by Penny Nation: My Faith Odyssey and what St. Andrew’s-Wesley means to me. “Finding a Church Home” posted November 2016
This story was also shared during a sermon Oct 16, 2016.
I was born in England, and my family moved to Canada when I was four. I was raised in a devout Christian family. My parents were Presbyterians, and loving, but about as conservative, serious and strict as it was possible to be. As soon as I was old enough to support myself, I moved to Vancouver to experience life more fully. I thought that I was through with God, but I did not think about whether God was through with me.
Ironically, of all the houses I could have moved into, unbeknownst to me, I found one that was full of “Jesus People”. I felt pressured to join the Jesus People, who were very sincere. We were all so young at the time. We attended evangelical services en masse, and after the services we were supposed to rush to the front to be saved, and to witness that we were saved. I found this both terrifying and disturbing – an attitude that was not appreciated, to say the least! There was no room for uncertainty with the Jesus People, and we were too young to be so certain, so I fled. This was a difficult decision for me, but it was a form of self-preservation. This time, I really thought I was done with religion.
A year later, I found myself on a boat from Istanbul to Israel. I was heading for a kibbutz: This was not a religious pilgrimage; I had wanted to experience living in a socialist community, and the kibbutz seemed like a good place to do that. On the boat, there was some doubt about whether I would be allowed to disembark in Israel. I remember saying quite petulantly to God: “OK, God. This is bigger than me. You solve it.” I did not expect anything to happen, but to my amazement, God solved it in the unlikely person of an Interpol officer, and I was allowed to land. The way that happened jolted me, but I didn’t want to be distracted from my purpose. I went to the kibbutz. After several months, I had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem. I found myself in the Garden of Gethsemane sitting under a 6,000-year-old olive tree. Why was I here? Had Jesus walked here? Had He looked at the olive tree that I was sitting under? Perhaps touched it, or sat under it Himself? Had Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa as I was able to do? Life at the kibbutz was defiantly secular, and I could not pursue answers to these questions. I eventually left Israel, and continued with my life outside the church. My parents occasionally asked me whether I would consider attending church, but I told them I was not interested.
Then, when I was 51, I had a fall skiing, and I tore a carotid artery, and ended up in VGH ICU. The neurologist told my parents that I would not live till morning. My dad, a retired physician, refused to leave the ICU, and sat beside me all night, praying. I thought that if my elderly, frail dad could pray all night, I could at least try to pray a little. I struggled to say “Our Father”. I felt as if it was taking a very long time as my injured brain searched for the words. In the morning, I was still alive, and I felt that I had taken a step towards God, and God had taken a step towards me. I told my dad that I would like to find a faith community when I was released from VGH and GF Strong hospitals. My dad took me to St John’s Shaughnessy Anglican church, but I felt intuitively that it was not a fit for me. I did not think I could be myself there.
I began attending the Presbyterian church again, and eventually I joined, but it was a dying church. I was one of the youngest members, and almost everyone there was over the age of 80 or 90. There was almost no one from my generation. There were many funerals, but there was never a baptism. I loved the old people, but I was profoundly lonely. I had begun to feel a call to be involved with refugees, and there was no way I was going to be able to do that in the church I was attending. It was time to go “church shopping”.
I had heard about Gary’s Oscar sermons, and I was intrigued. The first thing I saw in the bulletin was an announcement that STAW was preparing to welcome a Palestinian refugee family from Iraq. Yes! I stayed for the service. After that, I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere else. There were so many programs to explore. This church was vibrant, and definitely not dying!! There were kids everywhere. I attended “Exploring Your Faith” where I met others who were exploring their faith — Julie and Christine, Thomas and Lucy. Questions were welcome. I was welcomed into the Refugee Committee, where I met Jean, Donna, David, Alan, Barry, Jennette and the Tayyem family. I volunteered with Camp Spirit, and worked closely with Jen and Dori. I joined Salt and Light and I got to know Tim Scorer and 11 more seekers. I joined the Lenten small group and met Jo Ann, Michael, and Barb. All the while, my spirit was nurtured and fed. I loved Darryl’s music, and Gary’s sermons!
Rev. Kathryn knew that I belonged to the Refugee Committee, so when Shahla and Nafisa approached the church seeking someone to walk with them as they faced refugee hearings, she asked me to contact them. They wanted someone to hear their story because they knew they would be killed if they were sent back to Afghanistan. I called them and met them, and the idea of accompanying refugees as an ongoing process was brought to life as part of the mission of our committee. Shahla told me that as an unmarried, unaccompanied woman, she knew better than to approach a mosque. She had approached every church in downtown Vancouver, and only Rev. Kathryn at STAW had offered her any hope. I was so proud to be part of STAW at that moment.
Later, some African refugees began to find their way to us, and we began to accompany them. We occasionally attended their refugee hearings, and rejoiced with them when they succeeded. We were prepared to fight/grieve with them if they had not been accepted, but the refugees we accompanied were accepted. Thanks be to God. I got to know my dear friend Fred at that time, and Fred subsequently joined STAW. He said to me, “Where else would I go after the friendship this church has shown me?”
Not everything has been easy. Along with several members of STAW, I attended the TRC hearings where we learned what the United Church and other churches had done to Aboriginal children. We cried and cried as we listened. Our wet Kleenex, and the wet Kleenex of other witnesses to the suffering of residential school survivors was collected and burned as an offering.
I suffered a serious post-stroke depression that just would not go away, and I stopped attending church temporarily because I did not feel worthy. I felt like the “salt that has lost its taste”. Jen called me often to tell me that she was praying for me and surrounding me with love in her prayers. Michael suggested that we should “do lunch”. Barb suggested that it was time for movie therapy. Rev. Dan met with me completely non-judgmentally to talk about depression, and when I was later hospitalized with seizures, he visited me in hospital. I knew that my church family cared about me.
Discovering a church home doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some effort. Find what touches your heart. There is so much being offered, and there are so many people to get to know here. Today I can’t tell you that I believe I am “saved” while others are forever damned for their lack of faith as I was taught to believe when I was a child, but I can say that I truly believe that my many mistakes have been forgiven, and that I genuinely want to live the Jesus way in the time I have left. As I have learned to say at STAW, “We are not alone. God is with us. Thanks be to God.” When I found STAW, I found a church home that means so much to me, and I am so grateful.