All My Favorite People

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me
My heart should know…

Orphaned believers, skeptical dreamers
You’re welcome
Yeah, you’re safe right here
You don’t have to go

—Linford Detweiler, Over the Rhine


“Good morning, Friendship!”

“Good morning, Darryl!”

And so begins the weekly ritual of Friendship Community Church congregation members sharing praises and prayer requests, joys and concerns.

It is November 1995, and I have been attending this quirky inner-city, inter-racial Presbyterian church for a little more than a year. Tucked between the university community and Pittsburgh’s Hill District—made famous in the 1980s crime drama Hill Street Blues— it is a modest cinderblock building that more closely resembles a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall than the hundreds of Gothic, steepled church buildings that populate this post-industrial city.

The wooden pews are five deep along three of the four walls of the sanctuary; we are a congregation “in the round.” I glance at the faces of these men and women—young and old, black and white, rich and poor—who are becoming more familiar to me, week by week. This is very much not like the homogeneous all-white, suburban, formal, upper-middle-class Presbyterian congregations I grew up attending.

The prayer requests begin.

A white female med school student asks us to pray for her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mr. Chappelle, an elderly African-American gentleman with snowy white hair, raises his hand to remind us, as he does every week, to pray for “the homeless and the afflicted.”

A middle-aged white man announces, with a mixture of pride and bewilderment, that he and his wife are expecting their fourth child. It looks like a career change may also be on the horizon in order to support their growing family.

A young, skinny black woman thanks God for waking her up this morning and adds that she has now been clean and sober for 27 days. We applaud.

A black woman in her 70s is wearing her customary Sunday-best hat; she stands up and clears her throat. And then, as she did last week and will again next, she slowly and deliberately recites Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

More requests and praises. Someone who arrived after the earlier greeting and announcement time tries to disguise a meeting announcement as a prayer request, and we all laugh. And then someone asks, “Has anyone seen Johnnie lately?”


Johnnie is a tall black man with an infectious smile who has been attending Friendship Church since he was a child. Johnnie is also a drug addict. He hasn’t been in church for months now, but occasionally, someone will run into him in another part of the city.

We never forget to pray for Johnnie.

holding-hands-black-and-white-peopleAs we do every week, we join hands with the people on either side of us—if necessary, reaching for the hand of a person in front of or behind us—and Darryl invites us to “pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray.” We bow our heads and lift our voices:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever.


It is November 2016, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and we’ve reached the point in the worship service for the Call to Confession. A tall broad-shouldered black man stands and ambles up to the microphone.

“Good morning, Friendship!” he says.

“Good morning, Johnnie!” we answer.

Johnnie is a husband and a father and a grandfather. He is founder and owner of a construction company which provides job training for young black men, offering them a way out of the destructive lifestyle that he himself indulged in two decades ago. Johnnie is a gifted story-teller and a jokester and a hugger. He is a respected elder in the church of his youth.

And Johnnie is a recovering drug addict.

Nearly every time Johnnie gets up to call us to confession—which is most Sundays—he makes us laugh or cry, and often both at the same time. As he encourages us to prepare our hearts to confess our sins, individually and corporately, he reminds us with illustrations from his own life what it means to worship a God of second—and third and fourth and fifth and seventy-times-seventy—chances.

Johnnie celebrated 18 years of sobriety a couple of weeks ago. When someone pointed this out, we applauded, and Johnnie was quick to remind us where the credit really belongs.

I wipe my eyes and remember sitting in these pews more than 20 years ago, alongside people who are still here and many others who have passed away or moved on. We asked, “Where’s Johnnie?” and we prayed that God would meet him wherever he was and rescue him.

And He did.

The Lake House

I stand on the white planks of the dock, listening to the gentle sloshing of water against the grassy shore. The sun is setting behind me on this mid-August evening, earlier than it did last night, and the windows of the cottages on the eastern shore of Lake Chautauqua reflect its rosy glow.

Behind me, I hear the faint clink of wine glasses being refilled. The murmur of after-dinner conversation is punctuated with wild giggles from five-year-old Isaiah as his dad tickles him, doing his best to rile him up before bedtime.

lake-2016-bAs I walk back to join my friends on the shady side porch, I hear the teenagers laughing together from the kitchen. They have finished clearing the picnic table of ravaged corncobs and remnants of hamburger fixings, used paper plates and empty tortilla chip bags.

Once upon a time, I would have been the one standing at that sink, stowing leftovers, choosing dish duty as an introvert’s temporary retreat from the stimulation of too many people. But on this evening, I am content to lower myself into a cushioned deck chair and join the twilight conversation circle with my friends.

One combination or another of us have been gathering in this place over the course of so many summer evenings over so many decades—since we were barely older than the teenagers who are in the house now. They are singing selections from the U2 catalog, the soundtrack of their young lives—a legacy from their parents and their parents’ friends.


I was barely 18 when I first visited this cottage on this lake.

It was mid-October, a little over a month into my first year of college, and the Christian fellowship group hosted a weekend retreat at Lake Chautauqua in western New York State, an hour or so away from my northwestern Pennsylvania campus. There were too many of us to fit into one house, so a student’s family offered up beds and floor space in their vacation cottage for the overflow.

