, stroke my hair. he is hunger, and he is need. he is unmarked graves and children who leave this world much too soon. he’s the wailing of a widow in black robes, and he is the cry of the orphan, the poor, the oppressed.
God is here, has always been here, and because of that, everything is different for me now. God is no longer found solely on a Sunday morning while sitting in a pew with my head bowed. i’ve come to find him in both my comfort and my discomfort. my joy and my pain. in my excess and my lack. in fulfillment but also in the not-quite-yet. in a father who carries his baby on his back and also in a mother who prepares my daily bread with love. in the land of my canaan but also in my desert. in the hard places, in the uncomfortable and the mess, where i’m stretched thin and my heart feels heavy and yet full.
[Photo by Indigo Skies Photography // Flickr // Creative Commons]
God, in all things–i’ve really come to believe that. for years, i was ignorant, my eyes closed, merely surviving my way through the sacred. and then one day, i became Jacob, feet covered in the dust of holy ground, as i bend low and echo his ancient refrain. “surely God is in this place–and i didn’t know it.”