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I’m just coming off the most challenging few years of my life, and I continue to grow and be stretched and learn so much along the way. This post gets personal, but this is part of my story (albeit a very small piece of a much larger story) and I’m inviting you into it. Just so we’re clear, I don’t share it because I want pity. I’m way past that, and pity is an obstacle to what I really desire, which is transformation.
I share it because usually things need to be named before they can be transformed. Too often we fail to transform because we fail to name, and we fail to name because, as people of privilege, we especially seem to dislike the discomfort of the naming. If you’re already uncomfortable by what I just wrote, consider this your opportunity to stop reading and move on.
“How does this end,” I have wondered, “if people of faith are unwilling to stand up and boldly model a better way of political engagement? Will we continue to spin and spiral in darkness, waging war with the weapons of our murderous words until everyone is dead inside? Or will we lay down our killing words and enter life-giving conversations sharing hopeful stories about the way the world could be?”
I enter my garden to remember that life and revival can cut even through the hardest crust of winter. I enter my garden for the tactile reminder that persistent planting, watering, weeding, pruning, tending and coaxing can nourish a life-giving community of green things as they push up out of the ground. I enter my garden to see the fruit of hard work- to know that all the bending and kneeling under the heat of summer with sweat piling in the folds and creases of my skin and dripping off my chin in heavy drops, nearly always yields good things. I enter my garden when I need to be reminded of how the world can be if we work diligently towards the vision of it’s fruition.
The last few years have been like bits of gravel pocketed in my cheeks and scraping around in my mouth alongside sweet saving dollops of honey that roll around on the tongue and remind me of the goodness of life. My husband, a pastor, ran for the United States Congress. . .as a Democrat.
A Christian pastor. . .running as a Democrat. . .in West Michigan. I hardly need to spell out for the readers of this journal how that went. We knew it would be a difficult experience given that we live in a predominantly white, Christian, conservative Republican community. We never imagined the extent of the vile things that would casually dribble from the mouths of the people around us.
Needless to say, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my knees in the garden as of late.
By the end of what surely was the most divisive and tumultuous U.S. election season my generation has ever experienced, we had moved out of our house twice because of concerns of violence and harassment at our home, on a regular basis people drove by our house slowly with the windows down shouting obscenities before peeling off with a roar.
Several families in our Christian school community made it clear through emails, anonymous snail mail, Facebook messages, and icy stares that our family was unwelcome and unwanted at “their” school. Our kids endured more than I care to write about here. We were slandered in unmentionable and dehumanizing ways, even some local pastors told us straight up that we were not Christians if we voted for Democrats.
Strangers on Facebook — people who had never met us or engaged in meaningful dialogue with us — wrote monstrous heart-stopping words about our family and took giddy pleasure in publicly boasting about all the ugly things they would like to do to us — including how they would have their way with me and my then eleven year old daughter.
Why? Because there was a “D” beside my husband’s name, and that was enough to justify vilification. There was no end to the violent, poisonous, and dehumanizing rhetoric — including by self professed Christians.
Throughout history, dehumanizing labels and rhetoric have always been a precursor to justifying violence. Always. And so it was so very difficult to realize that this kind of cruelty was lurking underneath so many of the polite and well-manicured faces that moved among us.
Thank God, our family also experienced overwhelming support from friends, other parents at the school too terrified to publicly let anyone else know they voted for Democrats, other pastors, other Republicans, and our kids’ teachers — so many people who loved us and stood by us through all of it. Without that significant community of support we would have never survived the struggle. They say you find true community in difficult times, and this proved true for us. This has been the honey of the last few years.
Last spring, my friend, Shane Claiborne, hammered out the barrel of a gun and transformed it into a beautiful garden trowel for me. He is literally turning weapons into garden tools. Gripping the carved wooden handle and plunging it into the hot summer soil became a repetitive symbolic reminder that we are called to be people of life and hope — not death and destruction. We are called to throw light at the darkness, to dish out love to those who slam us with hatred. We are called to embody God’s way of shalom in the midst of a cruel and chaotic world. We are called to self sacrifice in the service of others — not to sacrifice others in service of ourselves and our selfish power gains.