Little did I know then that the student whose house this was would become one of my best friends. And little did I suspect how many times I would return to this cottage on this lake and be comforted by how little it changed, while so many other things changed too much.


In our 20s, our lakeside reunions were carefree and action-packed. After many hours spent on the water, skiing and tubing, swimming and sunbathing, mealtimes were dictated by our hunger pangs, and bedtimes put off as long as possible as we basked in each other’s company. There were often more bodies than beds, and so sleeping bags and tents popped up on the side lawn. Those of us lucky enough to end up on the living room sofa bed were the last to sleep and the first to wake, as early-risers stumbled into the kitchen for morning coffee.

In our 30s, we negotiated whose turn it was to go out on the boat by calculating the appropriate ratio of adults to children, and then negotiating whose turn it was on the skis or the tube or the raft. Others of us stayed on shore to stand guard during toddlers’ nap times or to keep dinner preparations on schedule for the sake of the little ones. Bedrooms were assigned based on family sizes and necessary floor space for sleeping bags. The grownups cooked and the older kids took turns cleaning up.

This is the place we celebrated college graduations and engagements and anniversaries—and mourned broken relationships and divorces and losses of many kinds. It’s where we laughed together over shared memories and oft-repeated stories. It’s where we comforted each other during hard seasons that seemed like they may never end.

And always, the twilight conversation circle.


Isaiah has been tucked into bed. The singing teenagers are still in the house, busy with projects which will keep them occupied into the wee hours of the morning and cause them to sleep until noon the next day. And we—the grownups—sip wine and solve the world’s problems by the yellow glow of a citronella candle.

Tonight, a month shy of my 50th birthday, I soak in the familiar summer ritual. I listen to updates about friends’ “kids” who once-upon-a-time were with us at the lake, but who are now newly married or starting a first job after graduating from college. We commiserate about the most divisive presidential race of our lifetime. We pass around smart phones to share photos—and drugstore reading glasses so that we can pull them into focus. We joke about graying hair and thickening waists and, with broad yawns, our regrettable need for a full eight hours of sleep.

I think about friends who aren’t with us this year and how I wish they were. I think about singleness and marriage and divorce and remarriage and blended families and grief and brokenness and love and redemption. I think about the ways life has turned out how we hoped it would and the ways it has not.

I think about the grace of another late-summer evening at the lake house.


Amy bio YAH

Open Windows

“Do you want to go back to bed?!? DO YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO BED?!?”

“Yes!” I grumbly murmured as I rolled over in bed and turned my back to the open window letting in the cool 5 a.m. August-air.

photo-1447154705288-7175737fb73cI was a couple weeks into my new apartment near Philadelphia. By now I was used to the 6 a.m. physical training drills as platoons of teenagers from the military college across the street marched to their practice field about 100 yards from my window. Five a.m. was new though. Someone must have done something wrong.

I knew my body well enough to know my night was over. I slid out of bed, trying to be quiet in case my roommate had managed to sleep through the earlier-than-normal P.T. routine. She’d be up early enough when they marched back to campus singing their cadence song in an hour or so.

I wandered into the kitchen to start the coffee and curled into the soft cushions of our couch, staring out the window into the front yard of the apartment complex until I heard the young cadets marching home again.

Leased from a local military college, my graduate school housing was a 1930s era apartment. Its wood floors were charming, and the sweetest floral pattern was etched into the bathroom mirror. The 1930s was the era of the fuse box which meant no air-conditioning and no window unit. So, we left our windows open.

Aside from the hot-July months when I had to escape to wander the mall all day lest I roast, I didn’t really mind it so much. I’m a couple years removed from that apartment now, and I rather miss needing to have my windows open. The always-conditioned cool air of Georgia summers seem rather stuffy in comparison.

Much of my graduate school classes focused on peace and non-violence. The irony that I was living on a military campus where teenagers marched by and sang about war on a daily basis was not lost on me.

The apartment buildings was surrounded by the military college and their football field, the parking lot for a large church (that was also a school), and a golf course. The golf course was mostly quiet.  

On Friday evenings in the fall, the football field filled up with high school sports. A marching band walked past my window, drumline in full performance. For every touchdown that the home team cadets made, a cannon blast pierced the air.

The cadets began the daily symphony early every morning and by 9:00 am there were sounds coming in from every direction. Children’s laughter from the church’s playground bounced across the mostly empty parking lot straight into our windows. On the other side of the road the bells of the college chapel began to ring on the hour at 9 a.m. and went until 5 p.m. Sometimes the bells counted the hour, sometimes they played a hymn.

On days when I had no classes these became familiar time-keepers, keeping me focused and paced as I read book after book after book after book. You don’t need any sort of advanced intelligence to attend grad school. You just need lots of time to read.

More often than not, I read past the end of the daily bells and was still working when one lone bugle broke through the dark night sky and played Taps. It’s the sound for lights out. I know it most from movies where it’s played at military funerals. And so my night often ended on a somber note. Not that I minded, I’ve always had an odd love for sad movies or songs or books. 

