You were on a team and it impacted your life.
The pastor leading the group discussion sits down to my left and angles toward me. I’m already uncomfortable. I’m sitting in the second seat, stage right of a U-shaped seating arrangement. It only occurred to me after I sat down that it was most likely left untouched for one of the two pastors leading our group. To think, I nearly took a seat in the back. I wish now that I would’ve but as my hand skimmed the top of one of the furthest open chairs, my eyes squinted toward the screen. I should have brought my glasses.
The pastor leaning in was too polite to concede that I’d displaced the unwritten seating arrangement but the fact that I’m now sandwiched between the two speaks volumes. Whether he senses my internal dialogue or not is unclear as he opens with small talk. How far was my drive? Am I from here?
“Not far but I’m not from here. I’m from a city outside of Detroit. My husband is from up north. We met at school and live here now.”
I catch myself before nerves propel me to divulge more unprompted facts but my halted speech is abrupt. I parrot his questions, asking him the same as if he didn’t give us his story last week.
“Oh right. I knew that,” I confess as he tells me again.
After more get-to-know-you conversation, the pastor brings my attention back to the group question he posed earlier: Tell about a time I was on a team that made an impact on my life. My thoughts come quickly, stumbling over one another in attempt to move the “right” answer to the forefront of my mind. I’ve been on plenty of teams. What type of team? What type of impact?
The pastor senses my struggle. He wants to know if I’ve been on a sports team where we worked to accomplish a united goal. I have.
“I was on a volleyball team that was conference champs,” I shrug. It was fun but it doesn’t feel too impactful outside of the adolescent lens. I rifle through more sports memories and one stands out: Soccer.
“I was on a soccer team in high school. Our coach ODed during the season. It made the news. So that was… pretty impactful…” I trail off.
Discussion opens up and we share our stories across the room but I keep coming back to my response. Did I go with the right one? Everyone else shares about teams where they built each other up and leaned on each others strengths to cover their own weaknesses. They’re beautiful stories of teamwork. But mine? How was I impacted? I replay it in my mind…
They called us into a room. I can’t remember the details but we were making jokes, coming up with theories on why we’d been called together instead of heading out to practice or the game. I think someone might have made a joke about someone dying. It could have been me.
Our head coach’s eyes were already puffy when he walked through the door to tell us the news. Our assistant coach had died over the weekend and they would let us know all of the details for the funeral arrangement as quickly as possible.
Our assistant coach was young with the biggest smile. It always made sense to me because he had the biggest heart as well. For his love of the game and his players. For his fiancée who was coming in from out of state the same week the team clustered together in a classroom to learn of his passing. He was funny. He had a way of getting your head back in the game when high school drama threatened to come onto the field.
The funeral service was short. Too short. Perhaps in homage to a life not aged but I wager it had more to do with the fact that his OD made local news. No one seemed to know how to reconcile his death and his life. At least we didn’t. We looked to each other. To our parents. To our school.
The soccer team, well, we wanted to donate a permanent scoreboard in his memory; we were denied. I went to a small Lutheran high school and, although I wasn’t in any of the official conversations, it was relayed to us that it came down to politics. We shouldn’t honor the way he died. I think that’s what they said. We wanted warm up jerseys with his name on them. We got pale blue t-shirts with a white letter at the bottom of the shirt that was hidden if we tucked it in.
It might as well have been red.
I sit in that second seat and absorb as much as I can about the conversation at hand. We’ve moved on from telling our team stories to race and the gospel, the topic we’re meeting on today. We talk about what it takes to have difficult conversations and how important they are to our relationship with God and to each other. We talk about the cost of those conversations. We talk about unification and reconciliation. I think about soccer.
I think about soccer all the way home. I’m angry. I think back on my shared team story and on everything I didn’t say to the group of individuals sitting in a U today. About how those high school girls were failed by their faith community. How we mourned in isolation and conflict because they focused on politics over people. Sin over grace. Separation over unification.
I’ll tell you this: I don’t think we can change as a Church until we can see ourselves as the villains in the stories we read. I know all about how we’re the lambs from Sunday School but I’m older now. God providing, wiser. And I’m learning about all the ways we’re Pharisees too.