Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays


The Bridge: A Perfectly (Im)Perfect Christian Experience

posted by Amanda P. Westmont

The first reason to love The Bridge? They make sure 150 hungry Portlanders get a fresh, healthy bag of groceries every Sunday.

Let me just start with a disclosure: if you’re looking for a post where I snark on the hypocrisy of your average Christian church, look elsewhere because I have absolutely nothing bad to say about The Bridge. It isn’t because I have friends who recommended it or because of the beautiful warm welcome we “blasphemous bloggers” received there. (Thanks Liz!)

It’s because The Bridge means it when they say they welcome EVERYONE. They mean it when they say “By coming, it means you belong.” This is the most authentic, honest expression of God I have ever seen. If I hadn’t already committed to a year of Sundays, I’d be going back next week. That’s how much I loved this church. It felt like HOME.

I started this journey because I couldn’t explain why I always cried in church. I would plop into a pew, someone would throw out a random “Jesus,” and I’d suddenly feel tears begin to gurgle in the back of my throat like a backed up garbage disposal. The strange thing is that we’ve been to, what, seven churches already this year? And I haven’t felt the need to cry even once. Not even for a second.

But The Bridge managed to clog my IN-SINK-ERATOR no less than three times.

The first time was with the music, which was raw and motley and unsophisticated. At the end of the opening set, the band put these lyrics up on the overhead projector:

Beautiful Savior, like banana peels in the garbage disposal of my heart

At the final chorus, the punk rock band chugged to a halt and the entire congregation sang through the lyrics a capella. The hum of those haunting voices – so full of love and grit – it got to me. I busied myself hugging Genoa against my chest and dotting her forehead with kisses to save myself from bawling. I also didn’t want the song to end. Ever. And this was a song about JESUS, people!

When the pastor, Geoff Neill and his wife Crystal (who comments here as foulmouthedpastorswife) took the floor, they immediately introduced us. Apparently, the pastors had checked out our heathenish little blog and decided that their best bet was to just be themselves and see if they might have something to learn from our critique.

Pastor Geoff Neill and his daugher Bettylou having a really good hair day

Honestly? I wish we DID have something to teach them, because then it would feel a bit more equitable that we learned so much from them. From every word.

If they had me with the music, then The Bridge owned me with the sermon, which covered two subjects I hold close to my heart:

1) The concept that You Are Enough. A concept I recently posted about on my own blog (did you watch that video yet?!?!)

and

2) Fred Fucking Rogers.

I welled up again for the second time simply because they mentioned his name. Way to go for the low-hanging fruit! But the truth is that if this agnostic has her own personal Jesus, a man she admires above all others, a man she wishes to be like? That man is Mr. Rogers. I grew up on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, he died before my children were born and even now, I still can’t watch his show without an incomprehensible level of histrionics.

[Joel had the idea that we should start our own church just to honor him. Saint Rogers! We could all wear button-down sweaters, change into our comfy shoes before every service and play make believe with overdressed puppets. Everyone in the neighborhood would be welcome! We could call it: Beautiful Day Church!]

[Come on. You KNOW that idea has merit.]

But moving on…

Geoff and Crystal shared how they were listening to an audio book called, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers, and how it was also making both of them sob like babies. The author, Tim Madigan, was a journalist who serendipitously befriended my personal Jesus after interviewing him for a newspaper article. They shared this letter Fred Rogers wrote to Tim Madigan after Tim admitted (full of shame and fear) that he was on the brink of divorcing his wife:

My dear Tim,
Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and, when you answered I’d hug you tight.
You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain…As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of “powerlessness.” Join the club; we are not in control: God is.
Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers-now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me…
…You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.

If that’s not true Christian ministry, I don’t know what is.

