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This last week we’ve seen two examples of parents facing something that no good parent can even dream of facing. I read about the child falling into the gorilla enclosure, and the toddler being taken by the alligator, and something in me recoils. I’m a fixer–“plan for the ‘what-if’s,” I’ve taught my son. I believe that. I believe in being careful, in planning ahead, and yes, even in padding the corners of the world for our children, at least until they’re steady on their feet and have a decent sense of self-preservation. I believe in that so deeply that many considered me over-careful–and yet never for one second have I regretted the pains I took. Even with all that, though, accidents happened. I felt awful, and worked all the harder to prevent the next one–and that there would be a next one I had little doubt.

The thing about accidents is that they come at us from random directions. By their very nature, they are accidental–things that happen that we never dreamed might. I believe in being careful. I also understand that accidents happen to even the best of us. And that’s why what I’ve seen unfolding in the comments sections of the stories covering these two tragedies has sickened me. Here are these parents who have just experienced something for which even I, with my passion for fixing things, can’t find a next step. What would I have done if my child had slipped away for a moment–only a moment–and devastation occurred? I don’t know. I can’t even imagine my next step. When I contemplate losing my child I realize that when his life stops, mine does, too. There is no next meal, next act, next step. There is only life with him in it, and then nothing.

Two sets of parents are struggling to find their way through something so terrifying in one case, awful in the other, that my mind shuts down at the very idea–and yet what I see in the comments section is all too often not supportive, empathetic comments, or even comments seeking to understand how such events might serve as teachable moments for the rest of us–hold on tighter, stay out of all water except in swimming pools while in alligator habitat–but blaming and shaming.

Why would we do this? Why would we figuratively “hit these parents while they’re down?” I think that some of the virulence can be attributed to  the form of religion many of the “perfect parents” who seem to be most vocal practice.

While there are many wonderful Christians, it’s hard to deny that Christianity has an ugly secret at its heart–it’s a religion custom-made for those who can’t stand the vagaries of life. It offers something it can’t deliver–the guarantee that God will watch over those whose worship habits are up to snuff, that good people will be rewarded with blessings, that tithe-payers will be rewarded with the treasures of heaven to such a degree their bank accounts can’t hold it all. This promise is called the “Wisdom Theory,”because it’s a formula found all through the Psalms and the “Wisdom” books–“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” for example. That Bible writers expected this to be the case is abundantly clear–story after story recounts instances of good people being rewarded and bad people punished. David often expresses anguish at the fact that even though he is a “righteous” man, his life all too often is in danger. “Why do the evil prosper?” he asks. Why indeed. And yet the Wisdom Theory still shapes the beliefs of millions. It’s often brought out at times like this to “explain” that the fact that this awful thing happened is “proof” that the parents failed God in some way.

The Wisdom Theory promises something it has never delivered–assurance that we can, by our own actions, keep ourselves and those we love safe. You hear it all the time: She was raped because she dressed provocatively, or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; his kids went to jail because he left his wife; single mothers bring their hardships on themselves; poor people lost their homes in the financial crash because they lived beyond their means; the abused wife suffers because she has pushed her husband too far, spoken out of turn, burned the dinner. For those who believe in the Wisdom Theory, there can be no accidents. Every awful experience is earned by some failure in those going through it. They deserved it. Such a thing could never happen to us. We’re good people.

Alternatively, the “comforters” will assure each other (and the parents) that this devastation must be some part of God’s plan–that their child might have turned out to be a monster, so “God took him early.” The Wisdom Theory provides an illusion of control, the false assurance that we actually have control over not just our own behavior but the behavior of every one and every thing around us–that if we just love God well enough, and follow the rules slavishly enough, we can be guaranteed protection against all misfortune.

The thing that makes it so seductive is that to some degree we do shape our fates. We do need to be responsible for our own safety. But no matter how responsible we may be, we are all at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. None of us are all-knowing or all-seeing. Accidents happen. Accidents happen because we don’t have total control. They happen because we live in a world of intersecting chains of causes and effects, and sometimes those intersections can be dangerous, terrifying, and terrible places.

Here is the truth. The Wisdom Theory isn’t about life. It’s about power–about using emotional blackmail to coerce people into sometimes self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. It’s about coercing poor people to give money to religious institutions bloated with wealth–institutions who give lip service to “helping the poor” even while they exploit them. It’s about keeping slaves, wives, children, and the poor in their places, supporting the status quo, following the rules, not rocking the boat. The Wisdom Theory keeps the king safe on his throne, and the beggar on the street starving.

