It was a Monday and Amy sat in her Catholic school classroom. Like every other Monday the teacher asked the kids who didn’t go to church on Sunday to raise their hands. Amy grew up in the Midwest in a family that believed in God but did not have a church affiliation or attend church. They did, however, want Amy to have a relationship with God, and made the extra effort to send her to Catholic school. So, on that Monday, like all the Mondays before, Amy had to raise her hand and had to watch as the teacher once again wrote her name on the list of kids who didn’t go to church. Amy was just seven and already felt excluded and unwelcome.
In a study of people who don’t attend church, the Barna Group reports that “16% of Americans said they have been hurt by experiences in churches (Barna.org).” Amy didn’t give up though. In high school she went to a non-denominational church. She enjoyed being there but was eventually pushed to say when she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. When she was first asked, Amy answered from her heart that she had felt that she had always accepted God and Jesus. She was told that this was the wrong answer and that she needed to come up with a specific date. “I didn’t feel right to be told that my answer was wrong.”
In college Amy studied to be a teacher and got her first job at a conservative Missouri Synod school. She witnessed the school board decide to remove a poster of Martin Luther King that a teacher had put up to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and tell the teacher that the reason was because Martin Luther King was a sinner. As well, she heard a teacher comment on an African American student saying that there was no hope for her because she was a “lazy black.” Amy was appalled: “I remember crying to see such blatant racism and for feeling powerless.” More recently, in her last church, she witnessed the exclusion of the LGBT community.
These experiences of exclusion could have led Amy to be one of the over 32% of Americans who have had some contact with churches but no longer attend (based on numbers from Barna.org). However, Amy kept looking and found a church home that she calls family. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fairview, Pennsylvania, is a place where, as Amy says, “Everyone is friendly and there is no right answer.” She found a place that was open and accepting, a place that didn’t judge her.
Amy was also excited to find a place that worked for her entire family. “It’s a big deal to find a church that works for everyone in your family.” The first thing that caught Amy’s attention when she visited St. Stephen’s was the soft space. The soft space is a section where the pews have been removed and replaced by a soft carpet and quiet toys. It is a place where families with young children can come and be in church with their children. Amy knew then it was a different place than she had been to before, a place where she didn’t have to worry about her kids.
Amy has also found that she is being challenged by God at St. Stephen’s. She was recently asked to lead the Sunday School. “Typically I hear the word ‘leader’ and I run. I don’t like to be in charge of anything. This time I had the confidence I could do it. I pushed myself.” Amy now directs three Sunday School classrooms, 6 teachers and 7 substitutes. She coordinates the curriculum and makes sure all the kids have a great experience. “I feel like I belong more if I am helping with something.”
Amy has become an integral part of St. Stephen’s and has invited others to be part of the community: “I know I am comfortable with a place when I easily talk about it. I’ve never wanted to be evangelical – this is just talking about something that I love.”
By Julien Goulet, Assistant for Communications and Administration, Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania