I was born and raised a German Lutheran in the Missouri Synod. I grew up in white, conservative suburban churches, and in country ones the kind people pay top dollar to be married in -- clapboard-sided A-frames with steeples soaring over cornfields and haystacks. The kind that did not allow women in the congregation to vote until the 1990’s. The kind where the minister insisted my mother stay married to my father long after it became clear that she might have died if she did.
But I loved God and I loved Jesus, and I firmly believed in the Golden Rule. I taught Sunday School, and thought I’d be a missionary and a doctor until I learned what “colonialism” meant and realized my loved for news trumped my inability to do math. For years, I wandered in and out of the church until this past spring, when I thought I might die, too, or maybe go mad.
That’s when I found First Lutheran Church of the Trinity. And it rocked my world.
I had given up on churches – the patriarchy, the conservatism – and on small congregations – the parochialism, the pettiness. The church I was confirmed in excommunicated a young boy and his mother because they didn’t regularly attend confirmation class or church. Had they asked why, they would have seen the life of a single mother in shambles. I was chided for not giving the church our family’s phone number during a time my family could not afford a phone. In Orlando, where I worked as a reporter, I watched powerful politicians who attended my church defame and remove an innocent minister simply because they didn’t like him. I swore off church and considered abandoning my faith altogether.
That’s not to say that I never saw the beauty of the church. After 9/11, when I lived in Baltimore, I sought solace along with the rest of the nation, and visited an ELCA church. Overwhelmed by fear and heartache, I shrugged off any misgivings about the “heresy” I’d heard about in my Missouri Synod youth, and found that God left a little slice of heaven right there by the water. Historically wealthy, the church rivaled any of Europe’s ancient cathedrals. When the choir sang with the pipe organ, they sang with all the angels, archangels and all of the company of heaven. People shook strangers’ hands. It ran a homeless shelter in the basement. I stayed for five years until I moved to Florida.
But such places are few and far between.
Over time, I craved something to fill an emptiness inside me. I practiced yoga, where many migrate after they grow disillusioned with mainstream religion. I also attended a doctoral program rife with neo-atheists. While I found Hinduism’s avatars of God beautiful, I couldn’t connect with them. Buddhism, despite its tranquility, left me bereft. And the prospect of nothingness that atheism embraces is a concept my mind and soul rejects. I had nothing to hold on to, no way to make sense of my world.
And my world by this past spring, made no sense to anyone. Not even me.
One night when I should have been sleeping, thoughts chased through my brain like a barn cat after field mice – fierce, wild and infinite. I bolted upright, sick and cold with the white lightening of fear tearing through me, my body heaving like a hyena for breath. I pierced the night with cries in voice I did not recognize as my own. The universe felt as if it were spinning beyond the deep without me, and I could not hold on. I pushed one hand into the wall on the left and one hand into the bed on the right searching hard for something to put the breaks on this feeling of death, of madness. Then, as quickly as the panic hit, it would pass. I would pull my lilac quilt up to my shoulders and try to sleep. But three more panic attacks would hit that spring -- at least, I think it was three. My mind has since fused the memories of each into one to cope with the horror I felt those nights. I feared bedtime. Sleep came in snippets.
Medical professionals would tell me later that this would happen before I fell asleep because that was a time when I fully relaxed and let my guard down. It was my body’s way of defeating the gantlet of stress I had punished myself with in recent years. They were right. I’d left a job that made me thrill with life to move to Chicago to get married, to be closer to my family, and to go back to school. That life was not the one I dreamed of. The dysfunction that ripped at my family when I was child healed like keloids, and we picked at the bumps and bitterness until the wounds opened again. I worked at and studied in a university system that sucked my soul dry. I did not marry the man I moved home for. I lost a job. I took in a nephew. In it all, I rarely felt a thing. Anger sometimes, fatigue for sure. Not contentment. Not even joy. I was a zombie in my own private apocalypse.
I needed someone to hear those groanings of my heart. So at Easter, I searched for a church in Bridgeport, the neighborhood where my great-grandfather once owned a grocery store. I found First Trinity. I figured I’d look for a God to save me one more time, find a hollow altar in a stiffly formal church, and never return.
That Easter Sunday, I saw a bald man with a big beard whom I thought was some dude in a pew get up and preach. I watched people walk up and down the aisles whenever they wanted. People hugged each other, and even hugged me. The man with the big beard, who I learned was Rev. Thomas R. Gaulke, then said something like none of us could do anything else to make God love us more. And I cried.
When I left, a man with a ponytail and motorcycle tried to pick me up on the sidewalk. It was the craziest Easter service I’d ever been to. Still, I went back. One Sunday, the church sang the Grateful Dead. I went back. I learned that the church feeds anyone who is hungry. I went back again. And again. And I learned that the church was feeding me. My heart. My soul. My hope.
I believe that in this time of God-based, god-based and no-God zealotry, we all are fighting for something more than mere existence. First Trinity recognizes that there is no simple highway that leads to the answers. But it also recognizes that we’re all made from the same stardust and its members are willing to fill the air with songs until we find our way home.
So I go back to the crazy beautiful place because I see that such a faith works small miracles in the lives of all of those who commune there. I go back because the miracle for me is that I found a sanctuary for my troubled heart. I go because when I was unmoored, First Trinity pulled me through rippling waters and anchored me home.