It’s time we relegated the Wisdom Theory to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and follow instead another teaching found in Christianity–“Bear one another’s burdens.” It’s time to recognize that no matter our best efforts, we are all subject to the whims of fortune far more often that we would like to be. It means that rather than seeking to ferret out the grievous sin that made the loss of a child a suitable punishment, and then adding our own punishment to that, we instead recognize our common humanity, accept that those of us who have not faced such a loss are perhaps not so much better parents as just luckier, and then doing whatever we can to not ease the pain we see–perhaps no one can do that–but to not make it worse: to sit with the sufferers, hold them up, bring them food, love them and their children, do their laundry, vacuum and dust their houses, and perhaps, just perhaps, help them survive long enough to find their own way out of a very dark place.

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“Some Dreams Take Work”–because America might be beautiful, but it isn’t always easy. Available at my CafePress Store: http://www.cafepress.com/magicdogpress

I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately. In the 2008 elections Sarah Palin talked a lot about “Ril Amuricans”-who they are, where they live, where they go to church, to whom they pray. She praised the screaming, rage-fulled crowds at her rallies for their american-ness. She spent a lot of time insinuating that then-Candidate Obama wasn’t  a “Ril Amurican,” that “he doesn’t see America like you and I see America.”

Many on the right side of the political spectrum have followed her lead. Patriotism has come to be associated with tight-jawed people in three-cornered hats, carrying guns to political and presidential events, with a set of values that disenfranchises millions, that seeks to impose a narrow set of religious beliefs in the name of “American values.”

I realized the other day that I had conceded patriotism to a political and social group that quite frankly frightens me–that seems to be trying to strip away the very parts of America that I find most important.

It’s the Fourth of July. I went out and sat on my lawn and watched The Boy and his buddy set off our legal fireworks. In between our beautiful, jewel-like little fire fountains I listened to the huge cannons, and oohed and ahhed at the gigantic golden chrysanthemums, the umbrellas of flickering fire, and the shooting stars the scofflaws on both sides of me were setting off. I don’t know where they get the fireworks, but it happens every July Fourth–the skies light up, and I sit out on my thoroughly-watered lawn, swat mosquitoes, and enjoy the show.

Tonight I thought about our town. I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but local legend holds that our skies full of fireworks happen because of our large migrant population–they bring their enormous fireworks, and come Fourth of July it’s like the battle of Fort Sumpter all over again, but with fewer blown-up buildings and burning boats.

The irony of this, of course, is that our most American of holidays is made more American because of the non-citizens in our midst. We have our problems–yesterday I noticed that somebody’s tagging around town, and that makes me sad. We are not perfect. But citizens or not, and despite our differences, we are all real Americans, and we all inhabit real America.

That means that I have to understand that America is big enough to hold the Tea Party and the Progressives, the GOP and the Democrats, ethnic and racial groups of all descriptions, lovers of all or no genders. America isn’t an apple pie–it’s a fruit salad, and some of us are fruitier than others.

And so today, I am a patriot. I love the symbolism of the flag. I choke up at the “National Anthem.” I believe Katherine Lee Bates had my part of America in mind when she wrote the lines,

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

I believe that everyone deserves the tools from which to build success–what you do with them is up to you. I believe that no child should go to bed hungry. I believe that we all deserve healthcare, housing, and education at a fair price. I believe that while success is American, success achieved by harming others isn’t. I believe in good neighbors, vegetable gardens, and keeping religion out of politics. I believe kids need to learn how to think clearly, to play fair, and to put themselves in others’ shoes.

I believe that we don’t have to have the same values, cultures, or traditions to like and respect each other. I believe we all make potato salad and fried chicken a little differently, and it’s okay. I believe we don’t all have to agree, but we do have to listen to each other, and differ respectfully.

And I believe I’ll go outside and watch a few more fireworks, and maybe sing “America the Beautiful,” until my throat tightens. Because America is beautiful, and I am lucky to be here.

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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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This week I read a book that has me thinking. It’s Holy Ghost Girl, by Donna M. Johnson. I read it on Kindle, mostly late at night, curled up the larger of our two family cats, Lilo. The story can be loosely summarized as “God Joins the Circus.” Or rather, “God’s Kids Join the Circus.” (And no, I am not committing sacrilege; I’ll explain this.)

