Day 64 Sunday, September 11 Kelseyville to Ukiah, CA 45 miles
She opened the door and I immediately recongized her. I was to be spending the night with my new host, Kelsey, and her husband and young children. I only knew her by Kelsey (the last name held no significance for me), that she was the associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ukiah, and that I might be speaking to her youth group later that evening. I had spent the morning with my Unitarian Universalist community that I helped found after Kelseyville Presbyterian Church was not able to support their growing presence years ago. The split was on my mind as these two congregations worshiped just two blocks apart from each other–one that I belong to by ordination and tradition; the other that I belong to in the same way that one belongs to an extended family.
She opened the door and began to ask if I remembered her. Before she had a chance to remind me I stated her maiden name and smiled, stunned by the strange convergence of events. Kelsey is the child of members of Kelseyville Presbyterian Church. I was her family’s pastor while she was a young teenager. She was there during the years of new growth, the ensuing conflict and my eventual messy departure. Unbeknownst to me she went went on to become a camp counselor, finished college, became a youth director, graduated from seminary and recently became ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
There I was at the door ready to share the same issues with her youth group that cost me job years ago at Kelseyville. After I settled in with a good shower I immediately assured her that I was not there to undermine in any way any work she was doing with her youth group. I told her to use my experience on this trip any way she felt it would best benefit her youth. She assured me that she had no concerns and we began to share our similar experiences of the loss of youth and young families in the Presbyterian Church.
We had a great meeting with about 15-20 youth and their adult leaders. As I began to share about my experience the youth themselves opened up about their experience of church as well. There was near uniform agree
ment that most of them were there for the people in the group. It was the sense of community, fun, and mutual sharing that they enjoyed. At the same time they shared that they felt the church was not often open to their questions, experiences and needs in church. They talked about their friends who feel that the church brainwashes people (I’ve seen the machine in action!) and think it is weird to go to church. They asked about my most embarrassing event on the trip (it’s just between me and them) and my most difficult (the day to Carson City in the headwind wins that one). In the end there was a theme emerging: “The Church needs to honor people’s real questions, be a safe place to share those questions, and be more welcoming to the outside community.”
Is this divine justice or a divine comedy? 15 years ago my attempts to guide a church toward these words got me in all kinds of trouble. There I was with one of the children of members of that church hearing the same thing from the youth that she is guiding along in their faith. Rather than feeling threatened she was welcoming and encouraging the youth to say more and share more about how they really feel about the safety of sharing deeply and authentically in the church. I appreciated that they shared how important the community was to them and also admitted that they aren’t sure how honest they could be with their real questions. I also appreciated how open Kelsey and the other leaders didn’t defend the church, but just allowed the youth to be honest.
It was an incredibly rich day. I attended the Unitarian Universalist service where a very moving poem by Maryann and Frederick Brussard was read that they had written on the afternoon of 9/11 ten years ago. I was amazed by both the growth of the congregation since I last visited them and how few of the faces I actually recognized. A sign of the growth and the mobility of our modern society. I rode the short 45 miles to Ukiah and focused on really enjoying these last few days before returning to Portland. My host and friend, Kathy, asked me that morning if I need to watch for “barn sour”. I wasn’t sure what that was and she explained that when you go on a trail ride with a horse often when you turn around and start heading home the horse will power ahead with a singular focus of getting back to the barn. I told Kathy I have to watch for a little of that. I am really ready to return home now. I know where home is. I know who my people are. I know where I belong. I would be tempted to turn in a “Beam me up, Scotty!” card if I had one at this point. But, I do know that I would regret it. I really do want to take advantage of this time to decompress and let my last images be of the Souther Oregon coast.