The Bait and Switch (in the background)

Then Geoff and Crystal punted the baby again, which warmed the cockles of my crusty, shriveled uterus and I started thinking about a conversation Joel and I keep coming back to. I recently asked him who his model couple is. It’s a worthy question, no? Do you know anyone in your life whose marriage/relationship/domestic partnership is an example for you? Sure, they’re are plenty of couples I admire and genuinely love, but I’m talking about relationships where you just KNOW they aren’t faking it.

Neither of us has been able to identify that perfect couple, so I secretly started wondering if maybe it was us. Maybe WE’RE the couple we want to be like. But as I sat there watching Crystal and Geoff play “you’re it” with their daughter, it struck me: this is the couple I want to be like.

Or at least this is the couple I want to have beers with. Because Crystal went on to say something I had to scribble down as fast as I could so I wouldn’t forget it.

“We’re either the perfect couple or we’re the major fuck-up.”

I’m sure she was talking about Jesus loving them either way, but I was blinded by how whole I felt in the presence of that kind of honesty. Her vulnerability astounded me. THAT right there is how you build human connection. THAT is how you build trust and community. THAT is walking the talk. You don’t do it by waving your hands around making a spectacle of how awesome you look in the church pew. You don’t do it by bragging to everyone about how to be the perfect Christian.

You do it with honesty.

Geoff closed the sermon with his take on “the truth shall set you free.” Even little old agnostic me has heard that one a million times, but I’ve never heard it put quite so eloquently:

“Jesus will show you who you REALLY are and THAT is the truth that will set you free.”

Part of me worries that a church like this could only happen in Portland, Oregon, but I hope I’m wrong. Because even if, like me, you’re not sure if you’ll ever believe in God, you might still need a place to go every week to remind yourself that you are loved unconditionally and not only that, but that it’s totally okay that you go on loving other humans unconditionally too. Go on with your bad self.

This church doesn’t have a PR department or a logo or a red velvet bag for your tithe. All they have is a scrappy, shared yoga studio on NE Tillamook and each other. The only thing I could find lacking at The Bridge was judgment. There is no “IF” at The Bridge. No qualifications. They literally DO love you just for being there. It’s the “only a mother could love you” church. Everyone qualifies. Every. Single. Soul. The more flawed the better.

And if I believed in God, THAT would be the kind of God I’d want to worship.

The one who made The Bridge possible.

I realize I’m gushing and I could go on and on – about the God who unburdens you, about the awesome Sunday school (where the teacher actually got up and told everyone what she was planning to talk about that day and then INVITED the children to follow her back to the play room), about how for the first time since we started this journey I was inspired enough to write a check, but I think I’ve made my point.

Unfortunately, I have to wait about 45 weeks before I get to go back there and all I can say is that rest of the churches in Portland better check themselves. The Bridge just set one hell of a bar.

Me and Pastor Donna VanHorn



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The Reformer

posted March 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm


If you can go visit The Well in Portland Oregon. (http://www.thewellchurch.com/). It is similar to The Bridge, with people who care about people, not money and attention. It’s filled with real and honest truths about religion and God’s grace for us all. Love to hear a review.



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Janet Fraser

posted March 15, 2011 at 6:26 am


loved this post and the dialogue. so glad we met. Janet



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm


Hi Al, Yay for inspiration! I, like many writers I know, have a fantasy of living on Bainbridge Island. I can’t think of a better place to watch the world go by and make sentences about it. I wish you the best with your new bride and your new venture!



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Al Doyle

posted March 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm


Wow! You so nailed it. I live on Bainbridge Island across from Seattle, and still consider The Bridge my spiritual home since I discovered it about 10 years ago.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been recovering from several years of Sunday’s that started about 15 years ago when I first discovered the love of Jesus in my late 40s. The Bridge has been my go-to place when I need to detox from church.

Coincidentally, my new bride and I have been contemplating our own venture of visiting a new church each Sunday. You are inspiring us.

PS: my 24 year old daughter landed in PDX after college— just so she could be part of The Bridge Community.



