I wrote this for a creative non-fiction class, and thought I would share it with all of you, because stories are powerful. I’d love to hear your story sometime.
A Suffering Servant
In the Beginning
At the age of 18, after a late term miscarriage and subsequent suicide attempt, I put my faith in a God I had never known growing up. Tragedy has an interesting way of causing one to question their closely held beliefs. At five and a half months pregnant, I went into preterm labour and delivered a still born son. After determining my physical health, the physician in our small village, sent me home with a prescription of antidepressants and the number to a toll-free counselling service. I decided that if my son didn’t get to live, then I didn’t want to either.
That first night home, I couldn’t rest. My partner, at the time, and I had been attending a church in effort to give our kid a more stable life than we had been given. Though neither of us believed in religion, we thought the community and structure would benefit this tiny life we were about to bring into the world. Now, all of it seemed pointless. I grabbed the bottle of Zoloft, containing ninety pills, lifted it to the ceiling and challenged the God I didn’t believe in, “If you’re real, I dare you to save me.” With that, I downed the entire bottle and waited.
Nothing happened. Nothing. I was beyond freaked out. No shakes, no vomiting, no headache–I had no side effects at all. Due to my limited knowledge of Christian teaching, I went to the only place I thought God lived–church. When I walked in, the song How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, was playing. The lyric “that He would give his only son” hit me so hard. I felt physically compelled to leave my seat and go to the front where the music was happening. Having just lost my only son, I couldn’t fathom how someone would choose that pain for me, and through ugly hard sobs, I gave my life over to Jesus.
Church Planting for Dummies
Four years later, I had enrolled in the conservative Bible college at Peace River Bible Institute in Sexsmith, AB. It was 2008, and I had developed an interest in rapid cycle church planting. Missionary organizations would go into least reached countries (with a less than two percent Evangelical Christian population) under the premise of humanitarian duties, to establish autonomous churches. The short cycle model, when most effective, would result in an independent culturally relevant church community at the end of five years. I needed to prove myself. As one of the only students not raised in a church or Christian home, I often felt disqualified from ministry. This organization used a series of intense questionnaires to determine the skills and personality traits of applicants. Then teams were strategically built using complementary skill sets. Finally, I had something to offer. The tests would focus on my strengths in communication, support and my resourceful nature.
I applied with anticipation, and the hope to change the world. As the application progressed, the questions became more personal, and my excitement quickly shifted to anxiety. I was asked questions about past drug use, alcohol abuse, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, family history of divorce, and my beliefs on sexuality. I felt like my past experiences in all these areas sullied my chances of ministry, so I lied. Drug and alcohol abuse was a trendy “rags to riches” story in Christian circles, so I had no issue describing my past struggles with that. The questions regarding sexual experiences and ethics put me in an awkward place. I answered them as honestly as I could without giving much detail. I’ve been celibate since becoming a Christian. Which told them I wasn’t promiscuous without letting them know that I became sexually active at a young age. The Bible says that homosexuality is against God’s design for human sexuality. Telling them that I had a firm understanding of theology without outright agreeing with it. I knew they had a standard I couldn’t quite meet and I was desperate for acceptance.
After graduating from Bible College in 2011, I began fundraising for my long-term support via mass mail-outs, speaking engagements, and many road trips. It wasn’t long before money came pouring in. My need to immerse myself in something meaningful gave me the necessary charisma to get others on board. A year passed, and I had reached sixty percent of my $2100.00/month goal. At this point, the organization encouraged candidates to quit their jobs and go into full-time fundraising. At the same time, I was assigned to a team that would be heading to Tajikistan for five years.
Over a ten-minute phone call with the Director of Missions Morgan, it was decided that I my familiarity with living in a small mountain village had groomed me for a perfect fit on this team. The village we would work from in Tajikistan, was in the high mountains near the border of China. At times the unpredictable weather, and violent political conditions, would leave us isolated and without basic comforts. My experience with -40C winters, extended power outages, and living in an isolated cabin without running water, gave me a distinct advantage. There was only one obstacle in my way.
“Cheryl, because you’ve spent less than a year overseas, we’d like you to take part in an internship before sending you for training in Turkey,” he said. “Like your role in Taj, we would like you to work in a coffee shop, teach ESL to immigrants in the community, and general administrative help at home base.”
“When do I start?” I said.
“There’s a short course we want you to take in June. The internship would start in August.”
“So in three weeks?” I took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s do it.”
God Created the Boss
That summer was a blur. I arrived in Kansas City, Missouri a few days before my internship was supposed to start. My weird mixture of curiosity and excitement gave way to full fledge anxiety each time I met with my supervisor. His name was Mark. Not only was Mark the coordinator of missionary candidates, he was also my host for the duration of my stay. Inside his family home, his wife had prepared a walk-up apartment for me with a bathroom, bedroom and sitting area. I would share my meals with them each day, and have private space above should I need it. That room became a safe-room to me.
