Driving north passing cows and hay bales, the clouds above are close enough I can almost touch them. From the backseat, my daughter Charlotte draws me in with her question: “Where this way leads, Mama?” To my left I see a road curving around farm fields.
“I don’t know where that road goes, maybe to some more houses.”
I glance in the rearview mirror and see Charlotte’s fingers pressed into the glass, almost as if she’s conjuring the road’s path to reveal itself. Continuing forward we pass another road and Charlotte asks again: “Where that road leads?”
Her question seems to be the question for 2020? Am I right? Looking back to where we’ve been and wondering about the future, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Personally, I wonder where kindergarten will lead us this year as my daughter goes to school full time - entering a school year like no other. I wonder when travel will feel safe. Most pressing of all, I wonder where this year will lead us as a people? Will we turn towards one another with compassion and a posture of listening? Will we travel together committed to the good of all? Will we take time to slow down and see the beauty in our midst?
These are relevant questions for the church, too. For many congregations the question looms - when will it feel safe to return to in-person worship? For others they’re wondering when they can forgo some of the precautions that are in place. What does Christian education look like in the months ahead? How will the church survive financially? What about the health and wholeness of the clergy and leadership? When will our souls have a rest? There are a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty, yet the church continues to be the church during this time. We’ve been forced to remember that the church is not a building, but the people bound together by God.
My kids and I continue to worship in our living rooms. As a pastor myself I’ve been able to supply preach for churches via computer across the United States. I also led a month-long socially-distanced internship on vocation for youth in our congregation. During June we met with members of the community to hear about their callings and how God is at work in their lives. We took time to listen and to pray. One evening we visited our town’s animal shelter and heard from the man who cares for the animals. His story provides a perfect example of what it means to be the church today and everyday.
The gravel crunches beneath my tires as I approach the gate to the city’s water treatment plant. Our group pulls in behind the truck belonging to the city employee and follows him further along the road. In front of me I see fences surrounding nondescript buildings and a large holding pond. As soon as I open my door I’m greeted by barking dogs and nails scraping against cages. Our group is composed of 5 high school and college-age girls who have come to learn about our town’s animal shelter. This is only one of many conversations we’ve had throughout the past month learning about how people have come to their callings.
The wind brushes against my face carrying the sounds of dogs further into the fields and forests that surround us. The sun still feels warm even as it fades in the distance. The man in front of us, Roy, invites us closer to hear him.
“I’m glad you’re here tonight. My name is Roy and I want to tell you a little about what I do and what we have here in town.” We take a step closer to hear him, the dogs recognize his voice and bark louder.
Over the next 15 minutes or so we hear Roy’s story. A story of finding beauty and peace in the Missouri countryside after a move from Maryland, a story of serving his country, a story of finding meaning taking care of the city streets and properties as a Cole Camp City Maintenance employee, and woven throughout it all, a deep love for God’s creatures.
“You see those cages over there?” He points to two, small cages falling in on each other. “That used to be the animal shelter. There’s no room in them and the dogs couldn’t get much exercise.”
The girls collectively make a sigh.
“One winter when it was so cold I came here and wrapped the cages to keep the dogs warm.”
I picture this man bundled against the snow and cold braving the winter and carefully providing warmth to the dogs. I stand in awe of his commitment.
“I knew the dogs shouldn’t be living like this, so I kept going to the city council meetings and wore them down. Now look what we did.” I notice he doesn’t take credit for the large building next to us complete with room for the dogs to run and insulation against the weather. It was a community effort, he tells us.
“So, you want to see the dogs?” He asks as if that was ever a question.
“Yes!” All the girls say.
After time with the dogs and more stories from Roy, we close with prayer. The five girls and I offer our prayers for Roy and his callings. I give thanks for the ways God calls us and the reminder that sometimes our calls are persistent and forged with dedication.
A few days later the kids and I are back on a country road with the sun blazing above. We pass a pond where the cows stand cooling their bodies. Charlotte asks, “Where this way leads, Mama?” I put my foot on the brake while looking back, Charlotte’s fingers once again on the window. I click the blinker on and turn towards the unknown way. “Let’s go and find out where this way leads.”
Dear church, I look forward to the ways we’ll move forward together. Whether we know where we’re going or not, we are never alone. Here’s to opening our eyes to the path ahead of us and the unexpected gifts we find along the way. Here’s to opening our eyes to the needs of the world whether that be caring for animals or reaching out to our neighbors. We’re in this together, serving and sharing God’s love.
Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ordained ELCA pastor, mother of two, and spouse of an ELCA pastor. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, MO. You can read more at her website, follow her work on Facebook, or sign up for her monthly newsletter.