Book review: Once You Go In

Dangerous Readers-A

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

By Carly Gelsinger

(She Writes Press, 2018)

 

When God created Adam God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. The Old Testament is the story of individuals creating community with God and with one another. It is natural for us to long to belong to others whether this is within families, neighborhoods, sports team fandom, or within a faith tradition. We want to belong.

In her memoir, Once You Go In, Carly Gelsinger describes her adolescent longing to be part of a group, especially a particular church group in her small Northern California town, the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church. She grew up in a loving family of four living in the country, singing Beatles songs and Broadway tunes together. “We sang ‘All You Need is Love’ as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us ….My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our longs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.” And because of this love Gelsinger sensed a Love beyond and greater than the love experienced in her family. “…I had an inexplicable draw to be near to God from a young age.”

One day, while bicycling around town she spots a vinyl banner hanging in front of the Assemblies of God Church with the announcement: “Voice in the Desert Youth, 7 p.m. Thursdays.”

Youth. The word makes me picture slumber parties and pepperoni pizza and group photos and matching T-shirts. The Baptist church I’ve been going to off and on for years doesn’t have Youth. They have babies and old people, and Vacation Bible School, which is for little kids. I wonder what it would be like to have a group, a place to belong.

And Gelsinger joins the youth group. Her well-written memoir tells us of her efforts to belong to this church and what it cost her in terms of her relationships with her family, herself, and with God.

Throughout Gelsinger’s story she tries to understand what the group norms are, to tease apart the religious language, and to guess at the expectations of the church. Despite her efforts she apparently falls short of understanding the religious culture of this small Pentecostal church. Gelsinger attempts to live the kind of godly life the church teaches.  What she doesn’t realize until she was a young adult was no matter how hard she tries to fit in, to fully belong to this congregation, she will always fall short because the god this church worships is mean-spirited, angry, and frequently punishes those who disappoint him. When she disappoints her pastor, his wife, and the youth leaders, she is, in effect, disappointing God and lives in fear of being excluded from the church.

Gelsinger tells several stories of how the church leaders would distinguish church members as separate from non-church members by underscoring their belief that “we are special, we are the faithful ones that God will use to save the world.” The leaders emphasize that “we believe and practice our faith the correct way because we are on fire for the Lord while other people are lukewarm in their faith.” The people were continually exhorted to convert the lukewarm believers and non-believers but “if you can’t convert them then you must separate yourself from those people because they will be an evil influence on you.” Of course, the leaders use the language of “encouraging one another, exhorting for good, and offering godly discipline” to control the group rather than focusing on God’s mercy and love.

Gelsinger remains a part of the church throughout her adolescence in which she genuinely loves God and wants to be God’s faithful servant. She speaks in tongues, prays for miracles, witnesses to her peers, while experiencing life as an American teenager. The church’s emphasis on salvation on their terms puts a strain on Gelsinger’s relationship with her parents, enduring pressure from church leaders to “save” her father who grew up Catholic. She is encouraged by the youth pastor and his wife to refrain from the family activity of listening and singing to the Beatles and other forms of secular music. The same youth pastor and wife routinely suggests that Gelsinger’s family carries generational sin which prevents Gelsinger from becoming a great woman of God. Ultimately, after a confrontation by the youth pastor and wife for having a “Spirit of Rebellion” Gelsinger’s mother tells her, “You are brainwashed.” They do not speak for a few weeks afterward.

The confrontation propels Gelsinger into understanding that she needs to get away from Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church and even Pine Canyon itself. She transfers from the local community college to a small evangelical college thirty miles away. The physical distance provides room for Gelsinger to begin healing from the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds inflicted by the small congregation. She begins to find new friends, groups, and her future husband who do not wish to control her or her relationship with God.

Gelsinger marries, moves across the country for graduate school, finds new friends who love her and love God. She starts the painful process of deconstructing her youthful faith while cautiously reconstructing a faith in a loving and merciful God. Eventually, she and her husband visit a number of churches or not attend at all until they wander into an Episcopalian church on a Sunday morning, which was the denomination of her now-deceased loving and merciful grandmother. Gelsinger concludes the book with this description of her faith:

My fire for God changed me, and while I never want to go back, I can see hope is leading the way to something good. It has led me to the slow growth of faith, of small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps, of expansive views of hope I may have never seen otherwise…I will keep questioning and thanking and running and falling and searching and rebuilding, because this is the process of being alive.

