The year I graduated from high school, the year I turned 18, I was finally on my way to being emancipated from my mother. I found a midnight shift job (which curtailed our interactions significantly) and saved my money for a year and went off to a small bible college. I had become a Christian a couple of years earlier and wanted to find out more about the Christian faith.
I found far more than I bargained for.
First off, not everyone who claimed to follow Christ was all that enthusiastic about it. They seemed to think they had “grandfathered in” and felt that everyone else was having a good time while they were missing out in their dutiful and dull lives following a bunch of rules. What they were missing was a God encounter.
But I eventually found my tribe in the older students and the former drug addicts and street people. These people had experienced God the way I had and they were hungry for more. We all wanted to go deeper in our faith. I decided the best way to do that was to work in a Christian ministry, so a couple of years later found me on staff of said college. Because the faculty and staff would be solid Christians who would help me grow…right?
Peeking behind the curtain of any kind of ministry is sure to disappoint. What you’ll find there is people. Wounded, struggling, and imperfect people. There may even be evil people lying in wait for innocent victims. I found all of that and experienced sexual assault from two different men that I had deeply trusted. Years later, talking with other women, I learned there were other predators there as well. This is no longer surprising to me since we now have the #Me too movement and the recent news about hiding sexual misconduct within the Catholic church. But at the time it was shocking and devastating.
I left that job and for a time left the church as well. I never gave up on God - He never failed me through all of that. But His people were another story. For years I was part of a micro-church before that was even a thing, and worked on starting my art career.
The Lord gave me time to heal and slowly called me back into larger community. Was it perfect? No, indeed. People in the church are in various stages of transformation - myself included. It is quite messy, as a matter-of-fact.
But the community of broken people from different fellowships came around Mike and me when I stepped back into my mother’s life. They helped us make the act of forgiveness a tangible thing. They became part of a bigger story, and because of them I could write a book about how forgiveness is walked out…even when you’ve been forgotten.
I sat with a visitor at church last week, and struck up a conversation. She’d heard of our little church plant and came to see what was what. I gave her a little background about the pastor’s heart for the city and for people in recovery. His original vision was to reach the poor and disenfranchised on the northwest side of Grand Rapids and we as a congregation have partnered with quite a few ministries there. But it seems as if God had a slightly different plan and has been adjusting our little fellowship accordingly.
The pastors and elders have developed a solid relationship with the staff at Mel Trotter Ministries. https://www.meltrotter.org/ This is a downtown ministry that addresses homelessness, addictions, and recovery. We’ve taken over providing a chapel service once a month and I have had the great privilege of sharing my story of rejection and forgiveness and also gave away books to whoever wanted to read the story.
Part of the reason we’ve gotten so involved is that our pastor found out that once people have completed a recovery program, they are often not welcome in many local churches. Too messy and inconvenient. Too close and uncomfortable. Our church made a conscientious decision to start relationships with the homeless and people in recovery so if they want to, they have a place to connect with when they are out of the program. We have bible studies, provide transportation, and do our best to do life together. You win some, you lose some. Some people have made a great start at recovery, found jobs and moved into an apartment. Some are back on the street. Recovery is a process that goes day by day.
As I was explaining this to our visitor I said, “You can have nice church or you can have authentic church. With authentic church you will have messes. I can guarantee it is messy here. Welcome to our mess.” Her eyes lit up.
I do believe I’ll be seeing her again. If you are in the Grand Rapids area, I invite you to Lake Effect Church. Broken people are welcome there. http://lakeeffect.church/
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.