A few weeks ago I was sitting in my social work senior seminar class on the 82 degree day. We were on the third floor of a very hot building and our assignment for class was to partner up, go outside for a walk or sit in the sunshine and take turns talking. We were tasked to talk for 7 minutes straight about termination. We were to talk about termination in our internships, classes, friendships, places, campus and how we felt about it all. As social workers, we usually are tasked with listening and asking questions- but not this time. This time we were to talk the whole 7 minutes with no interruptions and the other person just to listen. I partnered up with my friend Olivia who I met in my very first class EVER at UNH. She went first and started talking about all the places, supports, and people she was going to say goodbye to and how she’s starting to rumble with that. As I sat there listening I related to many of the things she was talking about. One that really hit me was when she talked about her church community. When she said that, I realized that I, too, would be saying goodbye to a church community. I would be leaving a community that has been a beloved and transformative place for me over the past 4 years of my college career. And I am here today to say goodbye, yes, but I am here more to say thank you. I want to say thank you to the community church of Durham for the blessing that you have been on me the past 4 years.
Some of you in the congregation have seen me around, some have reached out and gotten to know me a little, others, this may be the first time you’re hearing me speak. But for anyone who knows me, they know that I am a lover of the outdoors. So in true “Kristen” fashion, I’m going to share with you a few things I am packing in my backpack as I leave Durham and entire a new chapter in my life.
Lesson 1: Thanksgiving for community. The letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians thanks the community for the support and love they have for Jesus and belief in God. Paul thanks the community for their faith. This is my first lesson; to be thankful for community. I came to UNH as an 18 year old freshmen, eager to begin college and leave behind the days of my high school. Arriving to UNH in the fall of 2013 I thought it would be an easy transition to move to a new place, easy to make friends and find my place. It wasn’t. I struggled making friends that year and finding a place that I felt truly welcomed. I remember sitting in my bedroom on the phone, probably crying, to my mom and she suggested I go down the street to the Community Church of Durham. I hesitated and said “but what if it isn’t like our church at home.” I’m pretty sure she laughed and said something like “so what?” So that next Sunday I woke up and walked down the street into the front doors. I sat in the back corner and Pastor Mary preached about the Earth and how we can do justice for the Earth we live on. I looked around the church and it felt so good to be in a place where I could sing and praise freely with fellow members on the journey. I have continued to come since that Sunday 4 years ago. Every spring I moved away from Durham, and when fall came back around I was always excited to come ‘home’ to Durham Church because it felt like home to me. The white building with inviting flags, the greeters who welcomed me in, the life the sanctuary took on during passing of the peace. Durham church became a piece of my home in Durham and it wouldn’t feel like that if it weren’t for the community you have all built here. Through the many sermons I have heard Mary preach, the children’s stories from various church members, songs by the lovely choir and the children, I have learned to be thankful for this community and to be thankful for so much more. This church has become one of my own personal sanctuaries; a place where I can be myself, seek God, seek community, laugh, cry, and learn. This community is special and not like any on the UNH campus for me. I come to learn and worship in a community I feel welcomed by. I’m packing Thanksgiving.
Lesson 2. Just as Mary preached on Earth Justice that first Sunday many years ago, I have heard handfuls more of justice-filled sermons here. My favorite thing about the United Church of Christ is the mission for justice. Topics like LGTBQ+ rights, black lives matter, earth justice, refugees, and women’s rights are all areas I never thought much about until I started college. And throughout my development in social work I learned more about these important issues, but I feel that it was mostly learning these issues through the lens of my faith that really shaped my passion for them. Every time I tell someone about the church I go to I share with them that “it’s the church with the rainbow or earth flag hanging outside,” because often there’s a negative connotation attached with churches and my generation. But I’m proud to go to a church that is welcoming of people for who they are. I’m proud to go to a church that takes steps to protect the environment. I would brag to my church in Vermont about how the Durham church hung a rainbow flag and pushed my pastor to hang one up at our opening and affirming church. It wasn’t until the Orlando tragedy last summer that one was hung, and although it was stolen several times, people in our community at home donated them to be replaced and hung up each time it was ripped down. I’ve learned to wear my ‘black lives matter’ pin with pride, standing up for the movement when people question me. I’ve learned to explain how God loves us as we are, no matter who we love or how we view ourselves. I’ve learned to spread love through justice in remembering that women in the Bible did amazing things and Jesus valued the women he met on his journey. I’m packing with me a wider knowledge of social justice and an eagerness to learn and advocate more in my future endeavors.
Lesson 3: Trusting the unknown. I’ve searched out a community of faith everywhere I have traveled to over these past 4 years. After my first year at UNH I spent the summer in Atlanta, Georgia working with youth groups coming for service mission trips. I helped send kids and adults out to local agencies to learn about the history and serve the population. I also helped guide worship and teach Biblical lessons in the evenings of this program. The girls I met all had a faith that was rooted in the southern Baptist church. Being in the south as the only person North of the Carolina’s, I learned quickly about many different types of churches. Although I was working at a faith-based program, I felt incredibly distant from my faith. Again, I called my mom and shared my frustrations about this and she told me she knew somebody who went to 1 of the 2 UCC church’s in Atlanta. I met somebody who picked me up Sunday mornings and took me to church and through this small connection, I felt rooted in a community again. I learned so much that summer about trusting the unknown and the unfamiliar, and I vowed to not experience that again. Luckily, I experienced it again the next Spring when I studied abroad in Scotland- a place where I lacked and missed a faith community so deeply. I was gifted to come home from my semester missing church to the most amazing summer camp. I applied to Horton Center while I was abroad and was terrified to start working at a place I never had been before. To my surprise, it became one of the most amazing places I have ever been. It was unfamiliar, unknown, scary, and I felt a little uninvited the first few days. But among the beauty of the mountains and treetops and the ever present presence of God, I fell in love with a community and haven’t left since. I am thrilled to be serving Horton Center again this summer and hope each of you look in to attending camp.
