My Fiftieth Anniversary (1971-2021)
This long weekend in September marks for me 50 years of an unusual love affair. Fifty years ago this weekend I moved away from home to go to university. During my first weeks on the University of Calgary campus I reveled in the anonymity that came with being one of ten thousand students. No one knew anything about me. I had a plastic ID card on which was my name, an ID number and a ridiculous picture of myself. The card opened doors to lots of things around me. I loved the fact that I never bumped into preconceived expectations of how I should dress, how I should talk about God, where I should hang out with new friends and what I could eat or drink with them in those places. I began to explore with anonymity my faith, identity and life’s purpose.
I Fall in Love
On my first weekend in Calgary I wanted to meet new people. Someone told me about Foothills Alliance Church, just across from the university campus. It seemed like a logical place to start. I walked through the church doors on Sunday morning of the long weekend, September 1971. In a sense, I have never left, though my career has meant I’ve been absent for years at a time! Proximity to the university campus was not the only thing that explained the size of the vibrant young adult group at Foothills in those days. The welcome Pastor Gordon Fowler and his wife, Eleanor, extended to everyone who came through the doors and their encouragement to immediately get involved somewhere in the church made this congregation a welcoming place for students like me who were looking for a church home.
It was not hard to find places to belong. I was quickly absorbed into music teams, the College and Career group, and teaching Sunday School to grade five girls. I had never experienced a church body that expected more of me than just showing up. I had grown up sitting in the family pew, watching a group of men (and very few women) “doing church” for the rest of us who sat and watched. Suddenly I felt like someone would notice if I didn’t turn up. I began to believe I was an important part of this church that God was growing in northwest Calgary. I found myself falling desperately in love with church. I would sit on the front row of the choir (in those days churches had choirs) feeling my heart would burst because of the love I felt for this new family that had embraced me. I was there every time the church doors were open. It was a safe place. I was needed. I was loved unconditionally.
Even before graduating from university I was offered a job in Calgary, teaching French and music in middle school. Professional life agreed with me and I found myself rising in the ranks of the school board. I enjoyed the freedom that came with a good salary. I quickly repaid my student loans. Professional life also allowed me to commit to even more involvements in this church that had become my life. Yes, I was falling deeper and deeper in love with a beautiful body of faith-filled people.
My Gifts Are Affirmed (March 1978)
Jump ahead to a Sunday morning in Spring 1978. Nearly seven years had passed. I will never forget arriving for church. The chairman of the elders, the men who led the church, met me at the front door and told me the elders wanted to speak with me after the service. My mind raced, a little bit anxious, trying to imagine why the church leaders might want to talk with me. As soon as the foyer of the church emptied that morning a group of men gathered around me. Their spokesman asked a pointed question: “We’re wondering if you plan to teach French the rest of your life?”
His question caught me off guard, as he continued. “We’ve been watching you here in this church for seven years and we believe, Miriam, that God has clearly gifted you for ministry. We think you should go to seminary and explore vocational ministry more intentionally.”
I was shocked! Speechless! The man continued, suggesting that I think about leaving my teaching job and going to seminary. I’d just paid off my undergraduate student loans. Seminary would be expensive. I really didn’t want to go into debt again. But their suggestion came with a surprising offer: “The church will pay your seminary tuition. While you’re in seminary, if you discern that God has called you to a vocation of ministry, the investment we make in you will be an outright gift from the church. If you discern that God is not calling you to ministry, the investment we’ve made in you will simply be an interest-free loan.”
As I walked to my car that morning, I was laughing and crying at the same time. “They think I have gifts for ministry! The church wants to help me explore if God is calling me to serve him in some ministry vocation! They believe it so much, they’re willing to pay for me to go to seminary.”
Several months later I packed up my things, moved to another city and became a student again, this time in a seminary (that’s a graduate school where people are trained for ministry). My love affair with the church moved to another level that day. The leaders had launched me on a pathway to ministry that led me to Romania and later into pastoral and academic work that continues to this day. This weekend marks fifty years in this relationship with Foothills. Their commitment to investing in people and helping them discern how their gifts might best be used is still strong, though happening in different ways today.
This weekend I celebrate 50 years in this unusual relationship with a church that, in my lifetime, has done what the church should be doing. Allowing its people to exercise their gifts in the Body and nurturing and affirming as those gifts are used. Through these years I have benefitted from the legacy of godly women and men who recognize the importance of passing insight and affirmation to the next generation. I want to “hand it off” to the next generation in the remaining decades of my life, and in doing so, fulfill the purposes of God in my life. Celebrate 50 years with me!
*This story is part of Chapter Five in my book, reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania. The book can be purchased through my website, here.