Bearing Witness By Mira Pak

Having been asked to write what this church community means to me forced me to organize my feelings in some way to better convey them, and so I’m sharing a few highlights to spare you the autobiography (my second choice). I first came to First UMC Santa Monica when I was 11 years old, simply because my mother made me. I am forever grateful for that.

Being Korean-American, I was worried that my family and I would be treated differently. Thankfully, that never happened, and so I settled into the rhythm of going to church every Sunday, first to Sunday School, and later to the “big person” church. Lulled by the steadfastness that is our church, over the years I grew to take it for granted. I did not truly appreciate the wonders of our church until I went away to graduate school in Boston.

With a church on practically every corner, you’d think finding one to attend each week would’ve been easy. It wasn’t. I learned to avoid the “scary” ones (cult-like in their rules) and cycled through the “soft” ones (where the minister read poetry in lieu of a sermon) and the “not-a-good-fit” ones (too formal or too casual). When I returned to our church during winter break, I realized it had taken me going away to understand that First UMC was home. The accepting laity and clergy; the meaningful, Bible-based sermons; the music and choir; the balance between the more formalized structure of the service and the ability to wear jeans to worship; and even the décor in the sanctuary create the feeling of welcome and belonging.

With my newfound appreciation, I thought I really valued this church and that I understood how magnificent it was. I was wrong. Eight years later, while I was in my Ph.D. program, I served as a Literacy Coaching working with classroom teachers in Watts. Having been raised in Santa Monica, I was under-prepared for the conditions in the South L.A. schools. There were times I sat in the pew on Sunday, looking around at the congregation and wondering if I was in the right place. This church, the place where I came to feel grounded, seemed so separate from my work life. How could I explain my experiences to people who were not working in those same environments? I’m not sure I would’ve completely understood them myself before I started Literacy Coaching.

Then a couple of things happened to make me feel less lonely in my work in other socio-economic conditions: The Nordbys were invited to describe their work with assisting under-privileged youth to find access to medical care; and Lydia Cincore-Templeton, the Director of Children Youth and Family Collaborative near USC, served as a guest preacher. Then as I started to share my own experiences, I found laity who also had or were currently serving at-risk and under-privileged populations, sometimes under tense conditions. This church was even better than I thought – and I had thought it couldn’t be better

I recently had an experience that reminds me that no matter how much I love this church, I am always in danger of taking it for granted. During a day-long professional development for teachers that I was conducting with a colleague, I sat down at lunch to check my smartphone (which is only sometimes dumb) for emergency emails from students. I noticed a text had come in from the coordinator responsible for the professional development. It said “Jesus is coming.” What? Why did I get this text from her? Who knew she was even that religious? Should I respond? What should I say? Half expecting a follow-up text that joked “So, look busy,” I pondered the meaning of this. Debating whether or not to send my own text (maybe “Hallelujah, amen!”), I was interrupted by her second text to me: “He has the copies.” Oh. Jesus was the Latino office worker who ran errands for us during the professional development days. I had left a voicemail for the coordinator reminding her we needed more materials, and the text was her response.

Driving home, I felt bad. Were God and church so compartmentalized in my life that I was Christian only on Sundays? Why would that text seem so out of context? God is the context, the whole context. Maybe I needed to be Christian more visibly. But did that mean I had to buy “He has risen!” bumper stickers and some cross jewelry (surely the couple of Goth-like necklaces I had, large enough to ward off a vampire attack, didn’t count)? Did I need to stand outside VONS handing out First UMC pamphlets or blackmail friends into coming with me to church? Then that Sunday, Patricia preached about the multiple ways God is in our lives. God was talking to me. I was reminded that there are many ways to be Christian, to have a relationship with God. Nowadays, I do volunteer more about my relationship with God, as appropriate, and I do ask my friends to church (sans the blackmail, though).

Each time I start to forget that I belong to a great church, something happens to remind me. Over the years, one way I’ve learned to remind myself is to serve on church committees and task forces, to volunteer for both long-term projects and one-day events. While I don’t think doing so ensures me a spot in Heaven (alas!), assisting in this way contributes to our church and serves as a sign of my believing in and belonging to First UMC.

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

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