Just as I was nervous to come to church that first Sunday 4 years ago, I learned to trust that the community would welcome me in and teach me. I trusted that each place I have gone would do the same thing. The future is full of unknowns for me, a graduating senior, yet, I am not afraid of the unknown. I have full confidence in my trust that the Spirit will lead me to where I am most needed, a gift I learned through my faith journey and Durham church has been a very important part of that journey. I am packing a sense of readiness for the future.
Lesson 4: The people I have met along this journey. I would not be who I am without the people I have met these past 4 years. My friends at UNH, professors, roommates (both bad and great), clergy folk, Larry from Waysmeet, Pastor Mary, the folks at Durham Community Church, Lana, a college student I met here at the church, and so many more. Through these people I have learned the true meaning of selflessness, passion, and the impact a single person has. I learned to grow in my faith by asking questions and seeking out relationships with others. I learned that each person I encounter day to day has a lesson to give me and it is my job to appreciate each small interaction as much as the larger ones.
Without the relationships I have made over the past 4 years, I would be a drastically different person. The people I have met have helped guide and inspire me in ways I can barely put in to words. Because of my time in Atlanta, Georgia, I felt I could live 4 months away from home in another country. Because of the risk taking I did abroad, I applied to Horton Center. And because of the people I met at Horton Center, like Rev. Mollie, I have succeeded and surpassed my own expectations in all areas of my life. The inspiration and support I have felt from my guiding mentors has been so important. Through these relationships I have learned to take risks, try new things, and face rejection. When Rev. Mollie shared the news she’d be leaving Horton Center and moving to Colorado at the end of last summer, I was heartbroken to see her go. But I am grateful to see her grow in new places and support me from a distance. I am packing memories and support from friendships.
Lesson 5: To grow where you are planted. It wasn’t until my junior year that I really loved being a UNH student. After a rocky first year, a semester abroad, an amazing summer at Horton Center, I came back to UNH and felt some culture shock of being back at a typical college campus. I didn’t love it, but I knew I only had 2 years left and I might as well make them count. My junior year spring semester was the first time I took an outdoor education course on campus. It was a course I definitely would not have taken if I hadn’t worked at Horton Center and met Mollie. And it was a course that I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. The course was an introduction to backpacking and backcountry experiences. All semester I learned hands on how to set up a campsite, cook on a stove, tie knots, and prepare for a week-long trip in the white mountains. When I told people about the class I was in they couldn’t believe I was going to spend a week in the woods with no phone, no toilet, no shower, and just myself and what I put on my back. Through this one outdoor education course I learned more about myself than I have in any other UNH class. Because of that one class, I have completed 4 more courses in rock climbing, high ropes, adventure as a therapy tool, and an emergency medicine class. I brag to some of my friends how for my classes I get to play outside and not get lectured everyday. What I’ve learned about why I love the outdoors so much is that I feel close to God when I’m grounded with the Earth.
Yesterday was Earth day and through justice we must make our voices heard to protect the only planet we will ever live on. When I look out at the mountains I see the beauty that God carved out for us to explore and seek adventure on. I feel the Earth below my feet knowing God intended us to walk our paths with care, love, and gratitude for everything we see and touch. My relationship with God is founded in where I see God’s presence. I feel the spirit among me most when I am among the trees or with my toes in the water, or on top of a mountain with miles and miles of beauty in front of me. I fear that the earth will continue to be treated poorly and the ability to seek refuge in the wilderness will not be as readily available. Where is it that you seek the spirit most? I am a better environmentalist today because of what I have learned in the past 4 years and love that the UCC stands behind the environment. I am packing seeds to plant elsewhere.
Last week on Easter morning I asked my mom to read me my favorite childhood story about the Easter Bunny. It takes place in a rabbit hole where there are 4 brother rabbits. They all want to grow up and be the Easter Bunny, as the current easter bunny will retire soon. One brother shares he wants to be the fastest, the other the cleverest, the third the strongest. But early, early was the runt of the litter and he knew he would never get chosen to become the next Easter bunny so he lived about his life playing with younger rabbits and being kind. On a cold winter day the bunnies were out in a snowstorm and encountered a stranger, the 3 brothers said they could not help the stranger, but Early stayed back and led the stranger back to their hole for the night. Months later in the Spring, the Easter Bunny comes to the rabbits and says he has chosen the kindest rabbit of all to take his place. Early was shocked to find out it was him for surely he was not fast, strong, or clever. But the Easter Bunny shared that none of that mattered, for he was kind and selfless, and that is what matters.
Of all I have learned in Durham the past 4 years, I hope that I have learned to be kind and selfless. The lessons I have learned have shaped me into a woman I am grateful to be. In my backpack I’m taking with me the wisdom and love of people who’ve shaped me, an embracing attitude of what will come next, seeds to plant myself where ever I go, a passion for social justice, and a thanksgiving for the community who has guided me forward.
Community Church- I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to spend the past 4 years worshipping in this community. The spirit you have here is what makes me want to come each Sunday. You have all made an impact on my life by being in this community, and I would challenge you to seek out college students in the congregation in years to come so they feel as nourished as I have.
I may not know exactly what is next for me, but I do know that it will be a gift to pass on the lessons this community has taught me. The last thing I carry in my backpack is a book of poems by Mary Oliver, and I would like to leave you with this one.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.