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It started with a direct message in the fall of 2020.

I had not been raised in the church but rather found faith in Christianity as an adult. I chose to attend a small, private Christian college in 2019 after completing Army Basic Training. It was there that the Bible was introduced to me as a source of the strength and compassion I so desperately needed to survive being away from home for the first time.

Coming into these beliefs as an adult meant that there was a lot of nuance to being Christian, which I was constantly playing catch up on. I started school just excited to be learning in a place where I would be surrounded by people who believed in the same unconditionally loving God I had come to know.

Somehow, very quickly, every aspect of the university which labeled its actions as “Christian” made me feel further from what I thought that meant to be a person of faith. Signing in to chapel began to feel like a checklist item, and the God whose presence I had once felt so clearly seemed to be alluding me.

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When the pandemic hit, I had been in my second semester and was already struggling to stay connected both to my faith and the people I was interacting with on campus.

In an effort to keep the loneliness at bay as the need for people to stay home continued, and in keeping with my “Type A” personality, I decided to double my course load in the summer and fall of 2020, take up leadership with some campus clubs, and begin volunteering for a crisis hotline. I attempted to stay occupied in the physical absence of friends and the lingering spiritual loss that I still had no remedy for.

As one might be able to predict, I began to burn out that fall. I was able to continue working from home while balancing the aforementioned responsibilities, but it usually meant I was on multiple computer screens the entire day, typically the whole week.

Any moment where I slowed down enough, the painful realities of disconnection confronted me. That fall was also the lead up to me officially coming out as a transgender man, which further complicated what I was able to make out of my relationship to God and the church.

I heard about Normal Heights United Methodist (NHUnited) from several of my university’s alumni and, as anyone raised with social media does, looked them up on Instagram. From the pride flag hanging outside the church in their profile photo to the bio that read “A progressive faith community where all are welcome, loved AND affirmed,” I thought it had to be worth a shot.

On Nov. 13, 2020, I messaged NHUnited and asked what church looked like for them given everything going on. The lead pastor, Brent Ross, responded with enthusiasm and warmth, inviting me to join their Sunday worship via Zoom. By this point, the luxury of calling in to social functions from home and the excitement of virtual backgrounds had faded entirely. When I wasn’t working, I was listening to professors ask if we could see their screen while we taught them how to use their computer. Virtual church was an exhausting prospect, and I was skeptical as to whether faith could be something that would still fit into the increasingly complex layers of my life.

I like to think it was the grace of God that not only got me to sign on for that first time in November but also carried me through every Sunday where the band’s sound would skip through the speakers into a barely audible set or the outside worship would result in brutal sunburns and mask tans as the nuances of being somewhat in the world again became clear. Every time I wondered why I kept showing up, there would be a moment that would interrupt these thoughts entirely. A member of the church would message me on Zoom to say they were glad to see me again or our pastors would talk about the God who is always already with us, whether we know it or not.

I didn’t honestly think I would ever get back to the God I had initially founded my faith on — the One who was simply with me when things felt unbearable, who rested everything on love — because I had picked up too many theological questions along the way to feel like it could be that simple. What NHUnited gave to me, in the midst of a disconnected and debilitating year, was proof that, in some ways, it is that easy.

The congregation showed me how to call the church home, even before I had ever set foot in its physical space, and helped me build a foundation to continue asking questions on, where everything was based in love.

As we continue to navigate what it means to gather safely while trying to cope with both individual and collective losses, I am confounded by the ways faith re-entered my life. All it took was a shred of hope and a willingness to imagine that God had never left; it just required a little bit of time to find a community where the theology that sustains me would fit.

Even now, living in Oceanside, it takes half an hour to reach Normal Heights on Sundays if I’m rounding down the ETA. A lingering grief and resentment are present too, as I reckon with the spiritual disconnect I faced when I needed God most in the start of this pandemic. Yet even when I laugh at the idea of trying to pray or attempt half-heartedly to call myself a believer, I find faith in the congregation. There is something divine about being known by people who act in love, who cultivate community even when screens and masks remain obstacles to connection. When I was a stranger, testing how true they were to “affirming all” any chance I got, they continued to welcome me. And somehow, I am compelled to continue showing up.

Renner is a communications specialist in Oceanside who graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University in 2021. He attends NHUnited and is an avid reader.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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