Hi, I’m Kristin, the new Director of Programs. It’s an honor to be sitting here at Muriel’s old desk, spending my days immersed in Strength to Love by Dr. King (the new book we incorporated into this year’s Catholic Social Teaching version of JustFaith), talking to experts in their fields about their work, and writing until my laptop overheats. I’m an ordained United Methodist pastor, received my M.Div from Duke Divinity School, and served a variety of churches. But that’s not what I want to tell you today. What I want to tell you is why I’m here at JustFaith, and to do that, I need to tell you two stories.

Story One.

Ever since I can remember, church was the place I went for refuge and purpose and to make sense of the world. Church was gluing sequins on Christmas tree ornaments and sprinkle donuts on fifth Sundays. Church was covered dish picnics in the grass and hide-and-seek power-walking style because “no running in the Sanctuary.” For kindergarten graduation, we dressed up as what we wanted to be when we grew up. I walked across the stage with my mom’s Bible, announcing that I wanted to be a pastor so that I could teach people about God.

However, at seven, I was also that kid who sing-shouted in children’s choir out of unbridled passion for the Lord. One Wednesday after church supper, I was standing in front of my child-sized chair in the front row center — my choir rehearsal seat of choice — when the director gently broke the news that someone was singing too loud and disrupting the harmony of our angelic voices. Her eyes darted around toward the back corner, but I knew exactly who she was talking to. I wanted to sink into the floor. Was everyone staring at me?

Story Two.

Fast forward twenty years to Christmas Eve. Our huge, old southern sanctuary was jam-packed, glowing with white lights and the warmth of community. But as we raised our candles and sang about peace on earth, blue lights from the cop cars outside flashed through the stained glass windows. The Scripture passage printed in the bulletin was Luke 2:1-14, the story about an immigrant family who could not find a safe place to stay, so they had their baby in a barn (before fleeing to Egypt to escape political persecution, according to Matthew’s account).

By a strange fluke in the service, the Scripture passage was never read that night. The sermon urged our affluent congregation to find quiet time for Jesus in the middle of the shopping season.

I knew the police were likely just directing traffic, and skipping the Gospel passage wasn’t an attempt at censorship. But as I drove the two hours to my parents’ house late that night, I called my friend Elizabeth (another associate pastor driving late Christmas Eve to see her family) and tried to explain to her — and to myself  — what had bothered me so much.  Was the central message of Christianity a sentimental encouragement to bury our heads in the sand in order to achieve personal peace?  After all, 21st century families were spending the night in the car because they had no place to stay, not unlike Mary and Joseph. Others were fleeing political persecution by crossing the US-Mexico border, not unlike the Holy Family. Meanwhile, millions of American Christians sang “Silent Night” in the comfort of our warm, glowing sanctuaries. But for what reason did we raise our candles? To celebrate the radical, controversial love of God? Or was it going too far to say that we lift our candles in headstrong insistence of a watered-down distortion of the Gospel?

Elizabeth thought I had a point but that, yes, I might be going a bit overboard.

Applying to JustFaith Ministries was, to some extent, an affirmation of my seven-year-old self, whose faith looked like singing with total abandon, without thinking to care how others would perceive her. And applying to JustFaith Ministries was also an affirmation of my adult self, who has not stopped yearning for a wholehearted Church that takes risks for love, a Church that proclaims the Gospel even though it makes people uncomfortable sometimes. I am grateful for community and love and teaching, but I have always been hungry for something even deeper than that.

As a pastor, I could spot the people like me in an instant, and they were everywhere. They didn’t just run in the progressive crowd or the evangelical crowd, and they weren’t all millennials or retired folks with time on their hands. They were people who, like me, loved church but were even more hungry to love God with all their hearts and minds and strength — but they didn’t know how. They wanted to serve their Lord Jesus, who identifies with the hungry and the sick and or the incarcerated — but they didn’t know where to find him. They wanted a spirituality of substance where they could bring their intellect and their questions, their doubts and their joys. But from Christian culture, many were only getting the Gospel of Self Help, which was much too sentimental for their taste.

As Muriel and I revised the materials for JustFaith, I wrote with my fellow hungry Christians in mind, those friends who want to praise with all they are, and who ache for Christ’s message of radical love and inclusion.  Thank you, dear kindred spirits, for existing in the world. JustFaith was written for you — for those who yearn to be light and salt, who dream of new life for their church and communities, who maybe feel that listening to a sermon and singing hymns are wonderful, but they’re just not enough anymore.  Whether you’re a seasoned facilitator or you’re participating in a group for the first time, know that you do not journey alone toward the challenge or the questions. You journey with hundreds of participants across the country, who walk together with you in your seeking.  I am honored to be among them.

We are disciples on a journey.

We are the body of Christ, broken for the world.

We hold one another as we carry the concerns and intercessions of our neighbors.

Amen.