The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, copyright © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.
In the summer of 2013, after the closure of a church I helped start, I told my husband I didn’t know if I ever wanted to attend church again. I had wanted to create a community of faith, focused around inclusion and helping the community. But the reality became something far different—we were a community that mimicked a dysfunctional family. Our pastor berated people he believed were not contributing, while our elders remained silent. People would come through our doors and offer to help, but would be immediately turned away by our pastor who warned against people “coopting our agenda.”
I was only three weeks pregnant with my first child when our church started, and when it closed my second child was a year old. Lost in the fog of early motherhood, I struggled to pull our church back on track, sending emails during late-night breastfeeding sessions, and hosting meetings in my house while my kids slept. In the end, when finally I was able to call a meeting to address the issues as I saw them, I was told I was a woman and not allowed to be an elder, so I didn’t have a say. […]
After all of that, I was done. No more church, not ever. For my whole life I’ve attended churches in the middle of the country: in Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. The most toxic of the churches had pastors sleep with members of their congregation, and at a megachurch in Minneapolis, a youth pastor slept with a seventeen-year old. I found that out on a Sunday, when he just wasn’t there. I asked the church secretary if I could leave a card that I had written, thanking the pastor for listening to me. She told me I’d better not, and when I asked why she shook her head. At the most benign of churches I’ve been told not to speak, not to question, not to hold my opinions. When I was nine, a pastor chided me that my words were my biggest sin. At twenty-six, a pastor took me aside to advise me to talk less in Bible Study.
Even the church I had built had become a place where I was rejected and my voice was silenced. I was done. My friend Anna told me, “If the car breaks enough, you trade it in.” The car was so broken that I was ready to give up driving.
Even the church I had built had become a place where I was rejected and my voice was silenced.
I told my friend Nicole about my experience and she invited me to an email thread. Dubbed “the God thread” the goal was to be just a group of women of faith who wanted to talk about it. I joined. That small folder in my email, dedicated just to “the God thread,” has done more for me than thirty-five years of church attendance. That one email thread wirelessly co-mingled technology with my pain and heartache, creating that space in the invisible network of WiFi and air for my doubt, anger, and faith.
For so many women, our voices are silenced in the very places where we need to cry out. Where does our pain, or invisibility, have to rest its head? To where can we bring this baggage when even the pastors tasked with caring for our hearts, tell us to be more quiet, more submissive, and as a result moderate every expression of our pain? To the air. To the network. To the complicated connections of wire and air. At least for now, that is. At least until we can regain our footing.
Other churches are experimenting with faith and the social network. Angela Herrington doesn’t want to be a substitute for church. [Herrington is the founder of “Broken, Beautiful and Bold,” a Facebook group dedicated to training women to be leaders in the church, and a Facebook page with over sixty-five thousand members that operates like a church community for women seeking a place to practice their faith and discover their spiritual calling.] While she believes that church is anywhere God is, the goal of her online community is to augment the work of physical churches—encouraging and equipping women to go back to the physical homes of their faith and challenge the biases and assumptions that keep them silent. If it sounds like war, it is. It’s a guerilla war designed to take the church back. “In war, how do you battle?” She asked. “You split forces and isolate people.”
For so many women, our voices are silenced in the very places where we need to cry out.
And it’s easy to feel isolated on the prairie. Driving home to Iowa from Marion, Indiana, I went through Chicago, sure, but it was far easier to find a field than a town. Far easier to find empty spaces than people. Even in my town, Cedar Rapids, the second-largest city in Iowa, you are never more than minutes from a cornfield. It’s a bigness that can feel limiting if you are the only one of you that you see. But the internet is an equalizer—bringing together voices that once felt alone, realigning boundaries, creating spaces where there were none before.
There is a danger too of creating ideological bubbles. Of filtering out dissent. It’s a criticism that was leveled heavily against blue states after the 2016 election. But when you are in the minority—the voice that is silenced—you are never in a bubble, even if you try. And ripping that space in a network of air to channel and communicate pain is often the difference between pain and hope.
But although these networks feel like a solution, they aren’t accessible. In the United States, 4 percent of people in cities don’t have access to broadband, but in rural areas it is 39 percent. That adds up to about twenty-two million people. And even if rural communities do have access to broadband, it is prohibitively expensive, with costs ranging from $45 a month to over $170. Cell phone data isn’t an answer, as coverage in rural areas is spotty at best. And data plans cost money too—a lot of money. With the rollbacks of net neutrality laws, which sought to establish fair and equal access to the internet for all, the future of how people access vital communities and information is at stake.
The internet is an equalizer—bringing together voices that once felt alone, realigning boundaries, creating spaces where there were none before.
On November 8, 2016, I babysat for my friend so she could go to the polls. She is a mother of four children. She was raised in the Deep South, she homeschools, and is Evangelical. Her opinions had often chafed against my own during our six years as neighbors, and I was pretty sure she would be voting the exact opposite way I wanted her to. But I believe in voting, so I offered to watch her kids. Eighteen months later, she texted me out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken since she’d moved over a year ago. She had no idea about my divorce. No clue about my book.
What she wanted to tell me about was this online community about Christian women who don’t believe everything the Evangelical church tells them. A friend had invited her to join a few months ago and she was learning so much. Her texts to me were fervent and long. I had a hard time parsing out all the details from them and we promised to meet up in real life very soon. But in the meantime, she just wanted me to know how powerful it was to find people who think like you, who support you, who make you feel less alone.
Copyright © 2019. This excerpt was reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.