“Cheryl,” Mark said. Mark leaned back in his black office chair behind the modern desk. The room was decorated with artifacts from countries he had visited in his career as a missionary. His blue eyes watched me sharply from behind his grey Rayban frames. Mark’s look was approachable, in jeans and a t-shirt, with an unruly curly mop of black hair–but his approach was the opposite. Curt and to the point, Mark wasted no time getting down to business. “Welcome to KCMO. I’ve been talking with the local cafe owner downtown and signed you up for a few things.”
My body instantly responded with tense muscles, increased heartrate and a slight sweat. I nodded and Mark carried on.
“Since your team will be teaching English, Eleos is a perfect fit. You’ll work as a support staff, and ESL teacher, and gain some valuable experience navigating an unknown city. I’ll take you down this afternoon, introduce you to the owner, and the two of you can figure something out.”
As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, I get angry and instantly suspicious when others decide for me–even if my choice would’ve been the same. Heading into that afternoon’s meeting I already had my back up. First, Mark didn’t seem like he had planned anything for my internship, they were making it up as they went along. Second, was I seriously expected to figure out how to navigate a city I’d never been to without any help? Last of all, how was having my life planned for me the same as being autonomous in the field? When I walked into Eleos for the first time, a large chunk of the chip on my shoulder fell away.
Eleos Coffee House, located on Independence Avenue in Kansas City, MI, is dead center in the roughest part of town. Homeless people, sex workers, and drug dealers scatter the streets. Businesses close before sundown so employees can get home safely. Every door and window has a rebar gate on it, and the rear parking at the cafe had an eight-foot wooden security fence. We parked around back, as the gate was open during business hours, and made our way inside.
Directly contrasting its outer appearance, inside the cafe was chic and trendy. Behind the sandwich counter and coffee bar, there was a large coffee roaster where Eleos roasted its own fair trade beans. Above the counter, the colourful chalk art depicted sandwiches and drinks named for (what I learned later) local attractions, memorable staff, and deeply loved customers. One the walls, a bright orange pain, accented by burnt espresso tables and booths, was dotted with sketched and photos of Kansas City as well as a world map. The map had pins on it showcasing the diversity of the staff and patrons. Next to the “no public phone or restroom” sign, was a larger sign with an arrow pointing downstairs, it read: “Bible Study, Lunch Provided”. I ordered coffee at the counter and took a seat while Mark went around back to talk with the owner. After a few minutes, he returned alone.
“Hey Cheryl,” Mark said, “I’ve got another meeting across town soon. I’m going to leave you to it. Ken will be out in a minute to chat with you. See you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? How was I going to get back to Mark’s? What did Ken event look like? Didn’t I get a choice in anything?
By mid-September 2013, I had found a routine of sorts. I would wake at five a.m., walk through the ghetto to the only bus stop in the area. On multiple occasions, I was accosted for money or drugs, and sometimes even sex. As politely as I could, I’d decline the offers and pray that the bus would arrive soon. On one of these mornings I ran into Candy.
Candy had been attending Bible Study during the week. Like most of the patrons, she came for the free food and the bag of toiletries given out at the end of the lession. In her mind, that was worth listening for an hour. It also gave her a break from working the street. That morning, Candy recognized me. “HEY,” she shouted, “I know you.”
Instantly uncomfortable in my dark surroundings, I pretended to listen to my headphones, which were switched off. Candy walked closer to me and shouted a little louder.
“HEY. HEY.” She waived. “You work at the cafe, right?”
I felt simultaneously calmer and more scared. Candy’s eyes were like saucers from whatever she had taken the night before, and it was clear from her flat hair and smeared makeup, that she hadn’t been home yet. Reminding myself that I was here for compassion, I removed the earbuds and answered.
“Oh hey, it’s Candy, right?” I said. “I’m just on my way to work. Will you be coming in today?”
“Probably not, I don’t have any bus fare. Maybe I’ll walk down once the sun comes up,” she said.
“Walk? Doesn’t that take a couple of hours?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “But what else am I going to do today?”
“Here’s my bus. Hope to see you later.” I smiled. Boarding the bus, I waved at Candy. I noted the confusion on the bus driver’s face that a girl like me would be talking with a street worker. After all, I was dressed in my black on black coffee shop attire with carefully groomed hair and clean fingernails.