Every once in awhile there was a special evening conclusion to my daily concert. On clear nights, after the sun had set, there would be the faintest sound of bagpipes. I’d close my book and sit and listen to the peaceful tune as the crickets outside joined the song. This final piece of the day’s symphony would often go on for hours.

Throughout all of this – we grew skilled in making our own noise. Loud family dinners of neighbors and friends were rich with full-bellied laughter. We hooked a projector and speaker up to a laptop and watched movies or the latest episode of Sherlock in a volume that was probably too loud for the neighbors who didn’t join us. One summer, we streamed the World Cup games from the laptop and loudly cheered on the home teams among our group: Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and USA. Some nights we quietly listened to each other and shared our stories (to the soundtrack of bagpipes when we were lucky).

The golf course across the street had one noisy night a year – July 3rd – when they put on a fireworks show. The first year it surprised me and I ran to the window when my living room lit up bright red after a loud explosion. I had a perfect view from the second floor window. My last summer in that apartment the July 3rd show was rained out.

A few weeks later my roommate and I packed our cars and moving trucks full. All that was left in the apartment was the dorm-issued furniture and a small overnight bag. We were leaving bright and early the next morning.

As we prepared for bed, we heard a crack and boom and saw the flash of light outside. We moved one of the beds directly in front of the window, and sat next to each other as we leaned in towards the screen, listening and watching in delight as our neighborhood gave us a grand, thunderous, farewell.



Nicole bio YAH


An Unmatched Life

At 15, I read in a home décor magazine that you were only supposed to fill things two-thirds full in order for it to look neat and orderly. So when I got my new bedroom at 16, a room I helped build on to the house, I intentionally left some of the walls and closet shelf space empty to try and create that feel.

Once the room was finished, I picked a blue-floral bedspread and curtains from the J.C. Penney catalog and took a pillowcase to Home Depot to have the color matched. I sponged the gray-blue paint onto the baseboard and molding before we nailed it to the walls.

I was trying to keep it all together, I think. Trying to make it right. I am the child of a parent with chronic mental and physical illnesses. As a child, that meant taking on the responsibility of taking care. I wanted things stable and orderly and, above all, correct.

For a few years before I moved to college my junior year, those empty spaces and coordinating color scheme were a retreat. The aesthetics calmed and centered me.




My first apartment

After landing a full-time job after college, I moved into my first all-my-own apartment. I dove into decorating it just the way I wanted. Things matched less, but they still coordinated. I bought sofas and curtains, lamps and end tables brand-new from the store. I wanted it decorated and soon. I bought fabric and made my own upholstered headboard and hunted down antique picture frames for the walls of my bedroom.  I took a page from an interior design magazine and recreated a wall collage behind my dining room table.

When Christmas came, I bought new decorations that sparkled and shone in perfect complement to my décor.

It was common for me to lock myself in my apartment from the time I got home from work on Friday until I left for work on Monday. “Introvert re-charge,” I would say. And sometimes that is needed. But in truth, it was easier to just stay in, not interact with anyone, and piddle away on some new home décor project. I even started a short-lived blog full of recipes and decorating tips.


When I was 29, I moved into graduate on-campus housing, complete with an R.A. and roommates. The apartments were built in the 1930s and, aside from the random rules that come with campus housing, I rather enjoyed the cozy wood floors and the old bathroom mirror with the flower scroll etched across the glass.

Perhaps the thing I was most nervous about as I prepared to move to grad school was that my home would feel like a dorm. That I would feel like a kid. I was afraid of ugly furniture and plastic storage bins and cramped spaces. I was afraid it was all going to feel like a mess.

And things didn’t matchexcept for the industrial, boxy, bedroom furniture. My bedspread was black and white, my roommate’s was bright neon colors. The bathroom linen closet was stocked with a haphazard collection of multi-colored towels in various states of wear. The empty wall of the small galley kitchen was a jigsaw puzzle of mismatched shelves holding extra dishes and cookbooks and pantry staples. Every third of the bedroom walls were lined with furniture. Desk, dresser, bed, repeat. Shelves were stuffed full of textbooks and binders and picture frames of family and friends in other states. There was no money to spend on new, matching furniture. There was too little space for all of my things.

Yet, that apartment was home to one of my most well-lived years. There was nothing more satisfying than to find the sink full of mismatched coffee mugs, evidence of another night of friends studying together or talking.

Mismatched Dinner Table

An Easter table

On Sunday evenings, friends and neighbors gathered and we made dinner. One person would cook, filling the small sink of the small kitchen with pans and cutting boards and wooden spoons.Then we’d eatmismatched chairs crowded around a table with mismatched glasses in front of matching plates, the thin blue and white Corelle dishes I had inherited from my grandmother.  

As the year went on, dining together just became a habit, no matter the meal.  We had a French toast feast as the snow piled deep outside. On the days it never stopped raining, there was a crock pot of soup ready and warm.  We decided JFK’s Birthday needed celebrating, so we researched and recreated his favorite meal.  One warm night, we picked up a few “gourmet” ingredients from the grocery store, put on a record of classical music, opened all the windows, and laughed and talked and ate as the cross breeze drifted through our impromptu dinner party in that mismatched, unrefined, no-color-palette home.  

