During our Bethany Stories series, we’re hearing stories about our namesake, a town outside Jerusalem where Jesus’ friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived. We’re also hearing stories from our Bethany, especially from the past year.
On Sunday June 2nd, we heard four stories. One of them came from Bethany Arrington who first came to Bethany UCC only back in March (do you remember praying with sandpaper?). She’s an artist, an actor, a nanny (her smarty-pants kiddo says “glorified chauffeur”), and a new Sunday regular.
Here’s Bethany’s Bethany story:
The irony is not lost on me. I had been quite sure there was no church for me and this one has my name plastered on the front so when my future mother-in-law suggested we attend Bethany United Church of Christ she said (and I quote), “I think this Vince guy knows what he’s talking about and plus it’s your name! You have to go!” She knew that Alex, my fiance, and I had been searching for a new spiritual home. To Alex attending Bethany seemed like a no-brainer plus his mom suggested it! We have to go! I was not so sure.
When we stepped into Bethany for the first time I remember being greeted by the nicest gentleman and being handed a small sheet of sandpaper. I remember feeling relieved that Alex would have something to fiddle with during the service so I could focus on not having a panic attack and wait to catch someone judging what I was wearing. I was used to the subtle judgement one feels attending a new church. But, surprisingly, I didn’t catch anyone staring at me or my outfit. Instead I was overwhelmed with the hospitality and warmth of the congregation during the offering of the peace. You guys love to give peace! You practically jumped over those pews to shake Alex and I’s hand. I was also struck by the beautiful front altar and those stained glass windows. I was again surprised at finding myself comfortable in a church so unlike the one I grew up in.
I was raised non-denominational and in a mega church. Yes, think electric guitar, fog machine, rock-out-to-Jesus type worship with witty yet conservative sermons. Think sleek walls, three huge projector screens with aggressive graphics, and women not allowed in the proverbial pulpit.
When I moved to Chicago in 2011 for college I never would have attended a place like Bethany. I was desperately homesick and sought out a church like the one I grew up in. I ended up in a growing, non-denominational church in the Loop complete with the electric guitars and witty sermons. After college I devoted a lot of time volunteering there and they even hired me to teach and lead worship for their vacation bible school.
But I kept a lot of my life hidden from my “church family.” I didn’t tell them I affirm LGBTQ people, and always have. Even though I’m a professional actor, and my art is a huge part of my identity, I didn’t invite anyone to my shows, specifically ones where I kissed other women or swore even though I have a bit of a potty mouth in “real life.” I carefully skirted around my dating life, my political beliefs, and the people I spent my time with scared that church wouldn’t accept them or me. I sensed it wasn’t totally safe to say or be those things. I sensed there were lots of unspoken rules, and lots of strict ideology not on their website. I’d assumed for a long time this is what you did with people from church. Who the heck knows what plays might offend their pure Christian sensibilities? I get it. But the Creator I knew in my heart didn’t want people to be alone, to hide themselves. We are built for community but how can we safely enter community when judgement is one of the foundational blocks?
So after a few years of fear and subtle judgement in that other congregation I simply walked away and never went back. I was tired and scared and 8 months later when Alex and I walked into Bethany it was a big step for me. I think Alex was eager to make a new memory...to prove that church wasn’t always scary. He believed that we could find a church home accepting of all peoples in all places of life doing all sorts of things--including being artists who do plays that maybe aren’t “church appropriate" all the time. That we could find a place where I didn’t have to hide parts of myself. I talked to pastor Rebecca after our first service and Alex made me share a little of what had happened at the last church. Rebecca cut me off, “you’re tired of all the things that aren’t on the website” she said, her eyes warm and understanding. “You’re tired of not knowing if you’ll be accepted.” I felt so seen, so heard, and, most importantly, safe. The judgment I had become accustomed to had no home between these walls. It was obvious. I could bring my full self to Bethany UCC and I have. Thank you.