What image comes to your mind when you hear the word church? For me, it was once a picture postcard of a New England village. An elegant building with a white steeple and chiming bells. Falling autumn leaves and the fruits of an abundant harvest. Hymns and organ music. Reverent, silent prayer. Church for me was tradition—a lovely place to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. It was a safe place, where emotions were checked carefully at the old wooden door. No one ever cried, or laughed, or got angry inside of that door. At St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Wethersfield, Connecticut, the members did not get unruly or talk during the service. Instead, they sang, read Scripture, and recited the Apostles’ Creed. This was the church of my childhood, a church of discipline and order. But God wanted a bit of chaos for me. He wanted me to feel completely displaced, raw, and vulnerable. I just did not know it—until I found myself one day in a small church in one of the most dangerous sectors of the city of Seville.
I traveled to Spain with one purpose in mind: to research Spanish Gypsy culture for a book I was writing. I was a fiction writer, not a theologian; I was not a journalist but was rather a creator of stories. I was also a Christian who worshiped a surprising and awesome God. From the moment I walked through the railed door of the church Dios Con Nosotros (God With Us), in the Gypsy ghetto of Tres Mil Viviendas, He made it clear to me that the experience I was about to have had nothing to do with my book and everything to do with my growth and faith. There were no church bells at Dios Con Nosotros, but there was a large hollow box upon which a young man sat, beating out rhythm with his hands. There was no organ and no familiar hymns. But there was a keyboard, and flamenco voices raised in song. And there was not for a single moment reverence or silence. Children played in the aisles, and their parents answered cell phones in the middle of a service. There was shouting and chaos and passion like I had never known before. It was crazy! Why did you bring me here? I asked my Father desperately. You know me—I am not comfortable with people screaming, or jumping up and down, or shouting out their prayers!
Then I heard Him say to me, Yes, Susan, I do know you, and this is exactly where you need to be. And He was right. I had never felt so much love, or passion, or longing for God’s Spirit as I did in that humble church in the middle of a drug-infested ghetto. I cried when I heard the Lord’s voice that day. In fact, I cried many more times over the weeks to come, because I was in God’s presence, and He was healing me. Perhaps He was also preparing me for something on which I had not planned. God told me through Pastor Pepe a few nights later that I had come to Seville to research a book, but that He had brought me to Dios Con Nosotros for an entirely different purpose. God wanted me to trust Him. Away from all that was familiar and safe, He wanted me to praise Him. And I did—Gypsy style—with my arms raised and my voice lifted in fervent prayer. I was able to minister to women whose stories I did not know but whose pain I understood, and as I ministered to them, God ministered to me. Away from New England’s autumn leaves, church steeples, and quiet traditions, I was finally ready for the harvest.