That year, we managed to live life together instead of just being roommates or neighbors. It happened with overcrowded shelves and walls and it never once felt like a mess.


Nicole bio YAH

Surprised by Fear

I walked out into the alley behind our house to dump the trash into the dumpster, only to nearly miss stepping on a used condom. It, along with the torn Trojan man package, was directly in front of our back gate. My daughter, age three, was right behind me–in bare feet.

“Oh no, honey,” I said pushing her backward with my hand. “You stay inside the yard. You don’t have shoes on; there might be broken glass.”

I opened the dumpster and threw in the trash bag, sidestepping the condom and three white crumpled tissues. I eyed a purple needle. I turned around and walked back into the yard, my lips pursed. Something happened in the alley right outside my gate, some sexual act. Someone left this remnant here, a sign that it happened. So much goes on in this neighborhood, in this great big city, that I never even know about.

I wished that my husband was home. He was away for a week, and at night I worried about the door. Was it locked? Should I go check? What would I do if someone broke in? My cell phone was resting on the dresser; would I have time to reach it if someone came thumping up the stairs? I was nestled under the covers in-between my kids — a chubby-kneed baby and a long-limbed preschooler — and feeling the weight of protecting them.

I never thought I would be scared to live here. I spent a good deal of my early 20s in this inner-city neighborhood. It’s where my husband and I dated, got engaged, and rented our first apartment. It’s where we brought our daughter home from the hospital as a newborn. And it’s where we discovered a little Mennonite church a few blocks away where, for the past five years, I have spent most Sunday mornings singing songs about peacemaking.

8275524986_8bb66bd218_o (1)I felt naïve, not knowing what it would be like to steer my daughter around smashed beer bottles on our sidewalk, to tell her to keep her tricycle inside our gate, to avoid the playgrounds where young men are sitting on the swings, smoking. “But, why, mama?” she wonders, and I don’t know what to tell her. I want her to be confident, to free range all around her environment like those happy cage-free chickens, to not need my constant, watchful presence.

So why, why, do we live here? I tell myself we’re here because place matters. Where we live matters. What we see every day, the people we come in contact with, the reality of our communities — they matter. Our place, our community, shapes what is “normal.” For every smashed beer bottle, there are dozens of friendly “hellos” and shared toys over the fence with the Somali family next door. For every waft of second-hand smoke, there are kind strangers holding open the door for my double stroller at the Dollar Store.

And I want to go down kicking and screaming against the mantras of the American dream, that more stuff and homogenous living is better. I want to rail against the malaise of centering only on me and mine and my kind. I want my kids to know that their whiteness is just one color among many. Because I want to be where God is dwelling, and God is here, or so I’ve been told.

The day after I found the condom I opened the door to our backyard, a serene patch of green contained inside a privacy fence. As my daughter squeezed past me to go outside and play, I heard the voices – loud and strained and scary. Neighbors were fighting. No, they were screaming.

“Mom, mom,” my daughter said as she lingered on the back steps. “What’s that noise?”

“Inside,” I said, pulling her back into the house, closing the door firmly behind us. My daughter’s eyes were confused, searching mine. I brusquely pulled out the watercolor paints and paper to occupy her, my heart pounding all the while.

As I watched my daughter paint at the kitchen table, I thought about friends who have lived on our block for over 30 years. They raised two sons who thrived, sent them to public schools, and volunteered countless hours in the community. People always wondered, always asked them: How did you do it? How did your kids turn out so well? And they replied: You never need to warn your kids about abusing alcohol when they see drunks walking down the block every day.

My kids, like their kids, will be okay, right? God is here, I reminded myself, as I swallowed back my fear. God is redeeming it all. I looked back over at my daughter, hunched over her painting. I peered over her shoulder and admired her splotchy stick-figures, their colors black and brown and pink. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, turning her sunny face toward mine. “Yes,” I replied as I touched the wet construction paper. “Yes, it is.”

* * * * *

stinaStina Kielsmeier-Cook a writer and recovering idealist from the cold north where she raises kids, maxes out her library card, and is usually late for church. A former housing advocate for refugees, Stina loves to talk about social policy, parenting and her neighborhood in Minneapolis. She blogs at and can be found tweeting, badly, at @stina_kc.


Broken bottle photo by Lig Ynnek

Other People’s Dirty Dishes

The stack of plates next to the sink had bits of dried cheese and other unidentifiable foodstuff stuck to them. A frying pan and a couple of saucepans were soaking in dirty dishwater in the sink, along with handfuls of cutlery. Unwashed drinking glasses were colonizing next to the dirty plates. I had just recovered a couple more from the living room where they had been abandoned, water rings left behind on the garage-sale end tables.

The house was quiet. The students who weren’t still sleeping in their bedrooms were scattered across campus, attending class or studying in the library.

And I was annoyed.


