The global church has a nice ring in the abstract, but in the reality, it is striking.
Flying over the Atlantic, I watch the early morning sun rise over Scotland and England. The black, rugged terrain turns a hundred shades of green and gray as sunlight slides over the island. The land beneath me isn’t so much a patchwork quilt like the American countryside, but a collage, with dips and twirls and lines that don’t seem to follow rules. As the plane dips lower I can see that the old country has been divided up with respect to nature herself. Rivers, mountains, and seasides dictate where fields end and begin, where roads veer, and where cities crop up.
I’m on a bus. Students from Canada, America, Austria, and China surround me. Our excited chattering is fading as we surrender to jet lag. I don’t want to sleep, don’t want to miss a minute of the drive to my new home, but I am exhausted.
Between lengthening blinks, I watch the English countryside glide by out the window. It’s winter, and a thin layer of snow clings to the frozen parts of the earth and underbrush, but the land refuses to die. The grass screams with color as if it prove its vitality. Against and behind the lively green hills rise small snow-covered peaks—mountains.
My earbuds play “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from the new Annie movie. Yes, I think, I know I’m going to like it here. . . .
I stand over the sink in my new flat devouring an orange. The juice drips down my face, my arms. I don’t breathe between bites.
I flip off the top of my purple glove to take the warm, drooping piece of fudge from the chocolatier’s hand. The fudge melts in my mouth as I watch him shovel, stretch, and slice a new batch of fudge in the back corner of the shop.
The global church has a nice ring in the abstract, but in the reality, it is striking. This is real. God is real. This is real. God is real. I almost can’t think past that.
I can feel it in the grand cathedral of York Minster. There I know the vastness of God, his eternality, the rich tradition of my faith that stretches back for centuries. And surrounded by the ragtag church members of York City Church, I feel it too. Children scurry between rows of chairs and wriggle to the music; parents dance unashamedly; university students share prophetic words; families serve tea and pastries; young and old greet us, welcome us, invite us to come again. We are strangers, but we worship the same God. That bond ties us together so quickly, so firmly.
I expand my mind and imagine the millions of other Christians around the world who are worshipping the same God, spreading his kingdom as far as the curse is found, and can barely keep my tears from spilling over. This is the global church.
I’m shivering outside of York Minster with three of my American friends as we wait for England’s first female bishop to emerge from the church. News crews have stolen the best spots, but my friends and I huddle together against the wind and creep as close to the security gates as we can, anticipating the historic moment we’re about to experience.
When the doors of the cathedral finally open, choral music spills out along with a procession of witnesses, bishops, the Archbishop of York, and newly consecrated Bishop Libby Lane herself. This isn’t my country, but I feel so proud, so empowered. My mind wanders for a moment, and I daydream about when I’ll get to tell my children, my grandchildren, about the day I saw England’s first female bishop emerge from York Minster after her consecration ceremony. I hope that they’ll be shocked to hear that once upon a time, women weren’t embraced as full partners in the church.
When the doors of the cathedral finally open, choral music spills out along with a procession of witnesses, bishops, the Archbishop of York, and newly consecrated Bishop Libby Lane herself.
I can feel it in the grand cathedral of York Minster. There I know the vastness of God, his eternality, the rich tradition of my faith that stretches back for centuries.
I sit next to a British student named Robin on my first day of Critiquing Writing. “Where are you from?” he asks.
“With all the lakes! Is that near Nebraska?”
“Well you have pine trees, right?”
“Wow. That’s so much cooler than here in England. Why did you decide to come?”
The first day I go into town on my own, it snows. A shiver of delight runs from my toes up to my nose. I tilt my face up to the glittering, fluffy flakes and laugh.
The locals pop open umbrellas or hurry into shops to escape the snow. Traffic comes to an absolute crawl. In their moment of panic and annoyance, I feel magic. And I feel at home.
A piercing wail nearly sends me tumbling out of bed. On my feet before my eyes are fully open, I spin around my room helplessly. The shrieking siren is so loud I can’t think around it. It takes me nearly half a minute to realize it’s a fire alarm.
