There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.
–William S. Pitts, 1857
Growing Up Nazarene
When I was little, growing up Nazarene in humble parsonages across the rural south I much preferred the notion of being Baptist. Their churches were bigger with large white pillars, pews with cushions, and members who drove Cadillacs. The Baptist preachers made more money. Their houses were nicer, and all the cool kids from school were Baptist.
The Nazarene churches of my childhood were small. The pews were hard and we never had a baptistery. If we ever wanted to have a baptismal service we had to “rent” the Baptist church. Our Vacation Bible Schools were sparsely settled (if we had them) and I was usually the only kid in children’s church, and later, made up the teen group of all of one.
My father was a Nazarene minister and instead of taking a sweet opportunity to go to the University of Kansas, I opted to attend Southern Nazarene University instead. Being a Jayhawk never meant anything to me. I wore a Redskin T-shirt in 4th grade, and was always Bethany-bound. I have no regrets. I love my Alma Mater. Anyone who attends there as a traditional student is truly one of the luckiest people on the face of the earth.
My Nazarene upbringing was quite unique. There are parts I wish could replicate it for my kids, but I can’t. I attended Nazarene VBS in Walnut Grove, California, and I vividly remember the nursery at the La Habra Church of the Nazarene. I played Mary one Christmas in the Hacienda Heights Church, and learned to sing O Holy Night at Trinity Nazarene in Colorado Springs. In Kermit, we painted the Nazarene Sunday School bus white with a blue and green stripe. My father and I canvassed the barrio inviting dozens of Mexicans to church.
Nazarene Church Camp
Every summer, I attended Nazarene church camp in places like Bonita Park, New Mexico, and Marshall, Texas. I can still feel the dry New Mexico summer rising off the mountain road that climbed to the campground. We’d stop along the way for Apple Cider, and my father would tell us how Billy the Kid’s mother was buried on the mountain in the distance – the one with the white cross.
In the Church of the Nazarene, they have annual talent contests for kids and teens. My siblings and I won often and collected trophies over the years, which made our parents quite proud. We also participated in Bible quizzing. The books of Corinthians and John are engraved on my mind.
In the beginning, was the Word. And, the Word was with God. And the Word was God. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.
Nazarene Youth Mission Trips
In college, I went to Belize one summer on a work and witness trip. We built a youth shelter next to the Nazarene church, which is right on the Gulf of Mexico. Conch shells littered the beach just yards from the sanctuary. Such sweet memories of Ellington, a little black boy who turned a crab loose on me in church one day and told me he ate cocaine for breakfast. He cried the day I left. He hugged me. The devil inside him washed away. All his acting up and out – for attention. He was in fact, just a boy. I have never stopped missing him. He was eight, maybe 10 then, which would make him about 30 now.
After my divorce 10 years ago, I left the Church of the Nazarene – seeking anonymity someplace else. The church I landed in, oddly enough, Baptist, didn’t believe women had any place speaking in church. This didn’t exactly sit well with me since I was, after all, a single mom entirely supporting my daughter. Once I realized this, I returned to the church of my childhood, which has always believed women had a place in the pulpit. In fact, a woman – a young woman who is one of the pastors at my Nazarene church – spoke on Sunday morning. For a church that is Wesleyan in theology – so conservative in its political leanings – is incredibly respectful of women. They elect women to the highest church office. They serve on the board, and yes, even teach men.
Today, I am a blessed Catholic convert, but I am proud of my Nazarene heritage. It extends coast to coast and around the globe. My former church has a long-term partnership with Swaziland. They are helping support a Nazarene hospital there, which is largely devoted to providing healthcare to people with AIDS and HIV. While the Church of the Nazarene is rather small in the United States, the International Church of the Nazarene is growing rapidly in numerous countries around the world – especially Africa. And, this is nothing new. I loved the stories of Nazarene missionaries to Africa – which I was reading as early as 1979. My college roommate grew up in Swaziland. Her parents were missionaries there.
The Nazarene church strives to reach new converts. This was always the focus of my father’s ministry. As a child, he took us all to Peniel Mission in downtown Los Angeles. We always wanted him to be focused on maintenance – especially maintaining the influential and impressive church members who drove late model cars and tithed regularly. But, my father was focused on the ministries of Christ – extending his hand to the poor, to the outcast, to the downtrodden, to the widows, to the orphans, to the sick and wounded, emotionally and physically. His ministry was not flashy or impressive. I can still see a drunk man making his way down the center aisle of a Kansas church. Oak pews and no cushions, my father leading the way.
My childhood was far from idyllic. My father’s decision to be a Nazarene minister drove our family into the depths of poverty. Nevertheless, I have gratitude for my years growing up Nazarene. I am glad, however, that I have converted to Catholicism. I am a blessed Catholic convert.