Nearly a quarter century ago, I spent four years living in community with college students. When I accepted a campus ministry position as a co-director of a co-ed discipleship house in Erie, Pennsylvania, I had idealized notions of what that would look like. These ideals were founded on my own experience a few years earlier, when I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college living in Ocean City, New Jersey, in a co-ed house with fifteen other Christian college students and four campus ministers.

We shared a house and we shared meals. By day, we worked in souvenir shops and pizza parlors, or we cleaned hotel rooms or mowed lawns. In the evenings, we took turns leading Bible studies and learning from teachers who visited each week to help us grow in our faith and our leadership abilities. All of this while living a couple blocks from the beach.

We laughed and learned and flirted and grew in our relationships with one another and with the God we were getting to know better. For two months, we experienced the very best parts of living in community. And then we tearfully said goodbye and returned to our families and our different college campuses.

When we parted ways, we were barely out of the honeymoon stage.


Two years into being a campus minister and a “house mother”—at age 24—the honeymoon was definitely over.

I was now one of the adults, living with students who had varying motives for living in this house. For some, it was an opportunity to live with other Christian students and to grow in faith and learn how to share that faith with their peers. For some, it was an inexpensive alternative to the university’s residence halls or campus-owned apartments. And for others, it was a combination of the two.

Dirty dishes were the tip of the iceberg. There were so many more issues below the surface.

We were a motley crew. Protestants and Catholics and agnostics. Republicans and Democrats and independents. Young women and men transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and two campus ministry “house parents” who did not have much of an age advantage but were trying to help these students to ask good questions and figure out who they were and who they were becoming.

This was no two-month adventure at the Jersey shore with relatively like-minded people. This was nine months of classes and midterms and finals and debates about whether the TV should be tuned to CNN (the general preference of the international students) or MTV (the rest of the students) or shouldn’t be turned on at all (the house directors).

dirty-dishes-resized-600This was a minimum two-semester commitment to weekly house dinners and meetings on Sunday evenings, followed by living life together the rest of the week.

It was difficult for some of us to resist the temptation to keep an hour-by-hour mental tally of who cleaned up after themselves and who did not.

For much of my time in that house, I disregarded the importance of the mundane, day-to-day, messy business of living life together. My focus was on house dinners and Bible studies and philosophical conversations. These were important. But my passive-aggressive response to dirty dishes and TV channel disagreements contributed to the mess—and dismissed real opportunities for growth and identity formation.

I wish someone had shared with me back then that the secret to a healthy community living environment is being willing to put up with each other’s messes.

Or better yet, to pitch in and help clean them up.


Amy YAH bio

When I Was Your Age, We Went to the Bank

On Saturdays, we went to the bank with dad.

The Regency Savings Bank of Geneva, IL welcomed its patrons with platters covered in white paper doilies, piled high with a variety of butter cookies. Dad would fill one of the provided styrofoam cups with coffee from the percolator.

We started coming with Dad when I was a toddler, an era when my memories blur one into the other. In those early days, my older sister and I waited at the Playschool picnic table, laid out with coloring books and crayons. At this point any of our collected coins got plopped into Piggy Banks on our dressers. Soon enough we started to trail Dad to the bank counter, to watch the magic.

The tellers counted the cash onto the counter like tarot cards, experts at slipping paper across paper. They moved through their tasks without looking: stamping, signing, unlocking, typing on the number pad on the computer, and printing receipts by feeding a machine with a small slip of paper that got pulled into the machine to be stamped with account balances.

Bank Teller Counting Money for Customer --- Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis

Bank Teller Counting Money for Customer — Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis

At home, we imitated the movements of the tellers in elaborate games of pretend bank, using stacks of pocketed deposit slips and carbon copy return tickets from the local Venture department store. We idolized those women at the bank, second only to the grocery clerks at the supermarket who almost always had long acrylic nails that clicked across the keypad.

On  Saturday mornings, the bank hummed with the financial business of the town locals. I came to recognize the tellers and the bankers in suits who sat at glass enclosed cubicles. When not serving a customer, they popped out of their offices to circulate around the premises and greet account holders by name. We usually got greeted by the tall, lady banker with the short black hair, who seemed to be having a perpetually good day since the late ‘80s.

At the tall desks in the lobby, my Dad endorsed his stack of checks, a lefty with the characteristic curve in of his hand. He always came with his own blue, ballpoint pen since the ones chained to the desk had long run out of ink. Each week, my dad left the bank with a thin white envelope full of twenties that he placed up in the cabinet next to the fridge, so Mom could select a crisp bill or two and take them to the grocery store.

The tall smiley banker told my Dad that we could open our very own savings accounts, and Carolyn and I were each entrusted with a small grey book, monogrammed with the maroon initials of the bank. These very important books were housed in the roll top desk in the kitchen and kept in protective plastic sleeves.  We covered the plastic sleeves with stickers received from the teller for each deposit we made at the bank.

Each visit to the bank corresponded with a new entry in our passbooks. We took a portion of our newly implemented weekly allowance which we had sorted into styrofoam cups marked “savings,” “spending,” and “church.”

