The ache to belong rests in such a young part of our hearts. It is a tender thing, holding so many other questions like “Can I come?” “Am I welcome?” “Am I ok?” “Am I wanted?” “Do you love me?”.
I was ten the year we moved to Phoenix, and Halloween fell on a Sunday. We started attending a new church and my brother and I had made a few friends so we asked my mom if we could have a Halloween party Sunday afternoon after church. She enthusiastically said “yes!” and we sent out our invites and started the party ideas.
The day of the party arrived and after church we readied the house, which was already decorated with my mom’s classic “witchy-poo”….a funky witch made from an old stand up sewing form, a big black sheet for her dress and a broom handle for arms, with the final touch of a giant orange pumpkin head topped off with one of my mom’s long haired wigs and witch hat. We LOVED her! We had popcorn balls, candy corn, apples for bobbing and games planned.
And, no one came. None of the good church folk thought our Sunday afternoon Halloween party was appropriate. That was the year I learned that there were rules to the church community we had landed in.
In the realm of “trick or treat” I felt tricked, I think my mom felt judged.
My parents were good rule keepers and witchy-poo went away, along with their nightly glass of sherry and other things that were outside the rules. I remember feeling the loss as some parts of who we had been as a family were sacrificed in the name of “what was right.”
When Mark and I started leading the young adult ministry in San Antonio we brought back dressing up for Halloween, carving pumpkins and bobbing for apples because it’s all super fun, and we knew the young adults would love it. We took some flak from more conservative members of the congregation, but we were reaching so many young adults that the leadership agreed to call this event an “outreach” to the community and the “All Fall Call Ball” actually made it into the church bulletin a few times and became a favorite amongst our tribe of young adults. Everyone came, costumed and toting pumpkins for the carving contest. What had left me feeling that I didn’t belong as a kid was transformed into something that said “everyone belongs” if they want to come.
The “All Call Fall Ball” became a favorite amongst our tribe of children as well. The kids wanted to come, and they wanted to dress up. An infamous year was 2004, just a couple of months after I had Libby, Steven wanted a “family” costume that included Mark and I. “ The Incredibles” was the hot new Disney film and that was his choice. I remember how thrilled he was with our costumes. He must have thanked us a hundred times. And I wondered what in the world I had agreed to in wearing spandex at 40 after having had a c-section.
We warmly welcomed a lot of people into our home and into our hearts; somehow we communicated that you weren’t likely to be judged by us, and we didn’t have a set of rules to be obeyed.
Recently, I attended the “Belong Tour” for women, and as part of the weekend we were given the opportunity to work on a purpose statement, built on our story, passions and gifts. I am still fine tuning mine, but this emerged pretty quickly,
I am called to create and nurture communities where every story belongs and people experience healing, hope and celebration.
It is grounding for my heart to see and name the threads that run consistently through my life, not only the themes of things that were harmful, but the themes of goodness as well. Belonging is a theme in my story; it runs through frequently moving as a child, my place in my family of origin, friendships, ministry and in my family today.
Back when we were on a church staff we probably looked like the typical nice, conservative, churchy family. Today, we look less like that family. That “nice churchy” image has been stripped away as my older children have grown into adults and their unique journeys of suffering, hope and healing, along with their pursuit of God have shaped them. My family is now a living testimony that what was true for those young adults in San Antonio is also true for my own children. And the truth is there are churches where we no longer belong. That breaks my heart and fuels my passion.
Red Tent Living is the current expression of my passion and calling, and there will be more expressions to come in the years ahead.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories and a reluctant dreamer, living by faith that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick but when dreams come true there is a life and joy” (Pro. 13:12). She is the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for 29 years, she is mother to five kids. After a half century of life, she’s feeling like she may know who she is.