“Everyone has problems,” I hear. Then why must we feel so alone in them?
Like the recent devastating fires in Northern California, disasters destroy homes and families when hours before all was well. Health problems, job problems, money problems, marriage problems, parenting problems, family problems— these crises can arrive without warning too.
My husband and I slid into crisis while living in Marin County, California, atop of an American Dream. We had the great job with the pretty house at the base of Mount Tamalpais, just a bike ride from San Francisco Bay. We had three kids within three years, two dogs, two cats and two reptiles. But on many days, our house felt as if it were on fire. Our oldest child’s illness evolved over a period of several years, encompassing us and throwing us into a storm of uncertainty. He had open-heart surgery, then an arrhythmia, then new health challenges. He struggled to make sense of the social world, to tolerate departures from home, to filter out sounds, motions, and movements of everyday life. For years I had difficulty sleeping, breathing, tracking him or my other kids or any adult conversation. I struggled to find a person to call, to remain positive, to cope with crisis.
The rest of our details are irrelevant for my purpose here. But the life-altering surprise came as I learned how few people and organizations were equipped to help families and children in crisis. In Marin there was a shortage of compassion, time, and love. There were lots of medications and expensive therapists available. There were plenty of books. But there were few unpaid arms around us. Who had the time in gorgeous Marin County to slow down, to understand a child and family struggling? When we went to our school district, to preschools, to public and private schools— doors slammed. Schools had test scores and budgets. Families had soccer schedules, ballet lessons and play dates. My hands shook. I woke afraid and ashamed many days. How would we go anywhere? How would we get help?
Not surprisingly, we wanted church. But at our first church, families excluded us. One devout Christian woman I’ll name Marlene called me to request that we not attend a Christmas performance for children because “Your son will distract the other children.” I believe he was six at the time. Crying, I didn’t reply for a moment. “At least I have the guts to say it. Everyone else feels the same,” she added. When I shared my discouragement with the pastor, he advised that my family’s problems were my fault. I had too high of expectations, he said.
So we left that church.
Then we visited this place on San Pedro Road in San Rafael, California. Inside I saw a stage, a red curtain, an electric guitarist, a drummer, a singer, some Bibles, a cross, and a gathering of funky and not funky looking people. Strange. They called this church. Bay Marin Community Church. Grownups sang and chattered. Kids appeared happy and imperfect, jumping and jiggling to the beat.
People welcomed us, but not in a suspiciously sweet way. Not in the way that provokes one to race away from church. These folks acted like they’d already met us. They didn’t ask what we believed, where we worked, whom we knew. They behaved as if my imperfect family, in a long-term crisis, were (unbelievably) acceptable.
Single, married, young, middle-aged and older people sang. Doctors, nurses, writers, artists, bankers, policemen and teachers prayed. People of all colors gathered. Cushy, comfy couches lined the front rows. A cappuccino machine waited at the door.
The pastor David Cobia played electric guitar, dressed in jeans and funky glasses. He spoke to the congregation as if we were equal, learning about God together. The assistant pastor Matt Krick (who months later became the lead pastor) was kind, serious, passionate about God, and modestly hip looking. He and his wife came from the Grand Rapids, Michigan area— my hometown.
It got better. My kids loved that church. Nobody complained about my boy—in fact, kids befriended him immediately. Before long, we were dining with a bunch of church members weekly, singing, reading Scripture, sharing different viewpoints and lifestyles. We were filled with love.
Six years later, after a short time living in Connecticut (and more rotten school experiences,) my family resides in Zürich, Switzerland. Our son flourishes now partly because we’ve found another inclusive place— a school that I’ve written about on Huffpost. And though we’re working on the church part, these days we’re far from lonely.
I choose to write about Bay Marin today because not surprisingly, the Marin IJ reported that they’re a leader among those who provided relief to victims of the recent Northern California fires. My friends at Bay Marin weren’t just praying and requesting attendance at their church. Though their immediate community wasn’t hit by the fires, they didn’t go on with fun….no, they made space for people in need. They paused their incredible lives and waited for the ones left behind by the fires. They converted their church into a relief center, identifying detailed needs, soliciting donations, delivering goods, and overflowing with food, supplies, love, and prayers.
You can read more about relief efforts of Bay Marin and other houses of worship here— But meanwhile, after the fires, I hope that Bay Marin inspires the rest of us to stock-up on a simple commodity— love. I know, corny. But this invaluable resource isn’t always easy to find. The ability to dish out love when it’s not convenient is rare and underrated, in schools, in communities and even in churches.
Plenty of families still trudge around beautiful California, here in Switzerland, and worldwide. They’re struggling for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they’re seeking your church, your school. Maybe they’re seeking you.