The general story goes like this: When Donna Johnson is just three years old her mother, burned by an unfortunate experience with Sin in Hollywood, returns home to her Pentecostal roots and finds religion in a big way. And there the story might have ended, had tent evangelist David Terrell not come to town. Donna’s mother decides that God and David Terrell need her to play the organ for them on the “sawdust trail.” She packs her children, three-year-old Donna and one-year-old Gary, into their aging car and joins the caravan of old cars and trucks who traveled with Terrell and his family, setting up a “big-top” style tent, lining up thousands of chairs, and then serving as assistants and security in the charismatic services, and helping those who wished to be healed to the front.

Terrell bases his message in the Pentecostal tradition, though that affiliation becomes increasingly strained as the years pass, and so earmarks of charismatic worship–things like speaking in tongues, heavy reliance on emotional appeal, and healings are ever-present.

What is also present is Terrell’s obsession with the women who joined his traveling ministry to serve God, wind up serving “Brother Terrell” instead. Early on, Johnson’s mother becomes Terrell’s mistress, and for many years is convinced that he is trying to “do right by her” and the young daughters they have together, even as he is living and having children with other women as well. Ultimately, Donna and Gary find themselves left with a succession of virtual strangers, while their mother continues to travel with the tent evangelist.

The book is a good read, but perhaps the greatest strength of it is Johnson’s refusal to allow for easy answers. While a story like this lends itself to caricatures–it would have been easy and understandable for Johnson to present Terrell as a monster–she doesn’t do it. Instead, she presents a nuanced, complex story of a childhood lived in a world populated by people who all too often found themselves unable to live up to their lofty ideals, a world where a mother might love her children, but lose sight of them in her obsession for a minister who is all too willing to use his position as God’s messenger to exploit those around him. A world where love and abuse are ever-present. A world where a man might force his wife and mistress to travel in the same car and live in the same house–and treat his own children and his mistress’ children with great love. A world where it is acceptable to tell “nigger” jokes, even while one risks Klan violence by preaching to mixed audiences.  A world where he might fast to learn God’s will, and then take poor folks’ last dollars to power his fleet of Mercedes and finance multiple homes. A world where healings are sometimes faked, and sometimes real. A world where the one constant is the immense power generated by a combination of personal charisma, fear, guilt, religion, and deliberately stoked emotions, all wielded by a minister who has become conflated with the God he professes to serve, a God who is sometimes love, and sometimes terror, who requires pain and money as His due. A world where showmanship and tricks are sanctioned in the name of soul-winning.

Ultimately, the teenage Donna is married off when her mother decides to move to a secret location (Terrell has run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service) and Donna objects, and increasingly finds her path diverging from the charismatic tent evangelism that has formed the backdrop for the only home she knew.

This is not a story of redemption, but it is a story of great love–while it is difficult to like Terrell in light of the trail of destruction he leaves through the lives of those closest to him, Terrell’s two children and Donna and her brother Gary become “family” to each other, with all that entails. Indeed, when Terrell’s “secret children” from a number of mistresses are revealed it is Terrell’s son Randall who welcomes them to the family, Randall who offers love and acceptance.

In the end, Holy Ghost Girl is a study of the power of love, the love of power, and what happens when the two become intermingled. It’s a thought-provoking read, particularly in a world where extremism, showmanship, and spin are increasingly being regarded as virtues. It is a book that demands that readers respond in nuanced ways to complex people–and a powerful reminder that absolute adherence to absolutes is a dangerous path to follow. Mostly it’s a book that perfectly captures the paradox of fundamentalism. I recommend it highly.

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A few weeks ago, for the first time in something like ten years, I found myself in a church. I’ve known about this church for quite some time; we drive past it when we go through the orchards and out past the old Hudson’s Bay property west of town. It’s one of those little old churches that just screams, “I’m a church!” when you see it: white paint, delicate, nicely proportioned steeple, fellowship hall tacked on out back, gravel parking lot, doors that open pretty much right onto the highway.

We were there because Patrick had been asked to play the tuba at their “Family Fun Night,” and as a loving and supportive mother I was playing chauffer.

Church-going does not come naturally to me. I arrived at the location with my stomach in knots. We found an open door and followed the sound of voices to the fellowship hall, where an assortment of men and ladies were cooking supper.