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Joel Gunz

posted March 11, 2011 at 1:50 pm


I have a friend, a UU minister, who refers to himself as a “lapsed atheist.” Hehe.



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Canadian Rachel

posted March 11, 2011 at 11:43 am


It is kind of a drawback to atheism, yes. My husband used to refer to Unitarians as “atheists with kids” — because atheists want community too, and particularly once they have kids. I know your particular Unitarian experience didn’t match up with that, but I think in some places that’s where the atheists end up going. Or to the Quakers.

I guess I satisfy my own yearnings for community with really good friends. I think of them more as family than church, however.

Another difficulty is that atheists come in different flavours as well! Some are very hard-core rationalists who — if they apply the same intellectual rigor to me as to religious folks — would have nothing but scorn for my “ecstatic atheism” (as I like to call it). Because my atheism IS a belief. I believe there are no gods and no souls and no afterlife, and I believe it as passionately as any other believer. My belief brings me comfort and hope and deep deep joy. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I really don’t think Richard Dawkins would want to hang out with me if he knew.



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Rachel R.

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm


Considering all of the commenters who stalk you at Target, I’m honored that you would stalk my cheese. Seriously, I’m very grateful that you and Joel are watching over my home and dog; I hope she isn’t too much of a handful.

There are religious communities that will take a soulless atheist, like myself, but I feel like a fraud worshiping and extolling the virtues of a God that I don’t believe in. I can’t do it. It would be lovely if there was a gathering of atheists that was spiritual and preached the virtues like those of The Bridge. I don’t know of any though. I can’t say that I am hopeful to find one either.



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm


Molly, Someone had to say that and you put it better than I ever could have.

This is why I’m on this journey. Because where DO we go – as non-believers – to sit in a room together 50 times a year and celebrate one another and our non-beliefs? I WANT THAT. My guess is I’m not the only one, either.



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:16 pm


Angie!

I’m sorry we missed you on Sunday! But I’m also about 98% sure that we’ve met a time or two before via our mutual affection and deep, biding admiration for the Kaye family. You know that Annagrace and her conviction that The Bridge literally saved her life! After seeing the church in action, I can totally understand how.

Here’s to beer! and cigars! and maybe some kind of creative potluck! I’m working on an evite, so stay tuned.



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm


Thank YOU, Steve, for a beautiful response. I know that our honesty can be a bit brutal at times, but that’s the nature of true honesty. If nothing else, I hope our critique made you think about your faith in a new, deeper way.



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm


What a lovely blog, Pam! I am definitely Pro-GUSH. (We should make a bumper sticker!)



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm


Rachel, I think this is what I’ve struggled with for YEARS. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “Why ISN’T there a church for non-believers?!” I think there are so many of us who feel this way – hungry and left out. I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe (hopefully!) at the end of this year, I will. Maybe the answer is as simple as finding a community (like the Bridge) who takes you as you are, even if you are an atheist. Maybe we really DO need that Church of St. Rogers?!

In other news, I iz in yer kitchenz, eatingz yer cheeze! Belle is a delightful handful and you have really good olive oil. ;)



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Todd

posted March 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm


Brilliant, Molly.



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Molly

posted March 10, 2011 at 7:14 pm


Just a thought–

All the beautiful moments that have brought the commenters on this post to tears– love, support, community, open mindedness, friendship, love, irony, honesty, and love again– these are things that atheists, agnostics, and humanists also experience, I would argue, in all the splendor and overwhelming joy that you describe in this church meeting (if not more!).

It makes me happy as a human to know that this group of people is able to create a space for themselves, and to welcome others in a way that is so vividly ethical, generous, and deeply felt. But I don’t believe that these emotions, relationships, and experiences are unique to christians, or to any religious people. It gets my goat when conversations tend to paint things in this light–that good believers are good because of their faith, and not, perhaps, in parallel to it. That the beauty and love people experience in a church like this are church-specific and god-linked as opposed to things that we can look at as simply human. I don’t mean that anyone has made that their goal in these comments, just that the tone seems to tend that way without the voices of any atheists playing strongly in the mix.

