Beauty in the Broken
BY SHELDON ROGERS
Just last night, I received this sage advice from a friend via text following a session of heart pouring in which I dumped all my anxieties of late into his lap. He responded graciously with a question: “Do you know where the word ‘Israel’ comes from?” I replied, “I should know this…but I don’t.” He then recounted, in text-bubble-summarization, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In this story, Jacob is given a new name: Israel, “he who struggles with God.” My friend went on, “I always thought it was beautiful that Israel, the peoples who belong to God, are characterized by struggle. ‘You are mine because you struggle with me.’ It seems like, from the very beginning, God made beauty out of broken things.”
When I came to Forefront for the first time, in early 2014, I was broken. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still broken in many ways. We all are. However, the particular way I was broken at this point led me to be skeptical of churches and their intentions for me as an LGBTQ individual. I had long since come to peace with my orientation and its place in my religious walk, but I had struggled to find a church which felt the same way. Because of this, I had given up church altogether for the greater part of eight years. I walked into Irving Plaza with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach because I didn’t want to end up in another building with another group of well-meaning people who “loved” me but didn’t “love my sin.” I quickly found out that I couldn’t be more wrong in this assumption when I was invited to pre-Pride church service at Forefront with a handful of members from Grafted NYC, an LGBTQ-Christian non-profit, in which I am now a leader. In this way, the members and leaders of Forefront loved me in my brokenness by fostering a community where I could flourish as a gay Christian.
Fast-forward to February 2015: I sat numb on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport, awaiting a flight home to visit my mother in the hospital. She had been struck by a pulmonary embolism the night before and was on life support in Charlotte, North Carolina. I posted a half-hearted ask for prayers and good thoughts on Facebook as the rear wheels of the plane left the ground. Upon landing, my phone buzzed for what felt like five straight minutes with messages of condolence, support, and encouragement. One of those was a voicemail from Ryan Phipps, the Lead Pastor at Forefront Manhattan. In denial, I spent the rest of the afternoon convincing myself that my mother would be fine. By 9 PM that night, she was gone. My closest family member and my biggest supporter, vanished in mere moments. There is no doubt in my mind that this is, was, and will be the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Even still, the light at the end of this long dark tunnel came in the form of overflowing support and love from many people, including the staff and members of Forefront. It continues even to this day when grief appears from the wings to haunt me again. My heart was broken and the members and staff at Forefront have consistently helped me put it back together.
Some time after the loss of my mother, I also endured another loss: my job. A company I had worked with for almost two years decided to let me go due, in part, to my outlook and experience with the grief, loss, and the way it had changed my personality. Long story short: I wasn’t happy anymore and the clientele could tell. I followed the usual procedure and filed for unemployment as I faced the beast that is “being jobless in New York City.” My bank account got smaller and my fear got bigger. I exhausted every resource while looking for a new job and nothing was sticking. Feeling broken, yet again, I reached out to the church in hopes that someone had a lead on a job I could secure quickly. I got several leads on jobs. I also got grocery money, resumé help, financial help, and rent money from members of the church and staff who went above and beyond to help me when I was broken, lost, and in need. Sometimes, helping mend brokenness comes in the form of practical, material needs and I am forever indebted to those members of Forefront who helped me get through this time. I know they would help me again if things ever took a turn for the worse.
When we are broken and lost, we spend a lot of time asking God questions: “When will I find a job?” “Why did he break up with me?” “Will I ever truly love myself for who I am and who You see me to be?” “Why are my dreams not coming true?” In the asking, we often search too hard and too long for the answers. Around 1:30 AM, during this conversation with my friend, he sent me a quote from Rainer M. Rilke, author of Letters to a Young Poet:
“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This, to me, is the essence of the way Forefront loves people. They care for you through the questions in order to celebrate with you when the answers are found. They are there for you on mountain peaks and in deep, dark valleys. When you are broken and when you are whole, they love you. They embrace the name, “Israel” because they know the lesson comes from the struggle. They see the beauty in brokenness.
After all, the only way to get to the other side of a valley is to go through it.
And they’ll be with you all the way.