The orange burlap pew dug into the area behind my knee as I shrunk as far back into the seat as I could to avoid the way my blood turned icy and the lump in my throat appeared. This feeling meant I felt compelled to step forward to share a praise or prayer request; it also meant I wasn’t entirely sure which words would spill from my lips, but that meant it was sure to be of God. My three-month-old sighed on my chest; this was it.
I stood and made my way to the front of the church. Someone else was speaking, but their words fell on my ears the way adult-speak sounded in Charlie Brown as I tried to calm my shaking body and hoped my baby wouldn’t wake up.
“I’m thankful for this guy,” I smiled down, “Who has reminded me that I need Jesus. I need to be in my Bible more. I need to do right by him.”
Who could have known that those words would be the beginning of the end?
Three years later, another little one sighed, her cheek resting on the blue light blanket for jaundice, her five-pound frame connected to enough tubes that they had to weigh more than she did. Our pastor and one of the church elders stood in the sanitized fluorescent light of the hospital, talking to AJ while I watched our baby fight to breathe and collapsed inside my body, the one that hadn’t kept her safe long enough.
The stiff formality of these men who I had mostly only ever seen in the 1960s furnishings of the church I’d attended since high school felt out of place in this world where prayers didn’t always work.
At the end, our pastor took me aside and asked, “Do you guys need anything? How is your insurance?”
I took this to mean, Do you need money?
I needed someone who saw me. It’s a shame when what someone has to give and what you need just don’t line up.
We had tried to meet in the middle. AJ and I sat in Pastor’s office, the wooden bookshelves housing the kinds of books that look to be for show not for reading. Piled on his desk were the ones with the worn covers. Tears poured down my cheeks, not from sadness, but from frustration.
I saw so many problems in the church, but we were trying to address the most practical.
I had walked into the church nursery, its shelving units and many of its toys from a whole different era of parenting, to find the volunteers sitting on the new arm chairs in the corner, scrolling through their phones. We asked if it would be possible to stop forcing parents to take a turn, to try to just find people who actually wanted to be with our children and love them well.
Pastor said, “Be the change you want to see.”
I kept taking different threads and trying to unravel the knots, so the tapestry of the church could survive. The knots only got tighter. And gnarlier.
Eventually, scraping the fabric became the right choice for me; I never could have known all the ways it would be the right choice for my children. By shedding the expectations of that one small church, I am able to introduce my kids to the concept that God and Love might be even bigger than we can imagine.
I’ve seen God shrunk down in size. We had one of my son’s friends in the car, driving to I-don’t-remember where. I do find I like driving my son and his friends around. I hear them talk about things I would never hear him say in any other environment.
From the back seat his friend says, “I’m worried about what this world’s coming to.”
My son replies, “Why? What’s up?”
I tell my son all the time how his generation gives me hope. They are one of the most informed, active groups I know.
It turns out that his friend saw an email from a teacher who had included her pronouns.
My son shrugged that off as no big deal, while I sat silent, letting him take the lead on this conversation, pride bubbling up inside me.
“Mom, why are those people standing there?” My middle son asks. We are at the off-ramp to the freeway, Bougainvillea and Pride of Barbados brightening the litter amongst the rocks.
“Hungry. Need help.” He reads their sign.
“They are down on their luck,” I begin to explain. He asks where their family is, and I tell him I don’t know.
I remember the days when I was in church where sin would have been part of this conversation, some idea that these people made a choice and put themselves in this position. I no longer see sin as a list of right and wrong choices, but rather as the ways we have all been broken. I think if we seek to heal one another rather than condemn, we get to live more like Jesus.
I ask my son if we should go buy them a sandwich.
We took my children to the Heard Museum. I stood with them as we walked into the Boarding School exhibit that explains how Native Americans were taken away from their families. My teenager is familiar with the story of what happened to his ancestors. My eight- and five-year-old children were less so.
We stopped at the barber chair with its crude leather and silver frame where it explained how their hair was cut against their will; we talked about what it would feel like to be taken away from your family. I paused for a length of time at the blue portrait of a young girl who had run away from the boarding school only to die of the cold on her attempt to get home.
My oldest son’s ancestors were decimated by Christians who wanted to civilize heathens. This has only continued.
To continue to uphold the ideal that my beliefs are “better” and “right” does not allow me to show the loving humility of Jesus, and I’m not entirely sure when the church got the idea that it works that way.
I’m glad that my kids can see that forcing others into a particular culture and way of being rarely ends well.
We showed up every week and sat in the pew with people who saw the people they thought my kids should become but rarely saw who they actually were. They were happy to help them memorize Bible verses and gift them comic book Bibles and to pray with them.
My uncle comes to town a few times a year. This last time he was here, my kids gathered around the table and listened to him talk about his adventures in driving down to see them.
Then, Uncle John and my oldest migrated to the dining room where we keep our guitars. They both pulled one down. Uncle John let him play the song he has been working on writing. Then he dove in. “Stand up and try again.” My son did. “Try again and lift your head.” He rolled his eyes, but he did. “Oh, there are the words. Not that umm…uggg…hmmm…bull shit,” Uncle John said. My son smiled. Uncles are cooler when they swear…but coolest when they know your interest and care enough to participate.
We may not see him every week, but he knows my kids.
My uncle’s picture hangs on the wall of my writing shed, a place AJ built for me in our backyard after I attended a class with a literary agent who said creating a space to write is a good first step for a writer. Actually, three of the walls of the shed are being wall-papered in pictures.
My brother bought me candles that smell like antique books and I bought one for myself that smells like campfire and those scents perfume the shed, particularly in summer when the heat makes the wax melt.
It is my sanctuary, my sacred place. I didn’t allow myself that for years. In church, my first responsibility was to God, then my husband, then my children, then my extended family. I lost a place for myself. I would try to make time for my writing, but it always got squeezed in the cracks.
Fully embracing who I am, making space for that, it gives me more compassion to allow others that space too. To allow my kids that space. My oldest boxes, my middle kiddo plays soccer, the youngest swims. Those passions might change over the years, but I am a better parent for making a space for my kids to have them.
That day I stood on that goldenrod shag carpet, wanting the best for my son, I thought it was all about me doing more for the church and for God. What I found instead is that being a better mother was about being more present to love, to healing, to empathetic recognition, to connection, to myself. Some people find this in church; I found it when I left.
My name is Tiffany Mathews, and I am a former church goer and current Masters in Narrative Studies student at Arizona State University. In the absence of religion, I found that allowing and encouraging people to share their stories is where community happens. As such, you will find attached a non-fiction piece. With plans to begin facilitating story-telling workshops for populations who do not typically tell their story, I am starting my journey by telling my own story. I hope that in going first, I can inspire others to be willing to share and that in doing so, they will be able to heal old wounds and contribute to the collective healing of humanity.