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I moved to a new school as a sophomore in high school, and I was assigned the worst locker. I rode the bus at that time, and got deposited at school at least 30 minutes before the bell rang. As you can imagine, the first thing I did each day was visit my locker to ditch my winter coat. (I’ve written about this season of life before, and about my coat.) Stopping at my locker took about two minutes, and left me a dry, barren desert of time to fill before classes started.
I had the worst locker assignment because it was at the far end of the building, nearest the cafeteria, the gym, and our auditorium. It was all gritty, cold linoleum there, kind of wind-gusted and echoey with its lack of student assemblage. Really no one hung out by those lockers— and I did not want to be no one. I’d stuff my coat away and head in the direction of the morning student murmur coming from the locker-lined hallways that wrapped around the two-story block of classrooms that constituted the school’s main learning area.
To think of that daily stroll now still gives me a queasy feeling. I say stroll because I really was trying to casually meander through the halls. It seemed important to act like I had a destination, though I should never hurry. I shouldn’t hurry because I really had nowhere to go, and if I hurried I’d end up back where I’d started, and would have to wander the exact halls again, still trying to look like I had a purpose and a place.
As I walked, I also tried to look friendly- even approachable. Maybe kids would think I was headed in the direction of friends. The halls would become gradually more crowded, people gathering in groups of 4 or 5 at one locker or another. I am sure they were discussing important teenage matters, prepping for a new day in the angsty grind. I noticed that some students also sat, slouched, and even sprawled on the carpet that covered those floors. Some did homework or slept; one kid was always scribbling on their brown paper-bag book cover.
I, however, walked. And, I tried not to draw attention to myself. And, I tried to look “fine” in case someone I knew tried to make eye contact, or greet me. It was a precarious, exhausting balance; an uncomfortable way to start every day. In the most obvious ways, I did not yet belong.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I found ourselves looking for a home church. With our strong RCA roots, we figured those were the churches to try- no small task in Holland, Michigan. It was a long, fumbling process, and after many months of varied experiences, we threw up our hands and decided to attend the church that we could walk to, since we only had one car and my husband did a lot of weekend traveling and preaching.
It wasn’t a bad choice for a church. At all. (We have now attended our church for almost 17 years!) But in those early days, each week when worship ended, for the first time in a long, long time I found myself feeling the same kind of dread I felt those mornings wandering the halls of my new school.
It was all my husband and I could do to muster the strength and courage to walk to the fellowship room and confront the vast conference of people we did not know standing in clumps, chatting over tiny cups of mediocre coffee. Every week we were painfully aware that we did not yet belong.
Even my husband, who seems almost a professional extrovert, would look warily to me for the affirmative nod that we would, indeed, be heading into the coffee room. We would essentially gird up our loins and walk in with all the false bravado of people who know no one, but plan to act like they have direction and someone to talk to.
At the time, our church even had a pastor whose true gift and thus, responsibility, was to help new attendees integrate. He would wander through the crowd, sometimes snaring a member or two, and drag them in our direction. Some polite conversation would follow.
This all went on for what felt like years, especially for this introvert. 17 years later, and many ‘casually’ wandered halls, followed by endless polite conversations, I would do it all again.
These dreaded hours direct us to the place we need to be.
It is not easy to walk into new places, filled with unknowns, but we do it because we long to be known. In fact, we are meant to be known, made to be known. God created us for relationship, and we simply cannot help but go looking for that thing which we crave.
Of course, I had no choice but to go to that new school and awkwardly saunter my way toward relationship, but it did happen. There are friends there, still. Choosing to go to a new church (or countless other new places) may seem more optional, but I think we’re usually pursuing that same old craving, to be, and belong, with others. As hard as it feels at the outset, we always do it.
Perhaps the word to end with is this: if you are very settled and very comfortable, happy in your relationships, good (great, actually!)— but remember to look around and make eye contact with a wanderer; pour them a cup of coffee, and gosh, maybe even give them a hug.
Header photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash
Lockers photo by Randy Laybourne on Unsplash
Hugging photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash
Coffee photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Lyle Schaller said the loneliest time for a visitor to a church is immediately after the Benediction. Everyone stands and gets in the greeting line and strikes up conversations with people they know. Meanwhile you, the visitor are standing alone and feel just as you described so well, Katy. Schaller’s prescription was for the congregation to be reminded of this again and again and to be deliberate not to greet friends but to seek out the visitor and offer companionship. Ignore your friends! Seek out someone needing one.
Communication or relationship is a two way proposition. I have looked someone into his eyes, extended my hand and said “Greetings: I would like to introduce myself”. I have yet to be denied a smile and a pleasant reception. It has initiated many interesting and profound conversations.
So visceral, this. It hurts my heart, reading about your high school self… so ripe for belonging but unmet by structuring that could have facilitated that deep human need. Wonder if gathering places were set up to facilitate Belonging for All rather than serving those who already belong. Thank you for writing about this painful terrain, so human.
I love your writing. You offer so many connections to my life.
I’ve always found it easier, for all it requires, to be the one who preaches at a church service than to be the one who happens to be visiting that church for worship. To be asked as a visitor to stand (as was sometimes done in the old days) I found more discomforting than to be the one standing in the pulpit.
Thank you for this, Katy.