Patrick and I found seats off to the side and sat quietly. A lady hurried over and informed us that Patrick’s accompanist would be arriving shortly, and that it was fine if we went down the hall so Patrick could get his tuba warmed up.

We slunk gratefully into the cool, welcoming quiet of unused children’s classrooms. Patrick assembled the tuba, played a few scales, and ran through his song. Then there was nothing to do but go back to the all-purpose room. It had filled considerably in our absence.

The tuba marked us as Special Music, just as our faces marked us as Strangers Within Their Gates, and the church members responded accordingly. They greeted us, sought to identify a family or social connection we might have with someone they knew (such is life in a small town), urged us to eat, and then hurried back to cooking supper and setting the tables.

I seized the opportunity to ask a question of my own in one of these fleeting conversations. “What denomination is this church?”

The lady I asked looked blank. There was a pause just a little too long to be comfortable. “I think we’re sort of Congregationalist,” she said at last, “but not like the Congregational church in _____,” she finished hurriedly, naming the next town over. She thought for a moment. “I think our minister used to be Baptist or something.” She smiled sweetly and whirled away, back to the chicken in the kitchen.

Patrick’s teacher–the issuer of the invitation–arrived. And then the minister arrived, and turned out to be the father of some of the “step-aheadians,” as Patrick has taken to calling the regulars at Megan’s school and day camp.

“Eat! Eat!” everyone urged us. We declined–Patrick because he had to play, and me because my stomach was so knotted up I didn’t think food would be possible.

“Can we leave right after I play?” Patrick had asked me on the way over.

“Sounds like a plan,” I had said. “You play, and then I’ll take you out for supper.”

“You might as well eat,” Patrick’s teacher told him now. “We’re going to be having a sing-along after supper, and before you play.”

“Okay,” I said, smiling while my heart sank down to rest on the knots in my belly.

Patrick and I each got a plate and then scurried over to sit with the “step-aheadians.” It felt safe, like a life raft in a storm-tossed sea of church members. I looked around at the familiar faces I knew from Step-Ahead and was grateful.

After dinner we all trooped into the sanctuary for the sing-along. I had been expecting gospel favorites, sung dolefully and probably off-key. Instead we sang “Sidewalks of New York,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and “Bicycle Built for Two,” and on and on, old favorites that reminded me of summer evenings, listening to my Grandpa singing in his soft, cracked voice. Patrick’s accompanist, a tiny, white-haired lady who seemed to carry a bubble of coziness with her, sat with me. Outside, the setting sun shone through stained glass.

The sing-along ended and Patrick played his solo. I had never heard him play better. He and the cozy white-haired lady sounded like they’d been playing together for months. And then another boy played a solo, and we couldn’t leave then, and then it was on to karaoke.

The ministers wife and daughters sang. Some of the other girls sang. And then Patrick got up and sang. I watched him, stunned at his courage at getting up and singing in front of a churchful of strangers, and a few friends. Suddenly I realized that I wouldn’t have missed this evening for the world, watching my son sitting with his friends, experiencing something he never had before, stretching himself in new directions.  Someone got up and sang “Takin’ Care of Business.” When they got to the line about being self-employed the cozy lady elbowed me. “That’s you,” she hissed, grinning at me.

So what’s the point of all this? First, I am very proud of myself for having attended–and enjoyed–a church function. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church that I didn’t go home feeling a toxic cocktail of rage, guilt, and depression. There is a large church along one of the major highways here. Every time I pass it, I think, “I’m so glad I don’t go to church.” Feelings like that don’t happen overnight. It takes a lifetime to pack that much emotional baggage. When we went to this small church Patrick carried his tuba. Though my hands were empty, I carried the heavier load: I was hauling every bit of the emotional baggage I had accumulated through the years. I only went because Patrick had been asked to play, and even then we tried to limit our exposure to the whole church thing.

But it didn’t work out that way, and I’m so glad it didn’t. Because my plan for us to duck in, show Patrick off, and duck out was foiled I got to share an evening with a group of people who might be foggy on what denomination they are, but are crystal clear on what it means to create a welcoming, warm, accepting place for each other, and for those who only come because they don’t see how they can get out of it.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a regular church-goer–I tend to find Spirit in other places–but I hope we find our way to their Family Fun Night again. Who knows? I might even sing karaoke.

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