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Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 | Author:

“Do you know of any churches in Denver?” I texted a pastor I know from California when I had just moved to Denver last fall.

He texted back right away: “Scum of the Earth Church. Pastor is Mike Sares. We went there last summer. If you want to go, I’ll let him know you’re coming.”

“It’s f—ing hard to find a church when I don’t trust the church,” I thought to myself, frustration welling up.

“Thank you. I’ll go tomorrow,” I texted back.

Then I found the tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat at the table alone in my new apartment, overwhelmed at the thought of trying another new church. Getting to know people who would eventually have to know my story if I was to be known. And knowing that with telling my story, I might be judged, outcast, burned again.

I pulled my laptop out right then and wrote the blog post from last fall that I titled “I don’t trust the church (but I wish I did).” Many of you have read and commented on that blog post, and in the responses, I have realized that I am not alone in my distrust of the church, of religion, of pastors.

But I went to Scum of the Earth church the next day after I first typed out that blog post.

While driving by where it was supposed to be, I did see one church kind of looking building between a dirty alleyway and a house, it didn’t have any sign saying “Church” or anything at all, actually. No signs. So I wasn’t sure that was it.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI parked and walked back, asking the people in patched vests smoking on the steps if this was the “scum of the earth church.” It was, so I slipped in and found a seat while the folks inside were singing in the dimmed light. A little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, danced barefooted and beautiful in the open space in front of the worship band.

Soon, a big, white-haired Greek man got up to the microphone at the front.

“We have something we do a few times a year here at scum, and it is consistently one of the most important things we do. That’s tonight. Tonight we are having our “story night” and we have a few people who will share their stories with us.”

I was interested, immensely, because I love stories. But also somewhat skeptical — I had images of “I was doing bad stuff, and God saved me, and now my life is awesome and I have no problems” testimonies. I was prepared to discretely walk out if that was the case.

But instead, three or four people shared their scarred stories, and none of them were just about some sort of conversion of how they “came to Jesus.” Rather, they were their personal stories. Stories of them as whole people, not as “good christians.” Stories that didn’t have pretty bows to tie around them at the end.

The stories did involve their relationships with God — sometimes how they started to get intrigued about God. Sometimes how they met him. Sometimes how they wanted to follow him, how they wanted to accept His love, but how the dark draw of cocaine, of men, of alcohol, of resentment and pain over the wrongs done to them made it a rocky pursuit at best.

Not that their pursuit of God used to be rocky but now was great. But the fact that one woman still was fighting the urge to not go out and F— some random man a few weeks ago after church to temporarily fill that void, that ache. The stories felt real. And in the midst of conflict. In the midst of wrestling. In the midst of the battle between I-want-to-love-and-follow-God and this-world-has-screwed-me-over-and-it-sometimes-feels-like-I’m-dying.

The church itself is not what I’m used to. It’s a conglomeration of church styles and ideologies, not many of which fit what I’ve grown up in.

But what I found during story night was a church who was willing to be honest about the struggle. Not the I-used-to-struggle-but-now-God-has-saved-me, but the I-am-currently-struggling. A church that is willing to be honest about the messes of life, and be a safe place for people to admit that they are sinners, that they are hurting, that they are doubting, that they are wrestling.

And I have never seen another church like that. I have never seen an entire church that can be honest about flaws. That can be honest about life. That enables the people in it and around it to not pretend to be better than they are.

There are still challenging messages about how we can and often should do things differently. How we can allow God to better us and heal us. But the bleeding wounds of the church people’s souls don’t have to be ignored or hidden there. And that is the most important thing I need in a church right now.  That’s why I stayed.

I sat down with Mike, the pastor, the other day and he asked, “did you ever go check out other churches?”

I told him the same thing: No. I saw that you could handle struggles in honesty. And that’s the most important thing I need right now.

Though I think I told him then, as I told them the very first night 7 months earlier: I like this church. But I hate the name. Scum of the Earth? Really? That’s not how God sees us. But I’ll overlook it because of your church’s honesty about life.

I went to dinner after that first church service with Mike and his wife and several others from the church. And I told them my story. “So, I don’t really trust the church, or pastors right now,” I said.

And without missing a beat, Mike, this new Pastor I had just met said: “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t trust the church or pastors either.”

Again, he and the church seemed willing to have people be honest about where they were on the path. Not just in a general message from the front, but at dinner at Pete’s Greek Town to me, specifically. They were giving me permission: I didn’t have to pretend to be better off, or farther along than I was. I was welcome. And I was welcome to be honest. As was the rest of the church.

When you look around the church, about half of the people look like the outliers of society — the punks, the goths, the homeless. They have different colored and styled hair, lots of large plugs and piercings, tattoos galore.

The other half of the people look like they’d fit in well in clean, professional social circles. You could find people who look like them in bulk in any church on a sunday morning — well dressed, they sit up straight, speak with an educated tone, and their classic-ness gives them the “good church people” air. I’ve always found this mix of the type of people in Scum curious, but valuable.