Photo Courtesy of Mario Rui on Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Mario Rui on Flickr

I imagine I had some sort of coin purse or hand me down wallet, but I mostly remember holding the coins in my fists till they grew warm and sweaty against my palms. When we handed over our coins and deposit slip, the teller put the coins into a coin sorter, taking  my precious book to feed into a machine that stamped the new balance of my account.

I tried to read over my account ledger with the seriousness the other patrons used as they carried out their banking. I followed the new entry line across the page with my finger to verify the deposit amount matched my handful of change. On birthdays and Christmas, we brought checks from our grandparents and carefully determined how much cash to take out and how much to entrust to the bank, which was very grownup  business.

After the bank, we ran a few other customary errands to the local Ace Hardware store and to Sally’s Sub House or McDonalds, where I couldn’t help but make the connection that the money dad got at the bank bought Happy Meals and packs of grape Bubblicious gum.

I watched my parents do things with cash, taking  it out of envelopes and carefully counting their pennies. I looked on as my mom put items back at the grocery store to match the amount of bills in her wallet. Both my parents were visible stewards of our money, physically placing it into the hands of others or the golden offering plate to save, spend, and give.

The Regency Savings Bank has long been bought up by other bank chains, changing names and buildings and cookie brands. Now our money zooms through cyberspace, teleporting from one account to another. We no longer have to tabulate our finances and I-owe-yous with paper and pen, but pay instantly from the latest app on our phones. Store clerks ask us if we want that useless piece of non-recyclable paper called a receipt, and we wave them off while only a few people still carefully pen their transactions into their checkbook.

But I think I miss touching money, holding it in my hands, and seeing that it is paper and metal. Perhaps I will start to go to the bank again on Saturdays and take out an envelope of crisp bills to bestow with care as my parents did.




This Is Not My Home, But I Hope It Will Be Yours

This is our fifth year in Columbus, OH and among the various tasks I’ve taken on in this city, perhaps the strangest one is greeting people on their way into our church.

I used to dread driving through Columbus during my 12-hour sojourn to college. I passed through the rolling Appalachians, the hills of eastern Ohio, and then the relentless flat that dominates central Ohio.

downtown-columbus-ohio-1331979-638x455As I wove my way through the interchanges of Columbus before hitting the farmland again, I often wondered how anyone in their right mind would want to live surrounded by concrete and corn in a flat landscape bereft of salt water and mountain peaks. Twenty-somethings sure can be opinionated despite the limited perspective of the highway and a few years of life experience.

These days I call Columbus, Ohio my home—at least for now. I never thought I would say that. My wife’s career path landed us in Columbus for a temporary time that is quickly drawing to a close.

When I hold the door open for families once a month at church, it’s as if I’m a foreigner who helps others settle down and find their places. I’m a foreigner who didn’t choose to live here, who has struggled to find his place, and who knows he’ll be moving on soon. Yet I welcome families with small children, young couples, and blended families of every shape and size to a place where I hope they’ll feel comfortable staying, even if my mind is frequently occupied with our eventual leaving.

This morning our kids weren’t in full-on revolt, so I left my wife at home to get them out the door on her own, while I headed to church early to pray with the other greeters and pastors. We are interceding for an elementary school-aged child in our church who had a rough week in school, and we pray that she’ll have peace, courage, and good friends. We also pray for a resolution with her teachers.

While we pray, my mind is still trying to get past the struggle of getting my three-year-old son into his church clothes that morning, and then I begin to wonder where he’ll go to school next fall and if he’ll have a difficult transition. It probably won’t be in Columbus. Perhaps he’ll finally get past his pajama obsession by then.

“I want to wear my pajamas to church!” He shouted at me while I held out khaki corduroys and a plaid shirt. He would never leave the house in anything other than his fleece pajamas if we didn’t beg, barter, and bribe him to wear clothes. Reluctant though he is to let us inch the zipper down and unsnap the button at the top, the promise of switching back to his pajamas after church placates him.

Our pastor has been praying for the struggling girl while I’ve been trapped inside my own head with fleece pajamas. If anything, I need to go to church in order to be challenged to move beyond my own difficulties and concerns. My worries about my child’s future is someone’s struggle today. I also fight to find time to greet because I’m trying to see people eye to eye, face to face, when my work day in, day out, involves computer screens, social media profiles, and brief bursts of video.

There are many reasons why I have struggled to feel at home in Columbus. It’s not just my prejudice about landscape. It’s about a season of life where money, time, sleep, and just about everything else appear to be in short supply. We have two small children, two careers in transition, and days that are always scheduled to the minute. I wouldn’t change a thing about my work or my family. It’s just the season we’ve been in for these five years of transition, but it sure has been hard to be present for others.


church-doors-1524762-639x852As the greeters set out to our assigned posts, I’m the lone greeter for the main parking lot. Twigs shoved into the doors prop them open.

A single mom with a pack of boys leads the charge up the steps, and they flash through the door before I can get a word in. A young couple I have yet to formally meet despite attending for years follows, ducking past my greeting. I finally catch the eyes of the next few couples, and we chat before they run off to keep track of their kids.

Oftentimes I try to keep things short, especially with the elementary school-aged kids.

