I've always had an ambivalent relationship with Church. As someone who has grown up within the metaphorical walls of corporate faith, I've seen the good, the bad and the horrifically ugly. I've come to realise that much disillusionment with Christianity stems from direct experiences of Church and the people within it. Many of us spend time theorising about what Church should be. However, great as it is to analyse and share ideas, sometimes you don't know what you're looking for until you find it.
This year has been a hard one for my family. Our church leadership had been "walking" with us through the situation, as the church terminology goes, and our pastors were counselling us and praying with us regularly. It all came to a head when I was eight months pregnant on a hot midsummer's afternoon and while I felt my world crashing down around me, my church sprang into action.
It started with one of our pastors driving to my grandmother's house on the same day as the tragedy. In the fading light of that evening I had a lot of questions about God and wondered if I could continue being a Christian – if I had ever truly been one in the first place. He didn't patronise me, and he didn't just try to make me feel better. Instead my pastor sensitively and honestly pointed me towards Scripture, empathising with me, but sincerely explaining uncomfortable truths.
The next day, as news of the unfortunate situation broke beyond our immediate family and friends, a friend from church sat on my sofa and listened as I worked through my thoughts and feelings out loud. She made herself present and available as I ignored the phone calls and messages and tried to make sense of our new reality.
That Sunday I went to church feeling less apprehensive than I might have done, knowing in advance that our leadership had spoken to the congregation on our behalf. Sometimes church can feel like an awkward place, as for all our expectations of family, we're really just a bunch of strangers thrown together by a common allegiance. As a result, our half-hearted attempts at familiarity and warmth can feel quite stilted and insincere, but that Sunday there was no questioning or whispering, not even an averted gaze or vague smile. I was welcomed with warm words of encouragement, and I was grateful for the tight hugs when there was nothing left to say.
One person remarked about how glad she was that I showed up in spite of everything. "But where else would I go?" was my response.
In the weeks that followed our church family made sure that we wanted for nothing. Anything we hadn't already been given at our baby shower was gathered together and given to me before I realised it. More visitors came with food and easy company, and we watched TV and laughed until my cheeks hurt. For the first time ever I felt comfortable enough to cry when I needed to.
I soon realised that for all my theorising about what I thought Church should be, what I needed from Church was actually very simple: I wanted to feel loved and cared for. Church is great when we don't just walk through life together, but are prepared to sit with each other in our darkest moments. Church is amazing when we don't try to be anything other than a community of people who truly love God, and are ready to unreservedly show God's love to those around them.
As weird as it sounds, it's taken my whole life so far to truly understand what Church is meant to be, but I get it, and I love it. My new love for Sundays does not magically erase the not-so-great things I've witnessed and experienced over the years. My epiphany has not blinded me to the dysfunction within our disparate and at times fractured family. I see Church for what it is, but I'm also inspired by what it can be, and as a result I'm very much determined to be a part of that.
"Church is not an organisation you join; it is a family where you belong, a home where you are loved, and a hospital where you find healing." – Nicky Gumbel
Jendella is a writer, photographer and filmmaker based in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and has also been exhibited internationally. She can be found on Twitter – @JENDELLA – and also at www.jendella.co.uk.