Gardening has become a meditative, contemplative practice where I’ve learned to intentionally examine the workings inside myself and begin the work of easing out the hatred that hides in the corners of my own heart — a hatred that tempts me to draw a sword and swing back. Here I am learning to appreciate and name the good in even those who seek to hurt my family. Here in the silence of the garden, God seems always present and always whispering to me the reminder that violence nearly always begets violence whether we are talking about global warfare or a war of words intended to wound and kill, and that God calls us to step away from it.
Daily I find myself in the garden where all my grief and angst gets worked out as I knead tears and compost into the soil of the garden beds and into the soil of my soul, where I bury seeds alongside my scars, and wait to see what grows. In my moments of anger I tear the flesh of destructive and invasive weeds out of the ground before they overshadow the good things growing. This has been holy, sacred healing work that uproots the anger in me too. I have learned that it takes time for the vision of hope and possibility to emerge transformed, to push roots into the nutrients and stretch its arms straight up, grabbing fistfuls of sun and mulch on its way to the sky.
Imagine what would be possible if we had the strength and humility to beat our partisan weapons into plowshares and work together — side by side in the garden — towards reformation and transformation of the systems that determine how we live together. Imagine if we held up a vision of a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and we threw ourselves into the work of making it so?
The more time I spend in the garden, the more I sense the Spirit of God hovering inside me, and the more deeply a peace that passes understanding begins to take root and grow in me, even as this wild spiteful storm seems to be following our family. The more I experience God’s peace, the more I find myself able to let go of the grief and pity that I had been feeling for myself and the easier it becomes to transform it into prayers that God’s Spirit would work in the hearts of those who seek to harm. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. So I guess it’s a transformation of hearts that I’m really praying for — a transformation of mine, of theirs, and of the whole wide world.
Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash
Thank you for sharing this with us. So many connections with scripture. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings. . . . ” Did St Paul imagine families sharing that suffering with Christ? I expect eventually he did. St. Peter certainly did, as we can tell from his epistles. Thank you, Berghoefs, for your costly witness.
It has been an honor to get to know you these past 4 years and stand with you in our community. You have been a blessing to Keith and I and have introduced us to a wonderful community of people who are dedicated to the Common Good! Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this painful, inspirational piece. You are a witness of God’s power in your life. It gives me courage to continue to be obedient to what God is calling me to be. I pray God continues to uphold you by his mighty power!
As a non believer I am grateful for the courage of many Christians , such as you, who stood strong in the last four years of topsy turvy craziness. It seems as if our tribal nature, far from life affirming, brought out the worst of us regardless of our belief system.
I was so hopeful when I saw that your husband was running against the congressman whose choices I almost always disagree with. Thank you for your (and his) courage.
I read The Atlantic essay, The New Puritans, prior to reading your essay.
God is surely weeping, as our mouths spew forth and reveal what is in our hearts.
Thank you for your honesty, graciousness and hope.
Thank you for this, Christy. Thank your husband as well. Know that there are many who stand with you in spirit and wish they could do more.
Your strength and continuing commitment to the gospel of peace is crucial. I confess that the vitriol within the Reformed community has weakened my belief in the transformative power of the gospel. Your example gives me hope.
Your words tear at my heart as I place what happened to you next to what has continued to happen at schools, including Christian schools in West Michigan, with volunteer school boards and administrators accused by constituents of siding with the devil and bound for hell because of their decisions to protect teachers and children. How much better if there had been less shouting and more listening, intentional effort to cultivate Christ-likeness instead of accusatory fury. Thank you for exposing a sliver of the price your family paid for wanting to serve. It makes one wonder if honorable men and women will take the chance of enduring this in the future. May we all seek the prayerful calm of God’s peace and may it, indeed, continue to grow in us.
It is a rare privilege to be able to glimpse into the heart of faith and witness the Spirit’s transforming power. It is also a challenge. I have a few weeds to pull.
Thank you for sharing this part of your story here, Christy, and in the way that you did — courageously, honestly, and in a way that seeks transformation — your own and others’. I’m so sorry you and your family went through this. I’m so grateful you’re part of this community.
Thank you for your witness to God’s shalom in the midst of chaos and hatred, and to the transformation only the Great Love can cultivate in our hearts out of the soil of pain and sacrifice. Your labor is not in vain.
Thanks so much for mustering the strength and courage to write this reflection of your experiences. I can’t agree more that transformation can only occur if we engage in the process of naming, beginning with ourselves and also in the context of community. And in no small measure, the opportunity to be part of Bryan’s campaign initiated a fruitful process of reflection and of transformation for which I am profoundly grateful.