“Hey, I love that super hero shirt!” I say to one young boy.

“Are you a ballet dancer?” I ask a girl in a tutu.

I interact on Facebook with quite a few people from our church, but some only engage in conversation with me when I’m a greeter, which is one of the stranger aspects of of our brave new world of social media and in-person Christian community. While greeting I also have a chance to follow up with the people from our church I run into during the week at the clunky, neglected cafe where I work each afternoon because of its big windows that let in the warm sun even if the coffee is usually lukewarm.

Two young women approach with a young girl, and they keep their eyes down and away. I struggle over how welcoming to be. I’m pretty sure they’re new, but I’m not certain. Truth be told, I’m an introvert, and the only thing that makes greeting possible is that I can overcome my social anxiety by embracing my “role” as a greeter. I’m not naturally gifted at drawing people out, and I don’t want them to feel pressure to be friendly.

“Welcome!” I say. “We’re so glad you’re here. There’s coffee just down the hall.”

They meet my gaze, nod politely, and walk in. I’m immediately seized with regret that I mentioned coffee and not the children’s church check in table.

I welcome a few more families, but I keep wondering how those young women are getting along. Did they find the children’s check in table? Is someone talking to them? Are they in New Church Hell where everyone seems to know everyone else?

Ten minutes into the service, I swing by the coffee table for a refill before tracking down my wife and kids. I arrive at the precise moment that one of the young women steps out of the auditorium with her daughter. She’s looking around—a bit confused, but she relaxes when we make eye contact.

“I don’t think I’ll get too much out of the service if my daughter stays with me,” she says. “Do you have something for kids?”

“We certainly do,” I say. “I’m sorry I didn’t mention that before. Here, I’ll show you the way and introduce you.”

We set off for the check in table, and in that moment I pray that she will feel like there’s a place for her at our church. In the back of my mind, there’s a moving van in my not-too-distant future, and a very unsettled notion that this isn’t necessarily my place—I’m not sure if it ever has been. It’s been a far better place than I would have expected for this season, but the door on this season is closing even as I walk this woman and her daughter toward the check in table.

How strange it is to welcome someone to a place that you’re waiting to leave.


*******Ed bio YAH

Disorient; reorient.

It’s the Saturday before Advent begins, and a few of us are at church preparing—setting up the wreath with its purple and pink candles, pulling music from files, and rearranging all of the chairs.

Typically, the Advent wreath is the only visual cue that we’ve entered into a new time, a new space. The chairs haven’t been rearranged in our sanctuary since I started coming to this church a decade ago. Who knows how long they had been that way, divided into three sections, the rows straight and predictable? From an aesthetic standpoint, our church is simple, straightforward, unfussy. The people provide the color and complexity.

Now our goal is to draw all of those complex people in, arranging the chairs in a way that makes us more concentrated, more connected.

It’s been a difficult year in our fellowship, in individual ways that spill over into the community, and also in corporate ways, as we’ve gone through a leadership transition. As the year comes to an end, I feel the need for us to be close, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a large family squeezing in around the dinner table.

I start by removing about 20 chairs from the back rows. Churches will always have back rows, and people will always gravitate toward them, but our new back rows will be closer to the front. Then I divide the remaining 100 chairs into two groups rather than three, curving them in toward one another in an asymmetrical swoop that reminds me of the shape children create when drawing ears on the sides of a circular face.

My helper is Josiah, a teenage boy I’ve been close to since he and my youngest daughter were both in kindergarten. It takes us a while to get the new arrangement right. How close can we gather the chairs in without being too close? We consider wheelchairs and walkers used by members of our community, infant car seats and older babies who often play at their parents’ feet during worship. We congratulate ourselves as the new arrangement masks some coffee stains on the carpet, only to discover that different stains, once hidden, have been revealed.

Finally, we “test drive” various chairs we’ve set up, from each vantage point looking at where the musicians’ microphones and stands are, where the Advent candles will be lit, where song lyrics and Bible passages will be projected. At one point, Josiah and I are sitting on opposite ends of the swoop of chairs. We can see each other without turning our heads. We smile and exchange an air high-five across the empty worship space.

*  *  *  *  *

In America, our love for buffers is clear. Just watch as people choose where to sit in any cafe, movie theater, train or bus. Our tendency is to leave one or two open seats between us and “them.” Are we simply respecting the personal space of others or protecting a selfish need for our own? Or do we go through life with an underlying aversion or suspicion of anyone we don’t know?

I suspect most of us aren’t reasoning out complex justifications for where we sit. These buffers have become largely a matter of habit, both personal and social: This is how we do things. This is what people expect. This is why our ancestors came to America in the first place—for space.

But in church?

Even in churches, we are prone to sidling into a row of chairs, smiling kindly at people sitting in the same row, but leaving a seat or two empty between us. Have our world-weary habits seeped into a place that should by definition be counter-cultural? Have we forgotten what this particular gathering is about?

