“Your test results show that you are pregnant.” Hearing those words as I sat in my doctor’s office, my heart sank. This couldn’t be true. I was only 18 years old, a senior in high school, and had dreams of going away to college just as many other seniors anticipate.
I graduated that summer of 2009, five months pregnant. As my friends were all packing up and moving into their college dorms in August, I was rummaging through garage sales picking up everything I could to welcome my soon-to-be son in October.
One would think that this major life event — and the uncertainty of where my life was headed — would be my greatest challenge, but it wasn’t.
At this time, I was attending a relatively small church with my family, the same one that I was born and raised in. We did not have many youth, as many had moved away throughout the years, so the church was filled with an older generation. It was there that I met my biggest challenge face-to-face: the opposition of being pregnant — not only out of wedlock but also at the tender age of 18.
I was embarrassed; I was ashamed; and the overwhelming anxiety I faced each Saturday (Sabbath) on my way to church and while I was there was unbearable. It eventually came to the point where I noticed my anxiety slowly creeping up on Friday evenings, lasting until I walked out of those church doors on Sabbath afternoons.
It forced me to stop going to church for a period of time. Luckily for me, I was able to persuade my parents to let us attend another church that had more young children and youth, so both my son and I could find a sense of belonging and community. I thank the Lord every day that it’s what we found.
I won’t lie and say that I walked into Madison Community Seventh-day Adventist Church the first Sabbath with no anxiety or fear that I was going to be judged, but every ounce of it vanished the moment I was greeted with warm smiles, hugs, and acceptance. Nobody asked for my backstory or how I ended up a single teen mom, or treated me like I was an outcast. I felt accepted for who I was, rather than what a church expected me to be.
My church members have seen me laugh, cry, struggle, but most importantly, thrive. As much as I owe appreciation to God for all His blessings and my family for their never-ending support, there's a lot to be said about a strong, accepting, and encouraging church family. For 10 years, they have supported me through prayer, check-ins, words of encouragement, and more. I have even had a few of them write letters of recommendation that awarded me with scholarships and internships throughout my academic course.
I share this mini-version of my story to encourage churches to reach out to the single parents — not only in their church but also their community — who may feel an enormous amount of embarrassment and shame. And I don’t believe we should stop there. As a church member, I have read articles and spoken with young people about a very prevalent issue within the Adventist Church. It’s not a secret that we are seeing young people leave more than ever before. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand why that is.
Just this past May I was blessed to graduate with an MBA degree. Statistically speaking, I should never have even received my high school diploma, yet alone an MBA. Only 2 percent of teen mothers earn a college degree by the time they turn 30 years old.
I’m not discrediting my own dedication and hard work by any means, and I would like to recognize the large impact my church family had on my success. It was not until I was reading graduation cards I received that I really started to see the impact my church family has had on my life. The number of Bible verses, encouraging words, and positive thoughts that filled those cards was heartwarming, although one in particular stuck out. It said, “We’re here to be your nonstop cheerleaders!”
Nonstop cheerleaders. Not, “Cheerleaders until you’re finished” or “Cheerleaders until you mess up,” but “nonstop cheerleaders.” Young people don’t need referees to scold them every time they slip up; they need cheerleaders who love and cheer for them even after those slip-ups are made, and regardless of what those slip-ups may be. Young people don’t need judgment for what they choose to wear to church, how they may wear their hair, or even the music they listen to. They need church members who accept them with open and loving arms.
Can you imagine where we would be if God said to us, “I’ll love and accept you, but only on certain conditions, or only under this one condition”? What a relief it is to know that God loves and accepts us unconditionally. Zero strings attached. We don’t owe Him anything for the overwhelming love He shows for the most unworthy people.
So, I ask you this: Are you a cheerleader or a referee? Is your congregation a group of cheerleaders or a group of referees? I leave you with these two quotes that I happened to stumble upon while writing this article:
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”
“A word of encouragement during a mistake is worth more than an hour of praise after success.”
Challenge yourself and your congregation to start being cheerleaders, not only to fellow church members but also to those who walk through your church doors, those struggling to figure out where they belong in this world. It’s not our job to change them or make them who we want them to be. Instead, it’s our job to love them and cheer for them, allowing God to do the rest.