Maybe none of this amazing feeling and emotion and welcome would exist without this community’s belief in jesus christ. I think its an important question to ask.

But regardless of all that… You go, Bridge folks. Amazing and heartening. Seriously.



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awomanwhois

posted March 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm


My husband found this blog and shared it with me tonight. I cried too, just reading about what you and your husband experienced. Our son attends The Bridge, and I am grateful for such a lovely hearted group of people that are loving on him and all that enter their community and fellowship.

I loved the wooden nicke Sunday ;)



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angie

posted March 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm


Amanda,

I was the pastor with a day off-my son’s 11th b-day! We have a joke at the Bridge, every Sunday you miss, something amazing will happen! Of course wooden nickles is that Sunday!

I too am a lover of Mr. Rogers, I sometimes watch just to hear him say, I matter. I was raised by that man, he was the lifeline to me in a chaotic family and I owe him a great deal for my survival.

Thank you for getting my people, and getting why we love one another…

Here’s to cigars and beer
angie



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Steve Mitchell

posted March 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm


I am so happy to read this post Amanda, and Joel’s too. I have to admit I was pretty disappointed that you both had such a bad experience at Beaverton. Your critique presented a church so far removed from my own experience that I was shocked. After reflecting on it, I think it was a good shock. I was serious when I told you that I was looking forward to reading your review. I am still thankful that you came and wrote with such brutal honesty. I don’t agree with everything you wrote, but I believe you’ve shown us how we may appear to those outside our particular culture.

Throughout the next week, I found myself thinking about you and Joel. At odd times the two of you would come to mind and I’d whisper a short prayer that you would find what you’re looking for. That’s one of the reasons why I was excited that you decided to visit The Bridge. It’s an amazing church and if I wasn’t committed to Beaverton, it would be high on the list of churches I’d want to attend.

I really hope this doesn’t sound patronizing, because I don’t mean for it to, but I’ll continue to pray for you. I’ll also continue to read the blog and comment occasionally. Thanks again for this beautiful post.



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Rachel R.

posted March 10, 2011 at 6:58 am


It sounds like you had a beautiful experience, and this is where I get tripped up with religion. I long for community and the message that this place extols. I tend to feel that when I spend Shabbos dinner with my Jewish friend. I’m ethnically Jewish, so it feels a bit like home to me (I grew up in south Florida with Jewish relatives from New York). However, I’m an atheist. Ever since I was a child, the idea of a supreme being has never seemed right to me. I remember being about seven or eight, questioning it, and thinking that it didn’t make sense. So, I can’t easily “jump that canyon” as you’ve put it before, no matter how much I may desire some type of religious experience in my life.

That written, my desire for community and the religious message of The Bridge seems like hypocrisy to me. I can’t imagine going to a church, temple, etc. without feeling like a complete hypocrite because I don’t believe in God and never will. I even feel this way at Shabbos dinner (I only go when visiting my friend, so only three to four times a year) because they perform rituals. And it isn’t the rituals that I enjoy so much as the sense of community and togetherness in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. How on earth do you find something like that plus the types of religious messages taught at The Bridge without worshiping the virtues of something that you don’t believe exists?



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Pam Hogeweide

posted March 10, 2011 at 12:06 am


You make me love The Bridge all over again. Nice post and thank you for gushing. The world would be an oh-so-much kinder place if people would let go and Gush.

(check out my Bridge category of posts at my blog for a peek of The Bridge through my eyes, my 46-year old eyes!!!)

Many blessings to you!!



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm


Thank you again for the warm welcome! Drinks! ASAP!



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 9, 2011 at 9:56 pm


The kids had a blast, Michelle! I wish I had spent more time talking about that.

