Even standing before you all here today, I have yet to fully grasp the idea that in merely a few months I will be exactly 342 miles away from the safety blanket I call Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal church. While I’m unsure of what my future as a wolverine at the University of Michigan and even beyond will hold, Emmanuel will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve practically grown up in this church, running around the halls with my sisters in our matching smocked dresses and big bow atop our signature curly blonde hair. And who could forget my days as a Girl Scout/ young entrepreneur were Emmanuel become my cookie-selling headquarters, ensuring the entire congregation has enough thin mints to last a lifetime. Even as I approached my rebellious teenage years where my life revolved around one thing only: finding the perfect prom dress, Emmanuel opened its doors and became Champaign’s hotspot for both finding your dream dress and helping raise money for women facing domestic violence situations. However most importantly, Emmanuel has provided me with a place to learn and grow in faith and the love of God, and shape my identity as a Christian.
One experience that really helped me grow in faith was my work as an acolyte. Now I know what you’re thinking, aren’t you the acolyte who fell asleep that one time in the middle of the service? Or the acolyte that constantly messes up up ringing the bells, carrying the correct plate, and basically every job imaginably at least once? While unfortunately the answer is yes to all of the above, luckily my skills as an acolyte don’t necessarily reflect what I’ve gotten out of the position. There is something rewarding about contributing and connecting to a church service, and hoping you were able to help others feel apart of something special as well. By having the opportunity to shake the hands of every member of the congregation, I gain a better understanding of what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself.
Outside of Emmanuel, one experience that really tested my faith was my trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi this past February to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. On the second day of the trip, we were given the opportunity to attend a local church service in the more impoverished part of town. Having only ever attended church with my family at Emmanuel and Holy Cross, I was curious to see what the experience would hold. When I walked in, I was immediately struck by the culture clash as I entered a predominately black church. As my classmates and I made our back to a pew in the back of the church, the racial segregation was unmistakable.
There were no prayer books or hymnals, but a projector screen with the morning’s agenda. There was no chorus or organ, but a few women on a stage with hand held instruments. Needless to say, I felt a little out of place. However as the service began, I found myself taken back by the incredible amount of faith and love I had the privilege of being able to witness. The entire service, the congregation was extremely involved and passionate, constantly clapping and cheering when the priest would say something they strongly agreed with. And during the peace, everyone stood up and walked around the church hugging each other saying, “Jesus loves you,” and any racial boundaries created before instantly disappeared. At one point during the service, a little girl sitting in the pew in front of me walked away from her family and sat in my lap. I’d never felt more welcomed into an unfamiliar environment in my life, and hope new members at Emmanuel experience the same feeling as well.
Later in the week of the trip, I was able to help prepare and serve meals at the local soup kitchen. It was there where I met Verna Jones, one of the nicest and more pure hearted people I have and probably will ever met. The second me and my two classmates walked in the door, she smoldered us with her sincerest gratitude for giving up our time to help others. Even though we were doing simple tasks such as packaging sack lunches, chopping fruits and vegetables, and serving meals, she made it seem as though it were the most important job in the world. She constantly told us, “you being here is a blessing, simply a blessing. God loves you so much, you guys could have gone anywhere on your vacation. You could be on a beach in Florida right now. But you came down here to Clarksdale, and to me, that is truly a blessing.”
Later on during the trip, I learned Verna had asked the habitat crew if they could help fix up her house a little bit. It turns out Verna’s house is completely run, unideal by anyone's standards with a roof that leaks and is sinking in on itself. I couldn’t believe how someone with so much love in her heart could live that way. This simply shows that even though someone like Verna was dealt a worse hand in life, she makes absolutely no excuses for spreading the love of God. And from both my experience in Emmanuel and on my Habitat trip, embracing your faith and spreading the love of God is what makes being a Christian so special.
So even as I embark on the next chapter in my life, I know Emmanuel will never truly be 342 miles away. The striking red door, the glass cabinets filled to the brim with antique easter eggs, the stained glass windows as the morning light shines through, the intoxicating smell of sweet incense lingering in the air, and the rich sound of an old organ complemented by voices uniting together as one, and most importantly the faith and love of my family and friends from Emmanuel, will forever be engrained in my memory.