The bus was its own horrible adventure. Racism is alive and well in the world, but I didn’t expect it to be so aggressive in the Midwestern US. I learned how naive and sheltered I was as a Canadian. Most mornings, I was the only white person on public transit. Being my bubbly self, I would try to engage those around me in conversation. Mostly, I was met with awkward stares or painful smiles, until one commute someone sick of hearing me, put me in my place.
“White lady,” he said. “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m sorry?” I said. Genuinely confused, I had no idea why he was upset.
“I hear you. I see you ev’ryday. You think you better than us with your fancy clothes.”
“What? No. I’m going to work, thought I’d be polite and say hello,” I said. “You know, make the mornings a little nicer.”
“Oh, I see how it is. We’re not good enough for you. You gotta bring us the gift of your white happiness, spread a little White Bread American Cheer.” He stared at me for a moment. “You talk to us black folks and feel good about yourself.”
Mustering courage, and a little bit of stupidity, I responded to his accusations. “First, I am from Canada. Second, my momma taught me to be kind to strangers,” I said. ” And third, I got these clothes three years ago at a thrift store. Not every white person is an asshole.”
He looked shocked and dropped the argument. I don’t know if this shock was that a white girl in her twenties talked back to him, or if it was the laughter of his peers at my final remark. I never saw him again, but the next morning on my way to work, some of the other passengers chatted with me.
Fear is a Jerk
Afraid of further confrontation, riding the bus, working at a shop in the most dangerous area of town, and consistently being accosted on the street for drugs or sex was beginning to take its toll on me. These things, along with my inability to stop flirting with my female co-worker (who was engaged to one of the male staff), I lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear. I was doing something I knew was wrong and I was powerless to stop. She didn’t seem to mind, and my coworkers thought I was funny and liked to flatter others. I knew the truth though; it caught up with me and no amount of good deeds would hide my secret.
I hid from everything and everyone outside of work and meals. If I didn’t spend time with people, no one would be able to call me out on my inappropriate behaviour. It wasn’t considered Christian behaviour to have same sex attractions, the only solution seemed to be avoidance. In my mind, I just needed to endure until the end of the internship–January 2014. I got up early, went to work, came home, had dinner, and disappeared to my upstairs apartment. Once there, I either watched endless streams of Netflix or spent time in an online forum called The Gay Christian Network (GCN). GCN is a private non-profit organization devoted to supporting LGBTQI+ individuals and allies especially as they relate to the Christian faith. The more I spoke with these folks, the more I realized I couldn’t deny who I was. It also meant that I couldn’t work for this organization. Rather than expose myself and admit the truth, I dove deeper into denial.
The first week of October, while doing administration at home base, I was pulled into Mark’s office before my lunch break.
“Have a seat Cheryl,” he said.
I sat opposite him. I was optimistic. The following week was Canadian Thanksgiving, and as the only Canadian in the office, I thought he wanted to talk about what we could do to celebrate.
“Cheryl, I want to talk to you about some concerns.”
My heart dropped into my stomach and I began to fidget in my chair. “Okay,” I said.
“I’ve noticed you isolating yourself and I’m concerned you might be depressed.”
I could feel the tears behind my eyes and I tried not to cry.
“Cheryl, this is not a hospital for sick people. To send staff overseas, they have to be healthy.” He looked in my eyes as he handed me some tissues.
I remember thinking, wait, what do you mean–but I was unable to speak, this was the best and worst thing that could happen. I was going home, but I had to give up first.
“I think we should book you a flight home as soon as possbile. After some time at home, we can reassess and try again.”
“Yes, you can’t go to Tajikistan if you can’t finish the internship.”
Again, it was decided for me. I didn’t have a choice.
I landed in Vancouver International Airport on October 11th, 2013. I felt like a failure. Everything I worked for was unceremoniously taken from me because I was depressed. I wasn’t depressed. I was repressed. Unable to embrace who I was, I lived in shame and self-hatred. I feared that someone would discover my sinfulness and I would lose everything–my job, my community, my reputation. I lost all those things anyway.
Upon returning to Canada, I stayed with a friend for the first four months. Her unconditional love and encouragement helped me to face things head on. After treatment for my initial depression, my doctor put me in touch with an affirming pastor (a member of the Christian faith that supports LGBTQI+ rights and marriage equality) who helped me see that faith and identity don’t have to be at odds with one another. Knowing I could never be heterosexual, I decided I couldn’t work for an organization that requires their staff to adhere to traditional conservative religious standards. With a heavy heart, I resigned (so they couldn’t fire me for breach of contract). I felt that same feeling as I did flying into Kansas City for the first time, excitement and curiosity about the future–but the shame was gone. Praise the Lord, the shame was gone.
*Some names have been changed for protection. The organization is intentionally unnamed due to security concerns for staff abroad.