Genoa, my four-year-old, is painfully shy, so she didn’t warm up to the idea of sitting anywhere but on my person. But she wanted to! So badly! She spent the rest of the day in a funk and I know it was because she was doing that painful inner push/pull of wanting to be in there and still being too afraid. Next time for sure.

Which is yet another reason why I’ll definitely be making my way back to The Bridge.



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm


HA! That’s what you get for making me cry THREE TIMES.

Yes to the beverages! There’s no way I can wait 45 Sundays to see you all again. There will be food and beverages long before then!

Seriously. I love you guys.



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Dawn

posted March 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm


I was moved by your post, Amanda. Another person in tears. Keep it up lady….seriously loving this project that you and Joel are doing.



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Mollye

posted March 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm


ooh me too me TOO!



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DonnaV

posted March 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm


Can I just ditto what Crystal said??

Amanda, I loved the line It’s the, “only a mother could love you” church. Everyone qualifies. Every. Single. Soul. The more flawed the better.”

You might have just created a logo for us!! :) ha!

Thanks again for visiting and for getting us… and I’m for sure down for drinks with you and Crystal!!!



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foulmouthedpastorswife

posted March 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm


oh man…so, now i’m the one crying…at work no less. :)
all i can say is i am so incredibly thankful you guys felt loved and welcome and your kids felt safe and cared for sunday.
i was hoping for a salma hayek pic stating underneath “crystal neill” but this is so much better!
my hope for you guys as you continue visiting and dipping your toe into new territories is that you will find more love than grief and experience more freedom than condemnation.
over the course of the next 45 weeks, i know if you’d be up for a beverage or seven, there are a few of us that would love to hang….
xo



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Mollye Glennen

posted March 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm


I grew up steeped in evangelical Christianity. I left that tradition largely because it made no sense to me anymore, and didn’t allow for questions and doubt. I had almost despaired of finding a place where I could still love God and have my questions and not be looked at like a heretic. I have found (like you said Amanda) a home at the Bridge. I walked in and immediately felt myself. There is room there to be exactly where and who you are, no conditions.
Glad you came to visit Amanda, sorry I didn’t get to talk to you, but I look forward to getting that chance 45 weeks from now.



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Jules

posted March 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm


Sounds like a group of folks I’d like to meet!



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Michelle

posted March 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm


Amazing! Thank you so much for coming, and writing this! Melissa and I really enjoyed the kiddos. I didn’t start going to The Bridge until I started dating a guy that has gone there almost from the start. And I grew up in a family, that well lets just say was screwed up, and really set it home for me NOT to believe in God. Couldn’t stand organized religion because of what sally said, And then Abe brought me to the Bridge. Back then we were at a church, and I was really afraid. But it was the first time I didn’t feel afraid or running out the front door. I could breathe! I could think and ask questions and have doubts. Everyone there loves you no matter what!!! And yes the food church we do is awesome!!!! Abby who handles all that is amazing! I love it there, wouldn’t go anywhere else. Geoff and Crystal are that couple that my then boyfriend, now husband look up to, not only as a couple but as parents, as people! It’s like sitting next to real live angels :o)



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farawayreader

posted March 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm


Wow, excellent piece, wish I was closer to check it out…..



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Amanda P. Westmont

posted March 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm


GO, Jamie! You guys will love it and the boys will have a ball banging on the drums.



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JAMIE

posted March 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm


I wouldn’t be surprised if my athiest ass finds itself at The Bridge this sunday. Wonderful post!



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Sally

posted March 9, 2011 at 11:50 am


I cried like a baby while reading this! It sounds like a wonderful church. My biggest complaint about organized religion is that sense of us vs. them that you tend to encounter, even when the people involved would never want to give off that vibe. Unconditional love for the win!



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Monica

posted March 9, 2011 at 11:32 am


Awesome posted! Glad you liked it here and see you in 45 weeks :)



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