2020 and 2021 were largely dumpster-fire years. It all feels like a blur honestly – long, monotonous days confined to our home, separated from our friends and loved ones. Grief, over what seemed to be a bombardment of loss, after loss, after loss. But today as I put my garden beds to sleep for the winter, I reflected on all that I chose to learn and the new skills that I honed and nurtured during those difficult years.

My grandfather’s parents were Hungarian immigrants, who made their way to the US through Ellis Island. My great-grandmother was a passenger on the Carpathia in 1911, the ship that would later rescue the survivors of the Titanic.

They settled in Connecticut where they farmed their land as a way of life. Over the next century, people would forget how to farm in exchange for a simpler life of store-bought food and convenience. And though my grandmother’s stairwell was stocked with canned peas and green beans from Stop-n-Shop, my grandfather kept a garden too, remaining tethered to his past. He was always sourcing fresh fruit in season, where I would find perfectly ripened strawberries on the counter from his morning picking adventures, or drippy yellow peaches from the local orchard. He would offer me his bounty, but regretfully I would often pass it up for a can of my grandmother’s diet Pepsi and a handful of peanut M&Ms from her candy jar. I didn’t recognize a good thing, though I’m still not one to pass up peanut M&Ms.

When I started my own family, I remember thinking that I’d like to grow my own food. Maybe somehow it was a subconscious desire to connect back to my roots. Our kids have always known where their food comes from. We pick fruits in season, just like my grandfather did. We’ve foraged for wild raspberries and ramps, and the first delightful scent of wild grapes in the fall always stops us dead in our tracks. These traditions mark the seasons for us. We’ve shopped at farmer’s markets and food co-ops and have been members of CSAs, but any effort I had made to grow my own food often resulted in neglected, sad, forlorn seedlings.

So, during that first Covid year, with an unexpected amount of extra time on my hands, I enthusiastically embarked on a new project to learn how to grow my own food. I bought a small greenhouse and some grow lights, and I learned how to start plants indoors from seed. Nurturing new life in the dead of winter gave me purpose and a feeling of hope. I learned that tomatoes and peppers are notoriously finicky. Since they require warm soil to germinate, I cradled them in an old heating pad that had been swallowed up in the back of my linen closet. I learned that brassicas, like broccoli and cauliflower, are fairly easy to start, but they need row covers out in the garden beds to keep cabbage moths away. I had read that some plants don’t play nice with others, so I learned to strategically place my new babies in their beds, interspersed with marigolds and herbs to deter pests and attract beneficial insects. In so many ways, they require time, care, and nurturing – much like us humans. Each one an individual, with their own specific needs required to flourish.

I started these seeds before I even had the beds built. Hope springs eternal. When I planned for these raised garden beds, I didn’t have any of the tools or skills required to construct them. Just an ambitious dream and the willingness to try, and fail, and try again. I had the lumberyard cut the wood to the lengths I needed, and I went home to predrill holes and attempt to screw them together. Hope fadeth. I wrestled with that lumber to the point of frustration, like Jacob wrestled with God.

Luckily, a contractor was coming to our house that day to look at a deck project we were considering. We convinced him to help us assemble the beds, and it took him less than 20 minutes – probably the easiest $50 he ever made. That was the first time I had ever heard of “the impact driver”.

I had visions of making beautiful, raised garden beds, and dreams of planting fruit trees and building a proper chicken coop for my chooks. But I didn’t have the tools or the resources or the knowledge to do it. After all, these were jobs for men, weren’t they?  For years, this held me back until I realized I could invest the time and money into gaining these coveted skills.

So that summer, I signed up for a women’s basic carpentry class. I drove twelve hours to Asheville, NC by myself, put myself up in a modest Airbnb for the long weekend and learned the skills that I desired to know.

I learned how to use the impact driver, which would ultimately change my life. I learned how to use speed squares and tape measures, chop saws, skill saws and table saws. I learned how to properly select lumber and ultimately how to build a simple bench. It was entirely empowering.

The most inspiring part was that this was a class for women. Strong, smart, capable women. We came from coast to coast, from Connecticut to California – stay at home moms and working professionals; solo travelers, married couples, and mother/daughter teams. There were white, cis-gendered women like me, and women of color and queer folks. The only man present was one of the instructors who had been hired to work with us – most of the instructors were women; many of whom had built their own homes.

On one of the final days, I wore my “Human Kind” t-shirt, which caught the attention of a woman in my group. “We need more kindness in the world,” she said, her words filled with hope. She reflected on this community of female builders who were so kind and welcoming; the level of warmth seemed to surprise her. In our sharing time, one married couple expressed how welcoming the experience had been for them too. A Black woman echoed the sentiment, and everyone choked back tears as we thought about how open, inclusive, kind and encouraging this women’s basic carpentry class had been, particularly to the women who have endured racism, homophobia, inequity, and marginalization in other spaces. Here, on this permaculture farm, surrounded by forests and gardens, and acres of communal land, it felt safe and free – a learning environment that values equity and inclusion. But perhaps that hadn’t been their experience out in the world.

As a person of faith who had just recently parted ways with my local church, I couldn’t help but think that this is what Church could feel like, if it were more inclusive and diverse and just. When we fail to address racism and LGBTQ exclusion in our churches, we are not only complicit, but we are missing out on sacred connections. We’re missing out on the diversity of other people’s experiences, which often leads to growth, understanding and transformation. We miss out on the gifts that other people bring to the table, gifts that enrich communities in varied and unique ways. And we miss out on the relationships we could build if we were brave enough to stand against these injustices. I realized in that moment that until the Church becomes these things – safe, accepting, loving without condition – people will seek community (and find it) elsewhere. And I think that’s okay but having felt the love of God myself in church, I can’t help but want that for everyone else who wants that too. As God’s followers, shouldn’t we be reflecting that unconditional love out into the world? Churches should be safe places where people experience belonging and the love of God’s people, and for so many, that has simply not been the case. Our churches have been known for what we are against, rather than what we are for. And sadly, perhaps unknowingly, we contribute to the marginalization of others by our silence. Connection, community, understanding, empathy, unconditional love, and acceptance – these are requirements for human flourishing, and many people would say they have not experienced these things within the church.

I think on such things, and I believe God grieves. Because His Church is universal, every single one of us created in His image. We like to try to put God’s ways into a formulaic box, but I’ve come to understand that his Kin-dom is much broader and more expansive than we could have ever imagined. It is not white, cis-gendered, and led exclusively by men. It is not guided by fear, and it does not control outcomes. It is not deceptive or unjust. It does not protect the privileged while sidelining entire groups of people. It is not concerned with rule following, and certainty and getting it all right. God’s Kin-dom is inclusive, grace-filled, open-handed, and open-hearted. All who want to come are welcome to the table. Every one.

God cannot be contained within the four walls of a church building on Sunday mornings. I’ve known that for a long time. Sometimes God isn’t found there at all. Sometimes God is found among women, slinging hammers, and hanging rough cut lumber on the side of a shed. Sometimes God is found in the gentle, encouraging words of one traveler to another. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make my way back to church, but I am evermore aware that God is with us in all things. And in my daily wanderings and wild adventures, I will meet Him there.