“There’s no place for me,” I pointed out to the church staff member who was manning the small group sign-up table. I had walked down the long table of groups, desperate to find a place for a 28-year-old newly widowed mother of a newborn and twin toddlers.
“Well, we have a widowed group over here,” he pointed to the 50+ table. I didn’t fit in.
“And we have the couples with young children over here,” he added. But I didn’t fit in.
“And we have the singles groups over here,” he held up the table. I didn’t fit in.
I discovered early on in my young-and-widowed-and-single-parent journey I was in a group all my own. I went from church to church desperate to find my community, my village, the support for hurting, broken people who I always hear preached about. At every new church I found myself in a swarm of people smiling and chatting in groups, sipping their coffee-making plans for family brunch, and I never felt more alone than I did surrounded by hundreds of people. I felt abandoned. I felt forgotten.
Don’t get me wrong, many believers came to my family’s aid as my husband was dying of cancer and I was about to deliver our third child. Meals and money showed up at our door almost every day. I know churches around the country were praying for us. My children never went without clothing on their backs or a roof over their head. After the dust settled, after the funeral, after the condolence flowers shriveled up and died, the flood of support trickled to a stop.
But I had only just begun this journey. I had only begun to feel the weight of the burden placed upon my shoulders. It didn’t end after the funeral, it got heavier. It wasn’t the finances, it wasn’t the groceries, it wasn’t the meals or the housecleaning that made me feel like I was drowning; no, it was the stone of utter aloneness that pulled me under. I felt it every time I kissed my children goodnight and climbed into a cold, uninviting bed on my own. I felt it every time friends posted on Facebook about how much fun they had at couple’s night, or on their family vacation, or the girl’s night no one invited me to because who would want the sad girl at their party? And I felt it the most when I’d sit by myself at church, watching the husband in front of me put his arm around his wife as the preacher encouraged his congregation to support and give to the missionaries serving the widows and orphaned across the sea. But they couldn’t see and they didn’t know I was there, desperately needing someone, anyone, to see me gasping for air.
When time passed and I began to gain my footing again, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt alone at church. I began to look around the sanctuary and wonder, “How many other widowed and single moms, aren’t sitting here because they feel like there’s no place for them? How many are here and won’t com back next Sunday?”
It’s not that I didn’t try. It’s not that we don’t try. We wanted to go to the women’s conference but couldn’t because either it was too expensive to pay for a sitter for the weekend or we left early because the keynote speaker went on and on about the struggles of laundry and spray tans and we just couldn’t relate. I tried several small groups. I tried the group for widows where I found solidarity for a moment, but couldn’t juggle childcare, exhaustion and the feeling of not being in the same life season as a young mom. I tried the singles’ groups but only ended up feeling singled out as they planned happy hours and weekends away in the freedom of the “single life”. I tried the couples with young children groups, but the glances at my naked ring finger and wrangling three kids by myself were too much to handle. At one church, we single moms even tried to get a small group going, but we still had to figure out how to get there, feed our kids and try to find someone to watch them so we could get one hour of conversation with other adults. I tried to get a small group going for widowed parents and ran into the same snags. Both groups fizzled out because how can people who all need life preservers help each other swim?
I almost gave up. I almost gave up on church altogether. I almost just accepted that I was just alone and didn’t fit in. But I didn’t give up and you shouldn’t either.
I started to change my perspective.
I started to see that maybe God was using this aloneness to tap into the loneliness of others. To encourage me to turn suffering into service. To encourage me to ask for help and not assume everyone can see the invisible neon sign that was blinking “please help me I’m a widowed mom by myself” that I was SURE everyone could see . . . but they couldn’t; they didn’t know because I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to be a charity case, and I didn’t want people to include me just because they felt sorry for me. And because I didn’t want all that, that meant that I needed to care first. I needed to be the first so say, “Hello.” I needed to serve someone else before expecting to be served. I needed to give first before expecting to be given to. I needed to be brave and meet with leaders in the church to tell them my struggles and my awareness of the struggles of others in the same boat as me, even if that vulnerability might mean disappointment and further feelings of abandonment if the church couldn’t help with whatever was needed most at the time. I needed to remember that current disappointment might be God’s sign to start the ministry that no one else knew was needed.
Church might, and probably will, let you down at some point, but God will not and has not. Please, mama, don’t give up on church even if it feels like they’ve given up on you. They’re just people. They just don’t know how to help. They. Just. Don’t. Know. We’re here to show them how and let God do the rest.