The Healing Power of a Loving, Accepting Church Community

As many of you know, we are Monique and Nikki Manley-Smith. We have been members here at Bethel UCC for close to a year and a half now (give or take). Which seems odd to think about because we feel like Bethel is so ingrained in our lives now that it’s hard to believe that there was a time (and it wasn’t that long ago) when it wasn’t. Today we are going to share with you the blessings of community that we have witnessed at Bethel. But before we go putting the horse before the cart how about we give you a bit of our history. 
 
I, unlike Mo, did not grow up in the church. I actually found Christ while smack dab in the middle of the most hopeless time in my life. Rest assured, ladies and gentleman when I found my faith I grabbed hold and held tight for dear life. The spirit came into my life and changed me in a way that only the Holy Spirit can, and I couldn’t get enough. I tasked Mo with finding us a church home. I gave my wife a daunting list of prerequisites. We had no desire to be one of nameless at a megachurch. And as we both identify as African-American lesbians, we needed our church to accept us fully as we are, and not under some falsified pretense of acceptance where we were welcomed as long as we didn’t push/ flaunt our homosexuality by displaying any PDA while on the premises or refer to each other as “wife.” So our church home had to be welcoming and affirming, multigenerational, wise sages and majestic oaks amongst parsleys and seedlings. We both felt that church should feel like home to us. Most importantly to us was that this amazing church we were searching for would not be just teaching the Word, but also living it. Mo couldn’t have found a better church. No home feels better. Bethel met all of our prereqs and is less than a ten minutes away from our house! It was clear to us this is where Almighty God wants us to be. 

Even if it wasn’t crystal clear to us at the time, our first visit definitely threw out any remaining doubt we may have had. Following David’s benediction and Chad’s tickling of the ivories, as we stood to prepare to leave, the sweetest white haired woman touched my arm and asked if she could give me a hug. I politely obliged her, and she embraced me in the warmest hug and told me that she loved me. I was completely taken aback. As we walked to the car, I recall thinking, “She must’ve mistook me for someone else, because that sweet woman doesn’t know me from Tom, Dick, or Jane. How can she possibly love me?” 

“She must’ve mistook me for someone else, because that sweet woman doesn’t know me from Tom, Dick, or Jane. How can she possibly love me?” 
— Nikki Manley-Smith

Now I know you’re wondering why this chance encounter struck me so. That Sunday was the first day I had gotten out bed in 12 days. Outside of the occasional trip down the hall to the kitchen or bathroom, I remained under the covers wallowing in negativity and self-loathing. You see, I live with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. To say that I had been struggling would be an understatement. I was transitioning from group therapy to individual therapy, and not well might I add. On that particular Sunday, I had been in a downward spiral and despite medication and therapy, I was still at a place where I felt unworthy of love from those closest to me (never mind the love of a stranger). Oddly enough, even though my mind told me this kind-hearted woman was mistaken, my heart so desperately needed her proclamation to be true. So we made a plan to come back. And we did, again and again and again. Each time my own personal darkness got a little bit brighter. I was growing less and less dependent on wearing my “mask of contentment.” I no longer felt I had to pretend I was okay. 

The Spirit has a way of making DRB’s (Rev. David Randall-Bodman’s) sermons feel like an intimate conversation with an old friend no matter how packed the sanctuary is. If a Sunday had to be skipped, it made the whole week off. When the new member classes were announced, we jumped at the chance. It wasn’t long before we were singing in the choir. We were becoming a part of Bethel and Bethel a part of us. Both of my clinical therapists felt that I had completed my journey with them, that I had the tools to be successful, and had proven that not only did I know how to use them, but when faced with a challenge, I would actually use them. So at this time, when I was losing the comfort of their guiding hands, when I would have normally been freaking out, I took a moment and paused, breathed, and prayed, knowing that He is God and that I hadn’t been brought this far to be abandoned. During this time, “pause, breathe, pray” became my mantra. And through meetings with DRB and prayer, I realized that while it was true that I had lost two of the best therapists, I gained a congregation, a spiritual teacher, musical geniuses, a family, brothers and sisters. 

Bethel has miraculously provided for me exactly what I needed when I needed it. Way back at that first Sunday, I believe the Holy Spirit worked through Grandma Katherine to give me the affirmation of unconditional love that I needed. When I needed to remind myself that I am worthy of doing things that I enjoy, Owen announces that choir is starting and in need of voices. When I felt like my voice, my opinion, wasn’t important, that I wasn’t being heard, DRB invited Mo and I to a Diaconate meeting and encouraged us to think about joining (spoiler alert: We did!). When I doubted myself but wanted to share a song with the congregation, Owen and Chad happily learned it, and nobody threw anything at me during my nervous interpretation. When I doubted my catering business plan, an opportunity to cater the soups for Ash Wednesday service proved otherwise. When I was overwhelmed with the details of planning a wedding in 12 weeks and struggling to ask for help, this congregation came out in droves to make our dreams for our wedding become a reality, answering prayers we hadn’t even thought to pray yet. So while I was no longer seeing a therapist, being a part of Bethel had become my therapy. Time spent within these walls revealed to me the truths that I had spent my whole life believing were lies. Bethel has been my lifeline to a community of loving, caring people unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. If it weren’t for Bethel, I shudder to think of where I would be. This band of misfits is where I belong.

As we come into this stewardship season, as you are figuring out how best to stretch your time, efforts and financial contributions, think not only of how Bethel has been a lifeline to us, but contemplate the ways in which Bethel can continue to be a lifeline to our community. Beaverton’s Homeless youth, HomePerk, ESL, Food Cupboard, Faith Café, our home bound citizens, PFLAG, victims of social injustices and racial inequalities, perhaps someone a bit closer, like the person sharing your pew. Maybe you’re the one in need of the lifeline? Keep these people in mind when making your pledges. One person alone cannot make much of a difference. But when we combine our efforts for the betterment of our community, our impact can be felt across the globe.