“You see, dear—I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world up into two kinds of people…and those who don’t.” – Tony Hendra

Pushing through the heavy church door, I was met by a rush of hot air, thick with humidity and foreshadowing a long, unpleasant southeastern summer. I gulped in deep breaths anyway, inhaling sharply, realizing I’d probably held my breath for the past twenty minutes. I couldn’t get away from the basement youth room fast enough. 

Mom and I called this our church home for the last four years, and recently there had been a change of command in the student ministry, upending my tenth grade world. At the same time, I’d found solace in my creative writing class, finally feeling the freedom to express myself and explore my interior world on the page. I’d also become friends with several people outside of my traditional friend group—an atheist, a backslidden Mormon, and a girl on the fringes of the popular group whose early appeal for me was based solely on the fact that we both had naturally curly hair that fell in coils and I wondered about the products she used. 

I found myself unfurling in our lively discussions, debates, and jokes. They were seekers just like me; indeed, they were people I’d come to feel at ease around, humans who felt more akin to me than the students I spent time with on Wednesday or Sunday evenings. We grew closer over the semester, and I was invited to a few parties, where I felt none of the pagan urges to drink or smoke a joint or spontaneously tear off my clothes as I’d frequently been warned would happen should I ever draw near an unapproved social gathering. 

Word must have reached a couple of my youth group friends and made its way back to the emotionally constipated youth group leader. Now here I was, sitting on the floor of the youth room, surrounded by painted white cinderblocks, with the eyes of the entire group staring at me, judging me, disappointed. I’d been cornered and confronted about my choices, choices that the youth leader and unnamed members of the group were “concerned” about. I couldn’t tell you what was said or how I responded. I felt as though I were on trial and was glad to depart as quickly as possible when it was over. 

I’ve had a sense of the Divine from a young age. Prayer was not modeled for me, although looking back, I see my prayer life began with the earth—listening to the trees clap their hands in the wind and dance with abandon; the cool air that caressed my cheeks as I rode my bike through the neighborhood; the Aspen’s greens giving way to golden yellows. I always kept an eye on the majestic Rockies lining the horizon, standing guard over me, even as I marveled at them. Fields of wildflowers swayed with the grass in the foothills, a natural, unified movement, and I felt one with them. 

After moving to Kentucky, I was invited to a youth group by a Bible-toting girl in the sixth grade and ended up attending a retreat where I was taught about about sin and Jesus’s saving love for me. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I felt a sense of welcome and belonging, something that I desperately craved. It was late in the afternoon on one of those retreat days when I found myself in a bedroom, evening light pouring in from the westward-facing window, and felt (and was able to name) the presence of God, a presence both familiar and now somehow more expansive than I remembered. 

Upon joining the church I was taught, and internalized, the message that Divine Love and the evidence of it in my life was predicated on my status as a “good Christian,” yet I certainly could not trust my own discernment concerning what a “good Christian” was.

Before coming to church I had no concept of being separated from God; now I felt responsible for maintaining our relationship.

I developed a mindset I call “post-salvation justification.” I didn’t spend my energy trying to earn my way to God on the front end, but rather on the back end, somehow believing I could retroactively earn the love and belonging already given to me. 

It was arduous and taxing work.

Then, in my sophomore year, along came these fellow pilgrims, content to be on a journey together. In the basement of a church building, however, when confronted about my friendships outside the fold, my seeker’s heart was crushed; it would take years to recover.

I slowly welcomed and blessed the curious parts of me, the parts that are comfortable with questions, content with doubt, and know that my wrestlings don’t remove me from love, but instead compel me toward it. Along the way, it has been people, in the fullness of their humanity, who have revealed more of the Divine to me than the confines of a church building.  

The local college student in Indonesia I set off with on a motor bike, simply because she wanted to introduce me to her family and see her home. The women and bouncers inside a strip club where I delivered meals and gift baskets, laughing and chatting between customers for hours. The Muslim family who live on the corner, generously sharing ice cream with our kids as we craft a conversation through broken English. These are the faces, the stories, the lives that have taught me not to dichotomize humanity, for to do so is to diminish the inherently sacred.

Vanessa Sadler is a trauma-informed Spiritual Director and Enneagram Specialist. Through her company Abide (@abidinginstory), she collaborates with clients who seek deeper abiding and a greater understanding of the ways they relate with God, self and others. Vanessa has Level I and Level II certificates in Narrative Focused Trauma Care from The Allender Center, located within the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and also offers Integrated Story Work to her clients along with a culture identity component.