When Institutions Fail You, Start Listening

Man with headphones in front of a stone archway
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

This Lenten season, I’m having trouble getting the smell of institutional death out of my nose.

I grew up in a United Methodist church outside of Youngstown, Ohio, where the sanctuary was light wood paneled and blue carpeted and the air in the parlor hinted of water damage. That very same congregation has just voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. COVID has laid bare countless institutional failures in nearly every corner of society. U.S. state and local legislatures seem committed to killing as many queer and trans folks as possible. Norfolk Southern recently dumped inconceivable amounts of toxic chemicals 30 miles from where I was raised.

Weirdly enough, I’ve been here before. During Lent in 2019, I was a public policy grad student in Pittsburgh. I was stubbornly running from a call to ordained ministry in the UMC. Even before Ash Wednesday hit with its full weight, I was feeling the pressure. My hometown in Ohio was scrambling to cope with the closing of the General Motors Lordstown plant, which was taking over 1,000 jobs and hundreds of families with it. As a queer United Methodist, the 2019 General Conference had awakened something I tried hard to ignore, bringing a renewed but painful urgency to following God’s call. Laboring under the weight of homework and all of those searing disappointments, everything in my life stunk.

At first, I cried. I raged. I felt like I might explode. In a fit of frustration, I created a playlist entitled Called OUT and filled it with the queerest, angstiest, most Christian-esque music I could find. At that point in time, it was mostly Vampire Weekend. I left my headphones in for days as I wandered around campus. When I took them out to shower or sleep, the things that God wanted to say buzzed in my head: “Why aren’t you listening to me?” God asked. “Why aren’t you serving the church?” Terrified, I put the headphones back in.

One afternoon, sobbing to Hozier’s “Foreigner’s God” in the policy school’s computer lab, I found the contact page for the only campus ministry with a rainbow banner on their website. The next thing I knew, I was eating dinner with a small but mighty group of Evangelical Lutherans. The headphones had to come out when I got to the table.

People worth listening to filled the void. The undergrads, excited to have a haggard grad student among them, took me on tours of the campus. Once a week, I met the Lutheran chaplain for coffee and poured my hopelessness out to him. “I don’t know how to be Christian,” I told him, and “I have no future in the church.”

In response, he loaned me a series of picture books intended for children in confirmation classes. I read them in an hour at the library when I should have been studying for finals. I don’t remember much from the books except a sense of aching wonder. As my classmate eeked out data analysis and study guides, I was introduced to Jubilee for the first time. Tiny drawings showed the enslaved freed from bondage, debts forgiven, a world made new.

Imagine: a world made new.

As I write this, we are barreling towards Holy Week. I am once more exhausted by wandering in the wilderness. Vampire Weekend and Hozier are creeping back into my Spotify listening. They’re joined now by more substantially queer Christian music: Semler, Jake Wesley Rogers, and Joy Oladokun.

This year, I am being deeply held by the clergy and congregation at my United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. I am getting paid to work with young people in the church. Despite being only two classes deep into a seminary degree, my senior pastor sometimes entrusts me with the pulpit. In my disaffiliating hometown church, allies have emerged in places I never expected. They’ve assured me that I can go to church with them, somewhere new, whenever I’m back in town. It’s not all rainbows and sunny days, but it’s the kind of future I never imagined in 2019.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by institutional failures, this is an invitation to let your senses guide you toward something new. That might require listening to Paramore or “The Canticle of the Turning” on an endless loop (I’ve been there). It might be sitting outside and staring at the sky. It might be petting a bunny. It might be bread and grape juice on your tongue. It might be seeking out your nearest wise Lutheran for some coffee and venting sessions.

Lent is all about living in a liminal place, walking in the uncomfortable space between death and life, between an untenable old way and the evergreen way of Christ. It’s hard to recognize life when all you can smell is death. But thank God, we have other senses.

Angela Pupino

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