It wasn’t your typical church building. But there it was, flanked by a karate shop on the left and a printing shop on the right.
There was no towering steeple, no stained glass windows or oversized wooden doors. No vestibule, holy water, rows upon rows of wooden pews. Not even an altar.
Was this really a church, I wondered? Where was Jesus? Mary? The apostles? The saints and candles? No balcony, confessionals, or organ pipes.
Just a table with coffee and bagels in back, and lots of folks wandering around in their blue jeans and sandals, laughing and hugging.
A few men huddled together in the back of the room like they do before the start of a football game, only I think they were praying—out loud–right there in the open.
We were barely inside before we were greeted with the warmest welcomes and genuine smiles. Introductions were made and we were offered some coffee and bagels. We explained how we had learned about the church from a friend who had been visiting from Oregon and after his continual urging, while we were hesitant, we decided we might as well check it out. Neither of us had been in church for years. We had remarried and were blending two families with teenagers, and we could certainly use all the help we could get. Maybe it was time to check in with our higher power.
After bagels, everyone began to take a seat in one of the padded stackable chairs that lined the room from side to side a few rows deep. All together, there were probably less than 100 people there.
The young man in shorts and sandals who had been pacing in the back of the building stood up in front and said “good morning, let’s pray.” This was Pastor Pete.
Another young man and a young woman began to play guitar and sing. And we watched as hands were lifted one by one heavenward. Each one there, eyes closed, hearts full, and hands lifted high. I had never before witnessed such worship and it was breathtakingly beautiful.
Throughout the service there was no sitting, kneeling or standing on command, but there was spontaneous standing and kneeling going on around us.
A bible was resting in everyone’s hands, open as the pastor taught from it, verse by verse. I had never used a bible in church. I was given one at my wedding, but I had never read it in church, or otherwise. Some were even taking notes in the margins of their bibles. It was hard to believe.
It was even harder to believe that we were not asked to fill out any forms, give our address, take home a box of envelopes, or do anything except come–just the way we were. Come. And so we did. Week after week we came back. We even got bibles for everyone in the family. Don’t get me wrong, some weeks we fought all the way there, but somehow, God kept us coming back.
I remember my husband saying at one point, “I don’t know what Fred has, but I want it.” We wanted what they had. And the thing is, they wanted us to have it–a personal relationship with Jesus. And we came to know Jesus personally there. He opened up our eyes as his word became alive and active in our hearts.
This bunch of spiritual misfits off the street found Jesus in the retail strip center where we were loved to Christ. No one pointed out our obvious issues, the things we could not hide; the fullness of our teenage daughter’s belly, our worldly attitudes, or the newsroom fodder that had become the black cloud over our heads. No, they never judged us once–only loved us–right to the saving arms of Christ.
That was fifteen years ago. Our bibles are torn and tattered and scribbled upon now. Our church moved from that building long ago and eventually too far away for us to travel, but it never left our hearts. Its people are scattered all around the country now, but they are still our church family.
While our lives have changed since then, we still have faced some really tough things. But never alone or without hope. We may not find ourselves in perfect standing with the world, but we do find ourselves in perfect standing with God.
When I read Michelle’s memoir, Spiritual Misfit, I recalled my own story of growing up in the traditional church where rituals were the norm. I remember thinking back then that I would never be good enough for God. I don’t know if I missed the grace message or it simply wasn’t taught there. But I do know that God found a way into my heart at that storefront church, and his words revealed the truth to me about who he is, how much he loves me just the way that I am, and that he offers me an eternal relationship with him if I only believe. He wants that for all of us.
We are his and he is ours and it is a perfect fit.
Kelly is a wife, mother to five, and grandmother to eleven darlings. When she isn’t on her knees in prayer, you can find her playing with her grandchildren, pestering her husband, snorkeling down the river or writing words from the heart of a prodigal mom at The Prodigal Mom.
Click here to purchase Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith.