Bearing Witness By Sam Johnson

In January, 2008, I was unmoored and disconnected – sometimes a ball of rage, sometimes a bundle of nerves, but never the man I thought I would be at 44. My career seemed to be limping to a close; I battled unhappily with my ex-wife; my children lived far away from me; my union was on strike; and I woke up every day worried about money. I was sure there had to be a more meaningful life than the one I was living, but I did not know what it was or where to find it. So, for the first time since my teens, I slunk into a church.

Almost immediately upon entering the First UMC of Santa Monica, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the Methodist church in Columbus, Nebraska, where my grandparents often brought me as a boy. It was a quintessentially Midwestern edifice: plain, sandstone and oak, almost austere in its lack of decoration. Yet when I heard the Santa Monica choir processing down the aisle to Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, I thought, “I know this.” The Lord’s Prayer, which I learned from my grandmother on a camping trip, came to me like an old friend. Even the Doxology struck me as especially beautiful in its familiarity.

In that first service I attended in 2008, the reading was from Psalm 27, which begins: “The Lord is my light and salvation – whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” The words seemed to speak to my anxious state of mind. And Reverend Farris’s sermon that day, emphasizing the importance of prayer, hit me like a lightening bolt: “We break the rods of our oppressors when we share our burdens with God.” Could this be the balm my soul was seeking? As an agnostic (at best), I had not said a prayer in decades. I didn’t know if I was ready to take that leap of faith, but my heart was full.

Later, when Reverend Farris quoted a Robert Frost poem in her sermon, I found the metaphor to help me understand what I was feeling. The poem was “Death of the Hired Man,” about an old worker who shows up unexpectedly at the New England farm where he’d been employed some years before. Frost writes, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” For me, this church was the home I had to go to.

Since then, prayer and the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica have been important parts of my life. The words and music of the church went far to lift me out of my period of unhappiness, but there has also been the Methodist ethos of service and participation. I’ve loved attending the Men’s Bible Study group; breaking bread (and donuts) with smart, interesting, curious guys I never would have encountered otherwise. Serving as an usher has been a blessing — I have thoroughly enjoyed shaking your hands and collecting your offerings on Sundays. The Disciple Bible study program taught over several months by Kurt Poland and Rev. Larry Young put the Bible into my every day life, and I really enjoyed those afternoons with the other participants. And this past year I felt privileged when I was asked to serve on the Staff Parish Relations Committee (ask me about it!).

Two years after my first visit to the church, I was baptized. It continues to be a great source of joy for me. Being a part of something so much bigger and better than myself is a constant reminder that there is more to the world than fortune and career. There is love and grace, fellowship and service, and I am lucky enough to have found them.

This article was originally published September 2015 – “Bearing Witness: Stories of Believing and Belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica.

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