I think these days, the church, and "Christians" tend to have a reputation for being a bit judgemental, a bit holier-than-thou, a bit unpleasant to encounter. The media, government and recent stories regarding women's roles and gay marriage in the church haven't done much for their reputation. When I posted yesterday about going to church, someone commented on my Facebook post saying I should join a community group whose purpose wasn't to brainwash children instead.
I have to say though, my experience does not live up to this bad reputation.
On the day I split up with S's father, there was a knock on the door - the post man had a parcel to deliver. The post man happened to be a man who had run a church youth group I attended briefly when I was 15. He remembered me; we chatted in my living room for a while, and I told him what I was up to these days: "well, I've just had a baby, and now her father's left me so I guess I'm a single mum..." After he left, he found me on Facebook and sent a message saying he wanted to help me if he could.
Within a week a friend of his from church had come round and painted a wall and ceiling upstairs that had been damaged by water leaking through the roof. I had offers of help with carpet laying and all sorts, and one evening when I was paranoid S was ill because she was so sleepy and wouldn't wake up, the post man even drove us to the hospital and waited while a nurse checked S over. All of this from what can have been no longer than a summer attending his youth group.
Before I had my breakdown, I used to go to the gym every morning. At that time of day, you always see the same faces and two of the faces I saw were Mary and Hugh. They weren't a couple, just people who knew each other. They were both close to retirement age, and not at the gym to pump iron or whatever; just to keep active. As I too became a familiar face, they both made a point of always saying hello to me. When Hugh arrived in the mornings he would always make a point of coming over to whichever piece of equipment I was on, and having a brief chat. Nothing deep and meaningful, just "hi, how are you today" pleasantries. Later, at the end of my workout, I would do my stretches on one of the mats next to Mary as she went through a series of exercises she seemed to do every single day. I gathered they were both Christians, purely because they mentioned church from time to time.
When I started to get sick, I was signed off work for a while but I tried to keep up my gym routine. Mary noticed that I was arriving at the gym later in the mornings now, often just getting to the changing rooms as she was getting ready to leave. She mentioned it, and I told her I'd been signed off work with stress. I don't know what I expected from her, a middle-aged Christian who puts across an air of simplicity but is actually extremely intelligent and caring, but what I got was the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given me: "Be kind to yourself, Vicky." I still see Mary all the time; she works in an office at the end of my street. She is always smiling, always says hello. When we both have time, we will stop for a chat. She is always positive, always encouraging. I always leave a conversation with her feeling incredibly positive and grounded.
And as for Hugh, I bumped into him in town a few months after S was born. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and we had a brief catch-up. He told me he was retired now, and enjoying doing a lot of volunteer work for the church and various other community projects. He gave me his card and said he hoped we would stay in touch.
Both Mary and Hugh seem entirely devoid of ego. When we were attending the gym together, Mary was studying hard to finish her Open University degree, while training on the treadmill with weights in a backpack so as prepare herself for a trekking holiday she was hoping to take. She showed no pride in her many accomplishments; she was just doing what she did. At that time Hugh was working for the MoD; as far as I could tell he had been involved with the services for a while in one way or another. Occasionally one would get a glimpse of Hugh the business man, as he complained to the gym that the lack of hot water was not acceptable. I think I saw that twice, in over a year of seeing him almost every morning. Every morning he would come over to me, say good morning, ask how I was, maybe ask about something I'd told him about the last time we spoke. We would compare notes on the exercises we'd been given by our personal trainers and laugh about how neither of us could do the balancing moves they always had us attempting. They both made a point of coming over to me and saying "wow, you're really getting better at that exercise aren't you" or "wow I could never do that" or compliment me on how much weight I'd lost or something else.
These are the Christians I have encountered in my life, and these are the sort of people I want S to have in her life.