It was a hot factory in Elgin. We were building electric motors that would be used in hospital beds. Every morning at 7 am we would come into the factory and walk by the big thermometer. It regularly read over 90. My first job in the morning was to go into the huge walk-in ovens and take out parts that had been baking all night. All of the jobs in the factory were monotonous.
Take part out of box. Sweat. Place part in machine. Pull handle. Put part in different box. Wipe forehead. Repeat.
It was my first job out of college. I found it through a temp agency. I had a degree, but was going to start in the fall as a graduate assistant in Edwardsville. The job was basically a filler. I had left the world of college. I had known that world well. In that world I had a loving girlfriend, good friends, a familiar community, respect of my professors, and a good part-time job. In the fall I would be entering a new world.
It was a strange new world with an unfamiliar city, a new boss and co-workers, and a strange roommate. I was full of trepidation, and I had plenty of time with my own thoughts and worries.
One day I was sitting at table putting together the little motors, and started talking to one of my co-workers. She was a tiny African American woman in her late fifties. She had skinny fingers, with wide knuckles and big round glasses. She was the kind of person that was easy to talk to, easy to share with. Or maybe I was just in need of an ear other than my own.
“In the fall I’m moving to Edwardsville, a city near Saint Louis,” I told her.
“Oh, there are lots of black people in Saint Louis,” was her bewildering response. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just said, “Oh, that’s good.”
Then she said something I’ll never forget. “God will be with you,” she stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “There will be people there waiting for you.”
Sarah and my Dad helped me move into my apartment in Edwardsville. Their leaving was one of the saddest, most lonely moments of my life. I cried that first night. On the second night I bought a copy of a comedy to help me keep my mind off my sadness. I cried that night too.
Eventually, things got better. I adapted. I liked my work. I liked my classes. I liked my boss and co-workers. Then I tried to go to church. I went to a Methodist church near my apartment. It was my first time going to a church that was not the one I was born and raised in. I was nervous. I felt out of place. I knew no one.
The hymns were familiar. The order felt right. The sermon kept my attention (though I have no idea what the topic was). The pastor, Rev. Michael Smith, had a warm and gentle spirit, and I liked his humor and insight. I sat next to a gray-haired woman who smiled at me at the greeting time. She asked me if I was a student. She told me there was a lunch downstairs after worship, and invited me. I was a grad student on a tight budget, so I wasn’t going to pass up a free meal.
Soon after my first worship experience at New Bethel UMC, another older lady arrived at my apartment and handed me a loaf of bread. She didn’t ask to come in, and didn’t stay to chat. I went back. I learned about an upcoming soup dinner. So I learned how to make soup, and brought it. I started going to choir practice and to a weeknight Bible study. I discovered much about myself and the Bible in that study. I learned that I had some insight into the Scriptures, and was able to help people gain understanding even while I was searching myself.
There was no one in that congregation that was my age. There were no student ministries. There was no praise band. There were no brochures. There was bread. There was soup. There were earnest people singing, studying, and enjoying each other. When Sarah came to visit, we would go to church together. When Sarah left, I would still cry. That pain never left, but the utter loneliness melted away.
One night, while I was working in a gas station trying to save money for an engagement ring, my pastor came in. We chatted for a while. Somehow it came out that I had felt a call to the ministry many years before. He told me we should have lunch, and he had a book to give me. That was the official start of my ordination process that culminated 10 years later in a Conference Center in Peoria.
It wasn’t long into my time at Edwardsville that I remembered my friend’s words. “There will be someone there waiting for you.”
It turned out she was wrong. There was a whole church waiting for me.