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I like to tell people that I’ve attended four different churches for my four years of college.

• Freshman year was spend at Christ Church, the Presbyterian church that sent a van to pick up poor car-less college students like me.
• Sophomore year I got lazy and missed singing hymns, so I attended Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church. What this really allowed me to do (on the days that I felt like going to church) was to roll out of bed, grab some breakfast, go to church, and be back in my dorm room with the rest of the day reclaimed as mine.
• Junior year I had a car and started going to Oakdale Christian Reformed Church with my great-uncle after my great-aunt passed away. After mid-February, I couldn’t bring myself to go to church at all (for no good reason). So to say I attended Oakdale would be a strong way to put it.

My first Sunday at Creston Christian Reformed Church was after our intense two day Nizhoni House bonding retreat. I was in the awkward stage of knowing someone where you know a lot of their history but you don’t share it quite yet.

We weren’t required to go to Creston, the church who greenlighted and invested in the Project Neighborhood Nizhoni House. But the service was at 10 o’clock and the commute of a one minute walk didn’t give me any excuses. I walked into the boxy green church with sticky front doors, trailing after a couple of my new housemates.

I don’t remember a lot about the first visit. The auditorium chairs with their folded up green covers and the strangely beige stained glass windows surprised me, and I couldn’t quite pin the worship style into firmly contemporary or hymnal. I remember being struck by Pastor Sean’s statement that everyone worshiping had come into the sanctuary from all different places and that people had been praying for this service, this moment, throughout the week. Now I know he says that every week. But on that first day, it was a revelation that people prayed over that kind of thing.

This is the time when newcomers can get to know the congregation.

The part I remember distinctly was the after-the-service coffee break hour. I’ve always dreaded this time in other churches—always rushing out the door or shadowing my great-uncle as he talked to people that I vaguely recognized. My parents weren’t there for me to follow as I would do in my home church in Massachusetts. And I figured I couldn’t just slip out since I was going to be there for the year. Instead I went downstairs, grabbed a cookie, and awkwardly scoped out the groups of people, looking for someone who seemed semi-inviting.

There was an older man, hovering by the refreshments and sipping coffee, who wasn’t currently in a conversation and looked—I decided—nice enough. I sidled up next to him and introduced myself. We gave basic introductions, and I quickly realized this man wasn’t a talkative type. We had some silences where I racked my brain for some conversation starter while he stood there smiling, looking off to the side.

Next week, I sought Al out again. I told him about my adventure on the bus that week, and I found out he used to ride the bus to go downtown to work. I started to get to know other members of the church, who knew who I was thanks to the house introduction during that morning’s service.

My housemates for the first semester began to remark on how late I stayed at church, where I slowly expanded the number of names and faces I began to count on. After about three weeks, I couldn’t imagine missing my Sunday morning worship where I actually listened to the sermon and I actively looked for ways to get involved. After about three months, it’s one of the main reasons I decided to stick around in Grand Rapids for another year.

Creston Christian Reformed Church—Lauren & Pastor Sean, Al & Jan, Jane, Linda, Lisa & Dave, Jess & Chris, Brad & Meg, Adam & Grace, Kathy, Mary, Andrew, Matthew, Esther, Cory—has become the first church home I’ve chosen for myself.

It was the place I kept thinking of during Kara Powell’s January Series talk about how to keep young people in the church, knowing that members of Creston were in the audience.

It’s the place that broke with me when my world fractured after my mom died unexpectedly in November. People who I know causally sent me cards and donated to the scholarship fund named after her. Pastor Sean and Lauren let me share some memories of her while their kids napped upstairs. A church elder took me out to breakfast just to let me talk about my life and share her own story of grieving her mother.

Creston has given me a much better sense of what church is supposed to feel like—a place that knocks down your self-assurances and then hands you sturdier blocks to weather the wreckings and erosions that the world inflicts on us all.

We have a new member of the Nizhoni House who moved in this semester. He went to Creston a few weeks ago, a couple days before leaving on his interim trip. After worship, as I talked to Al and Jan, I saw him sipping coffee—looking off into the distance, pretending indifference—and I re-experienced the first-visit-coffee-hour loneliness. “Hey, come meet Jan and Al,” I said.

Alexandra Johnson

Alexandra Johnson is a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She will graduate in May with a degree in English education. A native of Massachusetts, she has recently learned to love the cloudy Michigan skies and plans on teaching in the Grand Rapids area for at least a year or so. She loves reading Young Adult novels, talking to people about their writing (which is what I did when I worked at the Rhetoric Center at Calvin), trying out new recipes (especially vegetarian ones) and watching Christmas movies. In the transition from student to teacher, she hopes to learn more about seeking justice in education and engaging students to become lifelong learners and readers. She adds, “So send me some book recommendations!”

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