“Wow! That was a fabulous small group time”, my wife and I told each other as we left.  I walked away from our small group on Sunday deeply encouraged.  We had a group of 12 people, some new to the group and some have been together for a number of years. Some of us have never met before and some had been walking together through this life for years. The encouragement I felt didn’t come from anything extraordinary or out of place that happened. It was basically a simple small group where we had some unstructured time to connect, did a Bible study and then prayed for each other.  Pretty routine stuff. It’s basically what we do every time we get together.

Then what was it that had me so exhilarated?  It was hard to put my finger on. I really had to think about why this group time was so good for my soul. One reason is the privilege of just being together with the people that have been in the group for a long time. Just going through the ups and downs of life with a small group of people is so encouraging.  Walking with each other through bad medical diagnosis, unemployment or bad employment, concussions, bad backs difficulties with children.  Walking with each other through the joys of answered prayers, new jobs, and restored relationships.  Encouraging each other to go hard after God and put your trust in him when we can’t see any good reason to do that. We have a really good group.

But I had known that for a long time, so that wasn’t the full reason for all my encouragement. Then it dawned on me. I was most excited because the new people that had come to the group were going to get to experience that same deep connection that I have got to experience over the last couple of years.  A while ago our group decided that we needed to add new people to the group so others could experience the community that was so encouraging to us. Now we have added so many new people that we are going to have to multiply and start another group.  But that is exciting because God wants to be sharing and multiplying his love and grace to others.  That’s what he has called us to do.  Now that is encouraging!

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Unique Contribution

After much prayer, discussion and trial and failures by our staff and board, I gave a message on February 4th about what is Westbrook’s unique contribution to this community we live in.  You can listen to the podcast here.  We believe that God has spoken to us about reaching out to the people that are new in this community that don’t have an extended family in the area and need a place to find community and relationships.

After I gave this message I received an email from a person new to our community.  She articulated so much of what we want to be about I asked her if I could share it with a broader audience.  She has graciously allowed me to do that.  So what follows is her email, only slightly edited:

 I wanted to say that I listened this morning to the sermon you mentioned yesterday about reaching Minnesota transplants like me.  This explains why mine friend asked me a few times if I’d listened to it… she said it would be meaningful to me)!  Was it ever!I just want to encourage you in this and say, “WOW!”  I was so deeply moved and it is truly an answer to prayer. 

My first 6 months here were just as you described when you talked about the woman who lived across from the elementary school.  The difference is that I DO know Jesus, but for months I felt like He was my only friend in Minnesota.  I was lonely, lost, and so homesick it broke my heart.  I didn’t know ANYONE.  

People in our rental complex would smile and say hi but that was the extent of it.  Attempts on my part to be more friendly than that were met with obvious awkwardness.  (Strike 1)  

Then inevitably on any daily outing I’d encounter some moment when I’m out in public and sense that I’m doing some weird thing… like people are looking at me and thinking, “Lady, you’re doing it all wrong.”  It seemed I didn’t know the proper protocol for basic things like bagging groceries or operating the car wash.  And no one would ever TELL me what to do different, they’d just give me what I began to call “the look.”  I began to dread going out in public. (Strike 2)

 Then I started work.  Finally I would make friends, right?!  I’ve never had a hard time making friends.  But not here.  It seemed like a closed off club.  Comments I made in the lunch room went over like a lead balloon and I had no idea why. No one expressed any interest in my life at all.  The holidays came and we were lonely just like the other transplant you talked about in your sermon.  I mentioned it to several people at work, hoping that someone might say, “Hey, come join us!” but I just made people feel even more awkward.  (Strike 3)

At this point I was becoming really depressed and wondering why God had brought me here.  I remember saying to Neal, “This probably sounds really weird, but Minnesota doesn’t like me.”  I remember crying and praying and saying so often, “I just want to go home.”  And at the same time I felt like I was crazy because on the surface everyone is so nice here!  

One thing that really helped me turn the corner was feeling prompted in the middle of the night to Google what I was feeling… I couldn’t be the ONLY one who felt like this.  And sure enough I wasn’t.  I found a million things about trying to fit into MN culture.  There were books, blogs, support groups!  I saw phrases like:

“You wanna make friends in Minnesota?  Go to Kindergarten.

“Minnesotans will give you directions to ANYWHERE, except to their own house.”

“Minnesota NICE?  It’s just like ICE.”

… and I realized HEY!… I’m in a totally different CULTURE here!  I was finally able to get to a place where I stopped taking it personally.  

 Another middle-of-the-night prompting had us paying a visit to Westbrook Church.  We’d tried 3 churches prior to that and found nice people but weren’t able to generate any real connections. It felt forced.  But from the first time we entered Westbrook we were welcomed… genuinely welcomed, talked to, and it was REAL!  We also met several other people who weren’t MN natives and that made us feel that much more at home.  Each time we went we met more people, and everyone we met was so great and so authentic!  We knew right away that this was our church home.  The first day I was there I was invited to a women’s bible study, then another Sunday someone asked us over for dinner, and the pastor of the church and his wife stopped over with cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood! 😉 You have no idea how my heart has soared with each new friendship I make at Westbrook. It has totally made all the difference for me here!  

 So when I heard your sermon about targeting transplants as a mission field, and you quoted that text in Leviticus, I got so emotional.  What an answer to prayer for me!  And even more confirmation that God has put me in the right place, that He has His hand in all of this, that He has a plan for me here.  

I have friends in Minnesota! 🙂

 This is what we want to be about as a community.  Welcoming people and inviting them to Jesus. The Leviticus verse is 19:34 it says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”  We want to do just that as we point people to Jesus.