Jesus tells us it’s not up to us to judge the wider world. But it is manifestly up to us to discern within and judge the would-be Christian community. The Apostle Paul, for instance, seemed to think the art of rebuke would be routinely practiced within the church. As such, it is exceedingly hard to see how we cannot judge some of the West Michigan church–and not a few of its pastors–as having fallen so far from the Christ-like mark as to come very close to those whose lips praise God but whose hearts are far from him. As with the hollow sacrifices of Israel, so also many worship services led by pastors who spoke to your husband and family as they did and attended by hate-filled apparatchiks can but nauseate a holy and just God. To extend your gardening metaphor, some churches need to go the way of the Isaiah 5 vineyard.
“Yea and Amen!” as the King James English would suggest.
Christy, thank you for this, and for showing us ways to deal with our own anger and fury at those who are so filled with hate.
I write solely to add my name in support. Everything else I thought to write has been written. Thank you for this.
Thank you, Christy! What a brave, beautiful, inspiring piece this is to read. As a Christian and a Democrat and a Christian school teacher in the same community of which you speak, I am so, so sorry for all that you and your family have been through. However, my wife and I are also proud to work in the same garden as you and your family. What strength and courage you all have shown. It has been an ugly couple of years in this community that claims to follow Christ, but there are still so many gardeners truly working in his name, and in spite of it all, the garden still grows.
The moral dilemma that you and really all of us face, Mark, is whether to hold our peace or respond boldly to the abuse and thereby risk stoking the fires of hate and possibly making the division even more final. I hear Scott opting for the latter, if I understand him rightly.
Thank you Christy for sharing your soul wrenching pain. While I vote Republican I’m really more an independent. Either way my heart breaks at the division in our country right now and wonder where it will lead. I am comforted by the history of God leaving a remnant and that goodness will prevail over darkness. And Annie Dillards words. “If you want to see the stars you will have to go out into the dark” ( I hope I got that right.) Praying for that peace that passes understanding and let it begin with me.
I’m not a gardener now, but I appreciate your analogy (and practice). And I write with profound admiration for your ability to put into words what needs to be said (and practiced) re civility in the face of hateful speech and actions that attacked your family–even your children. I doubt I could have been nearly as resilient as you have had to be. Please know that there is a great cloud of us out here who are deeply grateful for your presence in this community, your commitment to justice and love, your gifts of writing and photography, and your kind spirit. Thank you.
Thank goodness for the garden teacher and Gods grace! Thanks for sharing!
Christy, I have known you, I believe, for almost ten years and have always witnessed your consistent faithfulness, courage, and tenderness. Thank you for this!
Thank you for letting us know, and blessings to you, your husband, and your family. Whatever community was once there–and here–has been ripped horribly by obscene politics and stubborn hate. Lord, have mercy. Promise us, you will keep showing us beauty–such a wonderful gift–with that camera of yours.
Thank you, my dear friend, for everything. You are brave in sharing your experience and your thoughts. Your words challenge me and give me a lot to think about.
Sending love from the UK .
Fifty years ago, a rock came crashing through our picture window one night, thrown by an enraged teenager. As principal of the Christian high school, Dad must have meted out some form of discipline. I’ll never forget how frightened my mom was that day.
Teenage anger and impulsively can be dangerous but understandable. Christian adults? Ordained pastors? Appalling and inconceivable. I’m so sorry for what your family endured.
Thanks so much for this sharing.. I know you know that you are not alone. Grateful for the supportive community you do have. We have experienced similar challenges in our community as we voted Democratic this year, and have found the democratic values and goals to be more aligned with what Jesus would do. It truly is unbelievable what people who call themselves Christ followers are capable of saying and doing to their brothers and sisters
May your Kingdom comeLord and YOUR will be done
As an expat living in Canada for going on 33 years, I’ve been appalled, as have many Canadians, witnessing the political and ecclesiastical scene in the US. Having grown up in Western Michigan and understanding its culture, I’m not surprised, though. The period of the 1960s was no picnic either—especially if you grew up in an immigrant family with parents who were Democrats, were fully committed to civil rights, despised blind nationalism, and had much more cosmopolitan view of things.