 In her acknowledgments, Gelsinger states: “I am grateful for every person in this story who led me to where I am today …. There are no villains or heroes in this story—just muddling through.” This is a loving and merciful spirit toward her life and the people of her youth. While Gelsinger doesn’t explicitly state it, she now belongs to her family, to God, and to herself.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, November 1, 2018)

In reflection

two_friends_shaking_hands

Embracing the Other:

Engaging across the divides

I am unsettled by the frequency I have unfriended or blocked people leading up to the national election. I have placed friends and family members into a metaphorical box, labeled it Others and placed it in the back of my heart closet. I exclude Others from my life and create a distance from, whether that be an emotional or physical or relational distance. I dismiss these Others by not taking them seriously, by trivializing or mocking them, by refusing to listen to their heart stories of joys and pains, and ultimately, I exclude them from God’s love. I consider them unworthy of God’s love, grace, and mercy.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), Miroslav Volf describes three qualities of exclusion. First, exclusion entails the cutting of bonds that connect individuals to one another. The Other emerges either as an enemy that must be pushed away and driven out of its space, or as a nonentity that can be disregarded and abandoned. We see this everywhere on social media, cable news, and even within the church. We see people disregarded and abandoned, with news reports of refugees and immigrants fleeing their homes only to be refused entry into other countries. We see this in our national political conversations. We see this in all forms of social media. And we see this refusal to meet the Other within our congregations, conferences, and denominations.

Second, exclusion entails erasure of separation, meaning the Other emerges as an inferior being who must either be assimilated by being made like ourselves, or be subjugated to ourselves. We see this in the continued fragile relationship between people of color and white people; English and non-English speakers; LGBTQ and hetero persons; progressive believers and fundamentalist believers; Republican and Democrats. These are all forms of exclusion.

And third, exclusion is judgment. Volf writes, “Strong disagreement with a lifestyle, religious belief-system, or a course of action—a disagreement that employs adjectives like ‘wrong,’ ‘mistaken,’ or ‘erroneous,’ and understands these to be more than expressions of personal or communal preference—is felt to be exclusionary.”

Volf suggests a “theology of embrace” as the way of loving and reconciling with the Other. He breaks down the image of an embrace into four movements to help us understand how we might do this. These elements of embrace include:

  1. Opening the arms is a gesture of the body reaching for the Other. Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in, and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other. Open arms are a gesture of invitation and hospitality.
  2. Waiting is the act of postponing the desire of welcoming the Other to myself until I know the other is willing to open their arms in reciprocation. Waiting on the Other allows the other to decide if they wants to be reconciled or left alone. The Other cannot be coerced into an embrace, otherwise the embrace becomes an act of violence. If embrace takes place, it is because both individuals want it—embrace must be reciprocal.
  3. Closing the arms is the goal of the embrace. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace.
  4. Opening the arms again allows the individuals freedom to be themselves. Additionally, opening the arms again begins the cycle of embrace.

The embrace transforms the Other—the person I have dismissed or hated or oppressed—into my brother or my sister, one that I can truly love. In truly loving my brother or my sister, I enter into a relationship based on trust, forgiveness, reconciliation, and intimacy, as modeled by Jesus Christ. I begin to see the Other as God sees them—as one who is created and loved by God—not as a monster to be rejected by the world.

Our ability to embrace the other is not based on our willfulness, on our insistence. Our ability to embrace the other is based on God’s embrace of us. We can embrace because God first embraced us. We can love because God first loved us.

A longer version of this post was published in Leader magazine, Fall 2016.

Photo: By Dhiriart – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46459574

In Review

blogpost-assimilateorgohomeAssimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

by D.L. Mayfield (HarperOne, 2016) 207 pps.

In Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield recounts her college-age desires to go to the mission field and save all of the lost souls to Jesus Christ. She describes her Christian college classes which focus on missions and how she earnestly engages with the assigned readings, professors, and classmates. She volunteers to teach English as a second language to Somali Bantu refugees who recently arrived in Portland, Oregon. As she begins to spend time with them she experiences internal dissonance and external resistance from the people she was “ministering to.” Eventually, this dissonance leads her away from missions, per se, to a life of living with, alongside the people she was initially planning to convert.

 
The book is organized by essays which highlight Mayfield’s journey from a naïve, eager would-be overseas missionary to a wiser, experienced Christian who lives in a poor, multicultural neighborhood. Many of the essays were previously published but are gathered here for an effective memoir.

 
In the essay “Vacation Bible Schools” Mayfield describes taking some of the refugee children to a week-long program popular in many evangelical churches. The theme for the VBS was “The Serengeti” with suggestions to decorate the church rooms with African-themed images.

 
Mayfield took a van full of children and “they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage.” As she directed her children to a drinking fountain she overheard a small child exclaim, “Oh! They brought us kids from the Serengeti!” She realized that the church children thought the refugee children were props:

I wanted to self-righteously shake my finger and rant about “othering” people, but I was supposed to be the exemplary volunteer. . . . I glared at everyone around me. I felt smug, secure in my own saintliness as I bustled around my group of exotics, the only diverse kids in the large, pale bunch. I drove all the kids home, but decided not to bring them the next night.

Yet, as Mayfield reflected later on this experience she realized that her refugee friends were sort of a prop for her own life. “When I finally started to believe the opposite, to see them as complex, flesh-and-blood people, everything got much harder … And my view of myself was irrevocably changed.”

 
Mayfield is a skilled writer, bringing the reader into her life while revealing her thoughts, questions, and struggles.

 
I first read this book last fall, shortly after it was published. I began re-reading in early January before the inauguration and before the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately-Muslim countries was issued. In response to the ban, Mayfield posted on her blog, “Ten ways to support refugees.” This list is very helpful with practical suggestions.