And as I sat in the back of the church on Easter sunday, I noticed that someone a few seats down from me smelled heavily of BO. And I noticed that a woman across the aisle smelled freshly of sweet perfume. And I realized as I looked around, as I’ve gotten to know peoples’ stories there, why it’s called Scum of the Earth church.

Because it is for those who society thinks, the church thinks, or they themselves think that they look like scum on the outside, or that they are scum on the inside.

And it was the first time I realized and admitted how scum-like I have felt over the past few years.

This church, it has brought me up a bit farther out of the cesspool. It has given me space to be honest from day one about who I am, where I have been, and the fact that I’m still wrestling. That I’m still doubting and questioning. That I’m still distrusting, and they said, “you’re welcome to be all of those things here. We are and have been all of those things, too.”

I get it now.

I’ll be sad to leave Scum as I move on in a few weeks. They have taught me that it is not a sin to be honest about life and struggle in the church. They have restored some hope to me about what a church could be.


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 | Author:

2552487499_1dfda42709photo credit: Ti scriverò…. via photopin (license)

The idea came in waves.

As a journalism student in college, I was always writing news articles that answered the big 6 questions: Who, what, where, when, why, how, and the bonus 7th question: so what). My senior year ], however, was the first time I started to write more feature-length articles that were more people-oriented rather than event-oriented.

Following an interesting tip, I found myself writing my first feature-length on the stories of two women: one who was a current dancer (stripper) in the adult entertainment industry, and one who had been, but who now led a church ministry that reaches out to adult entertainment workers. Easily the hardest I’d ever worked on a piece and the most interested I’d ever become with my subjects. Their stories were so interesting to tell. The student Newspaper readership had to agree. I started to get stopped by students and teachers I didn’t know: “You’re the one that wrote the story about the strippers, right?” And then they’d have some other question or feedback for me.

What had started out as a beat in “under the rug” stories quickly found it’s focus in a particularly dusty area under the rug: the sex industry. And the most interesting part was always finding a subject — someone whose story would help me tell the larger story.

“Where were you the first time you ever saw porn?” I asked him.

I wanted to write about porn use and abuse, so I found a porn addict who was willing to speak with me honestly and bluntly. I was at a Christian University, so it was a controversial topic. We met in a secluded part of campus for the interview, and his name was changed in the article. But he let me tell his story. (He actually even told me I could use his name if I wanted at the last minute, but we decided it wouldn’t add anything to the story, and it may hurt him on campus.)

I remember while we were in the couple-hour interview, I had this thought: this is such sacred ground. He was telling me his shameful secrets. Allowing me to ask about the gritty details. Letting me in to a dark part of his past. I had never asked such candid questions, nor received such open answers.

The result was that I wrote an article about porn use, but really, I wrote this guy’s story. It just happened to have some porn in it.

The day the article came out in the newspaper, I went to the coffee shop on campus, and he was in there. He bee-lined for me and hugged me.

“I read the article this morning,” he said, “and I thought ‘that’s a crazy story.’ And then I went, ‘That’s MY story.’ And I called my mom and thanked her for the first time ever, for being there for me, for being both my mom and my dad when my dad wasn’t around.”

I didn’t write anything of his story that the guy didn’t tell me himself. But that was the first instance where I started to realize the power of hearing or seeing our own story outside of ourselves.

There is power in that. Even in just letting my story into the open these past 3 weeks, what started as whole-body anxiety and two-week-long nausea has turned into an acceptance that I hadn’t had before, an ability to breathe easier, and to see the power that my story has to change other peoples lives, to speak to them in the places where they thought they were alone, to share where I was and let it meet them where they are.

I’ve had my life changed by a story more than once. And I’ve found extreme power in seeing my story outside of myself. Sometimes it’s the power of healing and freedom, sometimes it’s the power of recognizing what I’ve gone through and thinking, “That’s a crazy story.” And sometimes it’s the revelation that I’m not alone.

This is why I’m starting Stories By Jo: The Story Project (see below).

If porn wasn’t what I was looking for, I may have found a different story entirely within that young man. So instead of approaching someone’s story looking only at a particular angle, I want to come in with fresh eyes and a non-newspapered freedom to say with a blank slate: “What’s your story?” And to see what we find there.  Whatever the story is, I know this — it matters.


 

Also, in order to do this story project I’ve been going out on a limb of faith in what I believe will be an incredible and incredibly meaningful project and I have begun to work as a freelancer. The project participants will pay to have me write their stories, but to keep those costs on a more reasonable note and to still cover my project expenses, I’d like to ask you to think about supporting the project financially.

If you’d be willing to donate to help make this project happen, please click the donate button below. Thank you for your support and for reading!

 

Stories by Jo: The Story Project

Everyone has a story, but not everyone has the

voice, time, or platform to tell it.

 

Just as you would hire a professional photographer to come take a portrait of you or your family, you can now also hire a professional writer to come help you tell your story by writing it for you.

The story project is my idea of wanting to help people see that they have a story, to give them a tangible product that they can then share with their friends and families and can pass down through generations, and to provide a collection of true stories of American lives for the world to see and be changed by.

That’s the power of stories. They help us know we’re not alone.

Look out for the official website Launch Next Week!

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com