Eight years ago we began a journey with a handful of people determined to do a world of good in the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport, LA. Most of us were white and had money for groceries and new shoes if our children needed them. This is my standard for wealth.
Our method when we gathered was to walk the streets and pray. And invite folks. No advertising budget, no state-of-the-art anything. We must have looked like wack-a-doos walking in our extremely Anglo clumps smiling and silently praying. To the black men with brown bags on porches who engaged us, we issued an invitation. To the children playing football in the dirt patch yards, the bra-less women with Dollar General bags of groceries, the white family with four children trailing them and the Hispanic people whom John assaulted with his Spanish, we invited. Mi iglesia es su iglesia.
I have been changed by what has occurred inside the wood-paneled chapel with the creepy Adams’s Family side doors. God could have used any church, or no church at all for my healing. He could send His Spirit at once to change me as I drove down the road or went fishing on the Twelve Oaks Lake with my son or made cronuts on a Tuesday afternoon. But God chose these people in this messy, holy place to make me whole.
As a comic with a bizarre sense of humor anyway, this has been amazing. Our music minister Bill has been gigging in this community for over forty years. He brings such life to our services. Once he presented a special guest: local Blues great Buddy Flett. Buddy admitted to not knowing many church songs and ended with the classic “Hard Headed Woman,” which is nowhere in The Baptist Hymnal. As he finished and laughter erupted John took to the microphone and brilliantly said, “I feel your pain.” So many Saturday Night Live moments: from the gentleman in our church who brought his big gulp of Vodka to the service to the seventy-year-old asking for cough syrup for his baby to the visitor who told my Mom and her sister in Bible Study that the coffee and doughnuts they were eating were Biblically forbidden. Which trust me the twins were having exactly NONE of as they enjoyed their doughnuts. We have seen veterans regain sobriety, soldiers leave and return, marriages healed, and young people defy statistics because of a Sunday School teacher’s love. We have been shocked at the sight of trusted, baptized church member on video breaking in and stealing money for drugs. Conversely, we have seen the spirit of acceptance in our congregation, dishing out God’s love like it was their full time job for those who have felt outside of God’s reach. I have seen the glory of The Lord in the land of the living like the Bible Verse which was my survival promised.
Losing our daughter upended everything I ever read, was taught, or intuited about faith. The outpouring of kindness from women and men of every denomination was shocking to me. I simultaneously felt like a strand woven into the expansive human tapestry and conversely an exile in the land of misfit toys.
As most of you probably know, grief is isolating; it makes you feel like an outcast among other things. My children were my life and breath as yours are to you. Losing Maggie Lee, losing every future dream, event, and even meltdown that she would never have left me an outsider to my own life. The truly beautiful thing God showed me (even when I had little desire to watch) was that if I will release the clutch of the snow globe of my beautiful former life and glance to the right and left there are way more humans feeling outside the circle than in.
I found an enlarged concern for the homeless veterans in our city. I now have a respect for addicted people. I have never even smoked a cigarette but I have been tempted to escape my day just exactly like any addict has. That could have just as easily been me. I empathized in a newfound way with those struggling with mental illness because I was broken too. In mind and heart. And It takes a good breaking to get honest.
There are many interesting moments in this Church for the Highlands experiment. So much love. So many zany happenings. So much I have learned.
I have seen a champion of the outsiders emerge with a vengeance in the ministry of my John. A little brother with a big problem with bullies, he has a fiercely protective nature for the marginalized. Is it the after affects of being teased for his skinny legs in the basketball shorts? Who can know. Many dinners have gone cold as he and other ministers attempted to coordinate services for those at Highland Center Ministries Blessing Meal. The meal itself the brain child of lay ministers and the collaboration of twelve area churches and the Food Bank. John has worked to build a community network rather than a personal kingdom. He is surrounded by some wise and faithful believers. In fact, he tries to keep up with our members in all of their outreach.
So often in Sunday morning Testimony time, a member thanks God for family, a new job or six months of sobriety. We are a micro church and a microcosm of society with all of her diversity. With praises for surviving another week, there are also thanks from those in our beloved community who have tremendous resources and a heart for a diverse church, which we thankfully have become.
I have found healing in our Bible Study class in the sweet simplicity of shared life. It does not escape me how fortunate I am to struggle with other women in the same boat of humanity we all share. There are some fierce rowers, swift bucket brigadiers and always encouragers. And I guess one of the beautiful presents of loss is that realization that we are all the same. I close my eyes often times during the church service and get chills as I breathe in the air thicker with grace than the humidity just outside the chapel doors.
I am First Lady. That is what I am called and I adore that moniker. It is a compliment to me because there is likely no less pristine minister’s spouse than me. But none the less, I am loved. For that I am thankful. By God’s limitless grace in the form my family and church, I have found healing. Thank you for these beloved eight years. You are the church of my heart and I love you.