Fumbling through my black room, I search for my pajama bottoms. My limbs are shaking and my heart thuds in my chest as I try to stuff my legs into the pants. I fail and fail and fail again, getting more anxious with each passing second. When I finally get my pajama pants on I slide a pair of flip flops onto my feet—thong going in-between the wrong toes—and flee from my room.
Surrounded by my flatmates outside, my panic begins to recede. Amy wears bunny slippers. Tiny Beth’s hair is in a comically messy pony tail on the top of her head. Sydney offers me the edge of her blanket and we wrap ourselves up in it, two pigs in a blanket. Laura stares down our neighbors before calling, “Stop smoking under the fucking fire detectors!”
At the York Public Library, new library card in hand, I decide to check out some C.S. Lewis books I have been meaning to read.
“C.S. Lewis?” the librarian says, her mouth puckering.
“I’m not sure I’m familiar with him.”
Corrie drags me away, giggling into her hand.
“What kind of British library is this!” I cry, not meaning to let the thought escape from my head to lips.
This is my logic: if I hold still, if I close my eyes, maybe I can convince myself that my stomach ache is all in my head. But less than an hour later, I run for the sink and puke up hot chocolate until reflexive tears pour down my cheeks. I hurl at least eight more times during the night and develop a fever to boot. With nothing else to cool my fevered head, I take a clean sock from my drawer and drench it in cold water. It brings minor relief, but I long for my mom. My puppy. My own bed and fluffy comforter.
For the first time, I feel homesick. And I let myself.
I stand in the ruins of one of the oldest churches in England and wish I never had to leave. They say the gray stone building use to be a rainbow of color. I imagine stained glass filling the gaping windows, tapestries hanging from the miraculously still-standing walls, carpets covering up the flow of green grass. . . But then the building isn’t a monotone gray now—it is brown, tan, black, gold, cream, moss- and grass-encrusted. Short flights of stairs cut through the grass, determined not to be forgotten. Pillars, like chopped trees with only stumps to prove their great age and strength, hold their posts on the edges of the abbey, daring the remaining pillars and facades to even think of tumbling.
‘That’s so much cooler than here in England. Why did you decide to come?’
Fog and sea foam blend into mist. My attention wanders over the abyss of the gray-green waters, but I can’t help but looking back.
The persistent sea whispers behind me, calling from down the bluff, eventually enticing me down the ninety-nine steps into town and onto the pier where the sea’s song grows into a roar. Fog and sea foam blend into mist. My attention wanders over the abyss of the gray-green waters, but I can’t help but looking back. On top of the hill, over the city, above the bluff, I can just make out Whitby Abbey. It still stands.
Rich, male rich voices mingle with little girls’ clear notes, and a haunting beauty fills the church along with the golden glow of candlelight. I tilt my head back and gaze up, up, up, to the top of the Minster, admiring the detail and intricacy carved, painted, and etched into the stone walls, arched windows, ancient stained glass, and peaked ceiling.
I don’t know when to sit, when to stand, or how to sing along with this gorgeously foreign music, but my heart cries, Yes, Amen, and I worship with my heart and soul, if not my voice, joining in with the thousands of other believers who have worshipped the same God in this same space for over a thousand years.
“Look at that,” Charnell whispers.
I lean closer to the glass aquarium. “I don’t see. . .”
She gasps and clutches my arm. I shriek and whirl away from the cage, gripping her coat
in both hands.
Through her laughter she wheezes, “It’s empty!”
A hush falls over the red and gold theater as the lights dim, and the last few excited whispers give way to the muffled sounds of hands and feet searching for a comfy place to rest. Yellow lights flicker on in the pit; false electric stars in the black room. The conductor raises his arms—holding a thousand people in suspense—and the overture begins.
My shoulders shake with silent sobs. To cry or laugh, I can’t decide, so I do both, grateful that the dark hides my messy, twisted emotions. In that moment I truly believe that even if the dancers never step on stage I will walk away rejoicing at the beauty of the music alone.