In this place of worship, after all, we have come together to be together. Yes, we have come to worship God, but we could do that alone—at home or walking city streets or sitting in a park. If we are at church, we are there to be together: To step out of the cold. To gather in a way that creates a margin between the despair we hear on the news and the glimmers of hope we have deep within. To recall moments of balance, of a rightness we’ve caught fleeting glimpses of once or twice in our lives. They are just glimpses, but they’re enough to make us long for more.

*  *  *  *  *

On the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t particularly look like a group of expectant people. We straggle in like usual, looking ragtag and weary, even as we exchange smiles and hugs. Most of us might not even be sure why we’re here, but we are here. There is something in this mysterious mix of ingredients we are wondering about or hoping for.

22783562843_175aa231ba_zIn the worship space, the newly arranged chairs are generating some hubbub, waking people up as their minds scramble to translate old habits into a new arrangement. I hear extra murmuring and some uneasy jokes, meant to cover the confusion; a blend of nerves and excitement fills the space.

As people find places to sit, I watch them scoot in to make room, looking down the curve of  newly formed rows to see who might be nearby. It is a small change in the scope of things, but we are seeing things differently. We are disoriented, which is often necessary if any reorienting is to happen.

This is, after all, Advent.

*  *  *  *  *


Kristin bio YAH

The worship space photo in the post is used with permission (and thanks!) to

My Town

When I was seven, my parents packed up two U-Hauls, myself and my 5-year-old brother. We drove three days from San Diego, my birthplace, to our new home in Spokane, Washington.

Spokane is on the eastern side of Washington State, the side everyone forgets is here. Around election season, the majority put up conservative signs. On this side of the Rockies, there is a desert. It rains, but not frequently.

For a long time, I thought that I would grow up and move away from Spokane. Before college I was in love with the idea of moving to Paris and writing in cafés like Hemingway. Instead, after a short stint working full time in a grocery store, I went to college in the middle of the corn fields of Indiana.

I thought that I would marry my college boyfriend and we would settle in Chicago. The city seemed larger than life to me, sticky, with hard edges. Chicago wasn’t my kind of town, but I was in love for the first time. I would have followed that love anywhere, long after he broke my heart.  

Instead, I moved back to Spokane once more. I worked at a local winery high on a hill, and at nearly every library in the county. I covered restaurants and chefs for a local magazine. I made friends and ran into people I’d known longer than a decade at the grocery store. I began to move through the city like an adult, finding my way through familiar pathways of my youth.  

From time to time, I would chat with my therapist about moving to a bigger city, hoping it might increase my chances of meeting someone I’d like to date. Twice, I contemplated moving to Portland, both times for a boy.

The second time, I almost succeeded. I had a job and a house secured. In the days and weeks before I was meant to go, I found myself craving a chicken chipotle sandwich from Rockwood Bakery, a coffee shop where my brother used to work, and a place I’ve never been to without running into someone I know. I bought one and cried as I ate it on my porch, thinking about what a long drive it might be the next time I had a craving. I wanted to buy several of their quiches and freeze them so that I could warm one up when I needed to taste home.

IMG_3586I worked toward overcoming my fear of parallel parking so that I could wander downtown. I wanted to lay eyes on places I hadn’t been for a while. I wanted to fix them firmly into my memory so that I could carry them with me when I left.

Friends hosted their annual garden party in their backyard while the chickens were shut up tightly so they didn’t mingle with the guests. I held two brand new babies, one of them for hours, even though my arms ached. I knew that even if I came home once a month as I’d planned, to write my food articles, she would still be much older the next time I saw her. I squeezed just a little tighter.

That same baby fell asleep on my shoulder at brunch next to a sunlit window the week before I was supposed to move. My anxiety was speaking to me that day, throwing everything into sharp relief. I held that baby close, not wanting to let go even as we stood next to her ready carseat. My friend kissed my cheek and hugged me tightly, tearful, her daughter squashed between us.

Maybe it’s always hard to move, even when you are doing the right thing, but in those days and moments, I wondered.

I had only to throw my clothes in the car when the relationship slipped through my fingers, leaving me to decide whether I would stay or go. After a dark, sleepless night, I wrote two emails and a text. I cancelled my move.

Not everyone understood my decision. I can’t tell you how many people asked me why I hadn’t gone through with my big adventure. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that moving wasn’t the adventure at all. Falling in love has always been where I get my thrills.

Almost moving was a strange experience.

It was several weeks after the aborted move when I told my therapist I wanted to stay in Spokane. “I’ve been afraid,” I told her. “I’ve been afraid to love this place because I thought it was a good place to grow up, to raise a family, but not to meet someone I might love.” She nodded, because we’d had this conversation many times. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to dig my feet in like roots.” Finally, I unclenched my hands and let Portland fall. Spokane reached for my hands and held them warmly.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a historic event in Spokane. Our mayor was reelected for the first time in 42 years. He’s a friend of mine, and I love the look on people’s faces when I walk right up to him and give him a hug in social settings. He has a tagline: “This is my town.” I found myself whispering those words at the election party as I raised a glass of red in celebration.

Even now they wander through my head as I drive to the bank or the grocery store, or take an evening walk along the ridge near my house at sunset.

This is my town, I think, and I mean every word.

cara YAH bio