Several weeks ago, I joined faith leaders with the PC(USA) to talk about our “New Worshiping Communities.” We each brought our excitement, curiosity, imagination, and lots of questions. In a time of reflection with the group, I asked for Harbor, “What advice do you all have to build consistent community attendance for a group of folks who are healing from harmful religious pressure-filled communities?” The room sighed in solidarity, and as I got the verbal and non-verbal responses, I felt pretty good about myself for asking such an insightful question! To me, the question represented so much of the adventure many of us are on with alternative and creative faith communities—we want a reliable, thriving community that can last. Also, we don’t want people to feel that icky feeling of being guilted into attending.
So, I asked the question, and my ego felt good with the responses.
Sweet Gina, who is the leader of Faith Studio and who consistently brought wisdom, peace, warmth, and perspective to all of us, leaned toward me and whispered, “Why do you need consistency? Freedom is healing.”
I sat back immediately and took a deep breath. Gina flipped my question on its head. I wrote in big, bold letters in my notebook, “Freedom is healing.” I repeated these words to myself and wrestled with what these words meant for myself and our Harbor community.
As I write this, I am brought back to the beginning years of my deconstruction. My husband and I had just moved to Boston. As born-and-raised evangelical thoroughbreds, both of us felt deep relief that we did not have a church to answer to. We could wake up on a Sunday and do whatever we wanted—it was revolutionary and so tremendously healing. Slowly, we started going to a wonderful LGBTQIA+ affirming and multicultural church. The manner in which we began attending the church was quite comical. We called it the 10-and-10. We would show up 10 minutes late, then spend 10 minutes preparing our bagels at the epic bagel bar (with toasters and cream cheese. How cool, right?). By the time we entered the church, we had missed just about all of the worship music, which was led by one of our dear friends. We would sit in the back with our messy bagels near the rowdy kids and crying babies. Most Sundays, we happily gave the majority of our attention to what was happening in the back rows rather than on the stage. Our friends on staff and committed members didn’t criticize our flaky, distracted, bagel-focused attendance but warmly welcomed it.
The response refreshed and renewed our understanding of church. We needed this pressure-free reentry. Freedom was indeed healing our church wounds.
Freedom is healing. Gina’s words hold me as I remember my story and hope to help lead Harbor’s church story: Freedom is healing.
So I ask, what does freedom mean to Harbor? How do we cultivate a liberated, freedom-filled, safe community? Does the expectation or value of consistent attendance matter, or is that actually a roadblock for some of our own healing?
I want to invite us—Harbor—to wrestle with these questions. For some of you, being a “consistent” attendee at a church that fully embraces you feels healing in and of itself. You may have jumped right in, shared your stories, led groups, brought new ideas, made new friends, etc. Others of you might come every once in a while. It might feel odd at times to be a random attendee, but that actually might be the healthiest way for you to do ‘church.’ You might be in the 10-and-10 bagel-focused season of your church time. That’s wonderful! Wherever you are at—let it be so. As a community, I hope we can continue to reimagine how a pressure-free, freedom-pursuing church breathes healing.
Dottie Oleson (she/her) is a co-pastor of Harbor Online Community, an online faith community reimagining church for people recovering from religious exclusion and trauma.