January 13, 2014

40 Below

Not long ago in a journalism course I teach, I invited the students to share what was on their minds that day. As the stories and prayer requests poured out, I was struck by the many burdens these students quietly carry. We got to talking about how church itself is that way. Each Sabbath morning people from all kinds of situations—with all kinds of burdens—come together in one setting. But often we don’t really know what’s on their minds. As an impromptu assignment, we decided to show up at a local church one Sabbath, and ask the people arriving what was really on their minds. (The names have been changed.)

—Andy Nash, journalism professor

Dawn: Praying for Wisdom

Dawn has tired eyes. When she woke up this morning to get ready for church, she was so exhausted she couldn’t think. Having two sons, ages 7 and 10, and a full-time job will do that.

And yet, what tires her the most also brings her the most joy. She sits at church with her family, leaning toward her husband, her right hand gently rubbing her oldest son’s back. Though she jokes that sometimes she feels ready to kill them, she says life would be empty without them.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says with a satisfied smile.

Still, raising two boys in the Lord’s way is no easy task, so Dawn prays for wisdom. She prays that God will lead her to do the right thing in dealing with her kids. During the sermon, her youngest son takes her hand. It seems that her prayers for wisdom are being answered.

After a busy week Dawn has come to church to be renewed with Christ and now looks less tired and more at ease than when she came in. She says church is her haven, but doesn’t worship selfishly, retreating inside herself. She is conscious of her family, and they worship together. It’s because of this that she looks recharged when the service is over, ready for anything the coming week might bring.

As she gets up from her seat at the close of the sermon, Dawn’s eyes now look brighter.

—Raquel Levy

Brad: Seemingly Flawless

Maybe it’s his age, a college student in his 20s, or maybe it is his perfectly messy blond hair that portrays such confidence; either way, Brad has his act together. His neatly pressed blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt and khaki pants complete his poised look. From the outside it’s as if he has nothing to hide.

As a double major in nursing and music, Brad prays about schoolwork more than anything else. His majors reveal that he isn’t afraid of a challenge—the grand endeavor of intertwining the hope of financial stability with what makes him happy. Despite Brad’s ambition, he has a downfall: procrastination. That is where praying comes in most.

But prayers about school are not the only aspect of Brad’s spiritual pursuits. He fondly remembers a special Friday night church service that really touched him and enhanced his walk with God. Plus, the Christian music, the fellowship with friends, and the sense of community he finds at church keep Brad returning week after week.

Amid his busy lifestyle, Brad’s deepest desire and greatest challenge is to open the Bible and read it every day.

“I have aspirations like the rest of the world,” Brad says, “but before I can be something, I have to be right with God.”

—Amy Vitrano

LeAnn: Joyful Through Life’s Concerns

LeAnn is a greeter at church. Today she’s wearing a flared skirt, blue tights, and tall black boots. Her hair is long, her eyes are green and bright, and she is smiling. She’s in her 20s, recently married. Every person LeAnn greets at the door is met with a “Happy Sabbath” that is so genuine others can’t help but smile back.

As happy as she is, there is a heavy burden on her heart. A friend has brain cancer. A tumor. The friend has had surgery, but the cancer keeps coming back. This weighs on LeAnn a lot since her own father died of cancer.

LeAnn is joyful despite the concerns she carries. When asked what brings her so much joy, she bubbles with answers: nature, watching the clouds, being married, and church.

“I love church. I miss it when I’m not here,” she said. “For me, church is a place to come and be open and raw with God.”

When the service starts, LeAnn waits a few minutes at the back of the sanctuary to make sure no latecomer goes ungreeted. She scans the seats for her husband and goes to sit with him. During the service she cuddles under his arm and listens.

When the final song is sung, she finds those she missed earlier and greets them with a hug and a smile. Then she and her husband make their way out.

—Ashley Wagner

Eric: Serious About His Mornings

A teenager walks down the center aisle as he looks for a place to sit. He seems focused and serious.

Eric confesses that he is here today because he wants to eat lunch. His parents are going to a friend’s home after the service for dinner, and he didn’t want to miss it by staying home. But this high school junior with sandy-blond hair insists that not every Sabbath is this way.

“I like church, and I don’t view it as a bother,” he says, realizing that what he said first could be taken the wrong way.

During the week Eric wakes up around 5:45 a.m., prepares breakfast for himself, and then sits down to read the paper before heading off to school.

He says that his grades are what bring him the most satisfaction.

“I have all A’s and one B, but it’s a 92, so it will be an A soon,” he says nonchalantly. “I like doing well in school and being smart.”

Eric is already thinking about what he will study in college but hasn’t settled on a major yet. He says he likes research, history, and science and is trying to decide between becoming either a lawyer or a doctor.

Canadian University College has already recognized his commitment to learning, and Eric plans on attending there in a couple of years. “They’ve offered me some scholarships,” he says. Originally from Wisconsin, Eric is excited about returning to “the great white North,” he said. “It should be pretty epic.”

—Suzanne Ocsai

Yvonne: Alone

Yvonne walks through the door alone.

Dressed in a conservative long gray dress and a blue scarf, she appears to be in her 20s.

When she woke up this morning, her first thought was how happy she was to get to church early because she missed church the week before. Yvonne says she prays most about her family, friends, and herself.

She has lived most of her life alone. Yvonne was forced to grow up quickly when she went to England alone for high school at age 17, and since returning to the U.S. after college, she has lived alone. She has become a woman who thinks for herself and has stopped relying on her parents.

Her parents’ unstable relationship is the main reason Yvonne is alone. She is afraid of marriage. Despite her fears, Yvonne says she lives a happy life and doesn’t blame God for being alone.

—Brenda Adeleke

Mike and Jill: Kid-centered Lives

Mike and Jill are in their 30s and parents of two toddlers. During the sermon Mike takes their 4-year-old daughter to get a drink of water, while Jill takes their son to burn off some energy.

The 2-year-old boy laughs and wobbles down the hall as his mother chases after him. She appears tired and stressed but makes sure her son doesn’t leave her sight. Family matters are on her mind. She says she wants to raise her kids to be good people, but with her husband, Mike, working and pursuing a master’s degree, they don’t find as much time for spiritual things during the week as they would like.

“I knew having kids and a family was a commitment,” says Mike. “When I was younger, I had more tim
e for myself.”

Mike and Jill say it’s their kids who keep them going to church. “My kids love it,” says Jill, who is now holding their son. “They expect to see their friends and go to Sabbath school. We haven’t been to church the past few weeks because this one won’t sit still.”

She stops midthought to tell her son that if he doesn’t stop moving around, she will spank him. He doesn’t. She does.

Shortly afterward, Mike and his daughter meet up with his wife and son. They leave church early.

—Kevin Gutierrez

Sandy: Looking Out for Others

A young woman sits in the back of the auditorium and waits patiently for church to begin. She anticipates her opportunity to go up front and lead the song service. That’s what she woke up thinking about this morning—leading others in praising God.

The heaviest thing on Sandy’s heart is whether or not those around her are prepared for heaven. Are the people in her life ready for Jesus to return? She prays to God about this more than anything else—it’s been on her mind a lot lately.

As Sandy leads worship, she stands in front of the microphone and closes her eyes. The congregation can see her soaking in His love and praising Him through her music as she sways to each song. During the sermon she sits beside the pastor’s wife in the front row. She listens quietly but diligently.

As she returns to the stage for the closing song, Sandy lifts her hands toward heaven. It’s the little things that she enjoys most in life—the small joys or bits of humor that God tosses into each day.

—Jaime Jacobson