But they dance.
The red curtain parts in the center and slides away into the wings to reveal the first scene of Swan Lake. It is flawless, and it looks natural, but I know they must be fighting for every precise spin, lift, leap, and pointed toe.
When Odette and Siegfried dance, I watch them fall in love. Without words, without facial expressions, their bodies tell their stories—fear, surrender, trust, exhilaration, belonging. The music, the story, the power of it all engorges my heart until I fear it will burst, but it turns out that beauty and art make your heart more resilient, not less.
I try not to gawk at her, but I can’t help it. She is doing her makeup on a moving train! Lipstick, mascara, and even eyeliner.
It’s a game day and the football fans on the train are revving up, banter escalating into threats. I hunker into my seat, hoping a fight won’t break out, but the young woman across the table from me snaps shut her hand mirror and sets down her tube of ruby lipstick.
“Excuse me. There are women and children aboard, and I’d ask you to watch your language. Please. Thank you.” Her stare pierces them to the walls, just daring them to interrupt her makeup application again.
They apologize and settle down for a few minutes before getting riled up again. Her perfectly lined eyes narrow, her bright lips pucker, and she fixes them in the prettiest scowl I have ever seen. At the next stop, she flags down an officer and explains that the men are disrupting the train, making violent threats, and cursing. A female officer drags the two loudest perpetrators off the train and their buddies follow.
I look back and forth between the two powerful women, inspired to near giddiness. It’s a good day to be a woman; a good day to be a feminist.
I’m having a fat day. I put on compression capris, a sport bra, a T-shirt, a zip up sweatshirt, and tennis shoes before heading outside. I haven’t been on a single run since arriving in England—I’ve been afraid of twisting an ankle on the cobblestones—but today walking isn’t enough. I start off at a jog and build speed as I go down Lord Mayor’s Walk.
I pass through Monk Bar and run toward the Minster, dancing across crooked and wobbling cobblestones. I fly from one end of the cathedral’s garden to the other and then collapse on a metal bench. The sky is bright, and for once, the sun is shining. I tie my sweatshirt around my waist and stretch out my arms. They’re so pale it’s easy to believe I would glow in the dark.
Heading back to my flat, I pause at Monk Bar. How many more times will I be in York on days like this? I leave in a month.
I enter the tower, scale the steep, stone steps, and emerge on top of the city walls. I suck in a big lungful of spring air. It tastes like grass, flowers, chocolate, mold, and rain. My feet spin me around in a slow circle and I tilt my head back to peer up at the sky—blue awash with the first orange fingers of sunset.
This is freedom. This is what I will miss.
I haul my purple suitcase down the street, strong-arming my possessions over potholes and cobblestones and curbs. I navigate Manchester with something almost like ease, and after I drop my luggage off in my hostel room, I head back outside to explore my last English city before flying home the next morning.
A family stops me and asks for directions. I can’t help them, but I beam. My heart flutters. I resist the urge to jump up and down. With a simple question, they confirmed everything I wanted to believe: I am confident, I am independent, I belong.
As they walk away, my elation twists to a sweet kind of heartache. I have found my confidence and come to belong in this place just in time to leave. Remember this, I plead with myself, remember it all. If you remember, you don’t have to forget. You won’t have to lose what you’ve gained. So remember.
My second flight dips out of the sky toward the lights of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Southern man next to me smiles, stretches. “Welcome home.”
His strange accent echoes in my ears and I wonder, am I home? I am not sure I know what that word means anymore. Two strings I didn’t know were wrapped around my heart pull taught and tug in opposite directions—back across the ocean and inside the airport where my family waits.
I tug my backpack onto my aching shoulders as a text message comes in from my mom. The string attached to England loosens. It doesn’t snap, it will never break, but it relents, and I suspect it will loosen even more with every passing day.
My lips quiver—caught between a smile and a sob—and I blink back misty tears. I’m home.
As they walk away, my elation twists to a sweet kind of heartache.