The modest suburban neighborhood we lived in when I was a teenager made my mother feel secure and gave her a sense of belonging. She liked the little houses on tiny lots, with sidewalks, streetlights and chain-linked fences delineating each backyard. The footprint of the houses in the neighborhood was exactly the same for each home. You never had to ask someone where their bathroom was; they were all in the exact same place. The houses had been built to as residences for Korean War vets coming home in the late 1950s, three bedroom ranches with an attached garage for one car. The modest dwellings were brimming with kids back in those days; a room for the boys, a room for the girls, two sets of bunks in each. If he was lucky, the oldest got to customize the basement with backlights and a mattress on top of a pool table. So cool. I know people who liked the whole vibe of those neighborhoods. They grew up, married and settled fairly close. Not me.
It might have seemed idyllic if your family was stable and your neighbors were friendly, you know, tree lined streets and all that, but if there was arguing, fighting with an occasional chase-your-son-around-the outside-of the house-scene, it was a little difficult to act like nothing was wrong. Or, if your dad came home drunk and decided to sleep it off in front seat of his pickup truck which was parked on the tiny front lawn, walking with neighboring teens to the bus stop might be a little tricky to explain or ignore. The neighborhood seemed like a large, poorly supervised dormitory. You could always hear yelling from the house next door. It was like the whole zip code lacked a vision or a dream to do anything more than get a job at dad’s production plant, or with some uncle’s plumber’s union.
If that wasn’t bad enough, at that time, high schools where I lived were anarchical. It was the advent of drugs in high schools. Cigarette smoking was facilitated. The legal age for drinking alcohol was 18 for a brief season back then. Between racial tension, the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s impeachment proceedings, it wasn’t a great time for scholastic morale. I guess the thinking was, if you can send a kid off to Vietnam after his senior high school trip, then he ought to be old enough to drink beer. The whole place made me think of the “Fall of the Roman Empire” from history books. Kinda out of control.
My coping mechanism was to live for Sundays at the little Pentecostal church in my neighborhood that mother had started attending. The building smelled of furniture polish mixed with mildew. We alternately froze in the winter or boiled in the summer. I loved it there. The people there were good to me. They included me, instructed me, and gave me vision. I’d come back to church on Wednesday nights for Bible study or prayer meeting. There were only a half dozen teens there on a Wednesday. We were a little posse. At school, we weren’t class officers, sports stars, or the leads of high school stage productions. The thinking was to be separate from the world back then. We were a clan of our own. The love and direction I received from those saints might not have been a big deal to them, but it was a big deal to me. Looking back they weren’t a very elegant crowd; the fathers were mostly delivery men, post office workers, and insurance men. Most of their wives were stay at home mothers who gave themselves home perms on Saturday nights. But the nurture they gave me was provision from God himself. Those Sunday school picnics with the seemingly infinite variations on a macaroni salad (Hellmann's or Miracle Whip?), men at the grill in their father’s day shirts, and skippy cups of ice cream from the Sunday school superintendent were a feast for me. I lived for those heavenly comforts.
So when the group consensus on what to do after high school was to head off to a nearby Bible college, I was all like, “Sign me up!” I got myself a little waitressing job, saved my money, and headed off to Bible college. Once there, I transferred all my loyalty and affection to a new group of super heroes, my instructors. I stayed on campus year round as a summer maintenance staff person. There I learned table manners, study skills and a love for all things Mexican. After graduating from that school, another paternal instructor suggested that I continue on at another school for my bachelor’s degree. So I did.
By then my parents had split up and sold the house, so I was slightly homeless.
I attended school, found work, and stayed year round in the dorm, where yet again I was adopted by the merciful, faith-filled saints at the little Christian college. Here I gained an academic and vocational layer. The reality of ministry being something everyone is called to through vocational service was a giant revelation to me.
My story is this: even when my parents were unable to pay attention to what direction, provision and instruction I needed, the body of Christ was an agent of God’s loving care for me. Married students included me at their humble little tables for tea and toast. They modeled stable, peaceful normal families. They inspired me.
Eventually, I had a modest little table of my own, and I was eager to love the lonely. My own godly husband has always facilitated my desire to include the newcomer or the outsider. I feel compelled to pay forward the spiritual nurture which was lavished on me. I sense God’s prompting when I invite families or individuals either to my house or to my church, (which has always been my second home.) The ability to allow the Holy Spirit to direct us to be family for the lost, lonely and hurting, is not a small thing. It’s a Kingdom thing. Matthew 24:12 says, “In the last days the love of the Body will grow cold.” I say, “Not on my shift.”