My American Church from the Perspective of an Expatriate: A Lament

written on 17 January 2022 by Erin Iwata

Art by Nat Iwata

I was told the culture shock would be real -harder even than going overseas. I’ve been back five weeks, so this is all very fresh. Raw, like the second day of a burn. My urge is to wrap this with the positive and beautiful reasons we decided to come back: it is so lovely to be close to family. As I write this I’m sitting in my parents home getting texts from my son who is snuggled up on the couch with his cousins. Christmas this year was exhausting and collaborative -exactly like it should be. We missed this for years and we are glad to be close to family again. But this is my lamentation. If I’m honest, my greatest sorrow here is the Church.

In the past, all the articles have not been about any one church in particular. Our articles have been aimed at the Church in a very broad, universal sense. There is plenty to lament there: Christian nationalism is terrifying, Americans are divided to a degree that borders on ridiculous, and consumerism reigns supreme in American spirituality. However, that wasn’t what pains me the most -what hurts the most is personal.

When I left, long before pandemics were a daily conversation, my church was my family. I grew up in one particular church. I arrived at five, spinning in Sunday dresses over the floor vents, graduating to swapping overhead projector slides, and then teaching in the nursery when I was still a child myself. It was really just a glorified house church that bounced around from building to building, finally settling in a neighborhood building that we miraculously paid off.  A small, suburban community that didn’t ascribe to any denomination. It was mostly evangelical leaning, but what we believed was secondary to how we cared for one another. Over the years, I was free to explore in and around that protective care. It grew and shrunk in size, ideas popped up and faded, there were divorces and drama, babies and funerals, but there was a core of people that were simply sharing life together. Fumbling our way really. Often, that love spilled out into the surrounding community. We were messy, we were real. I was married surrounded by these people. My children ran up and down the isles by the same aunties that watched me.  When I went through faith-crisis, marriage dilemmas, job changes, and deaths, it was these honest people that carried me. Some knew me deeply, intimately. Others were simply a consistent loving presence. Few would actually agree with what I believed, on all my roving theological thoughts. That mattered little: they loved me.

I’ll admit I was one of the first to leave. After all, I felt this true calling to love and live somewhere overseas. Maybe it was an excuse for adventure, but I followed that urge across oceans. There I was greeted with new spiritual communities. What a gorgeous little knack of Christianity: find a church and gain a family. Some were less tolerant of me- but who could blame them? They didn’t know me. I discovered a post Christian nation and a church dispersed and dwindling. Yet I found so much joy in the remnant, and I learned so much about living out faith without obligation. It stretched and expanded me.  When it came time for us to return to the United States, I was sent with love and hope. I assured my foreign community my American family church would listen to their stories and share in their joys. I dreamed of returning with people from my American church on summer trips to help with projects, and international friends speaking on Sunday mornings.

What a fool was I. The pandemic had kept my American community away from each other for too long. Anger and bitterness grew.  Ideologies that used to matter little were like cliffs, squirreling my family off into smaller and smaller groups that agreed with one another. The pandemic still shapes how we can and cannot gather, but it is clear this is only the impetus. We always held deep differences from one another. Political, financial, theological. I found that beautiful before. Now it just feels divided. Worse, we don’t seem to love one another any more.

This is my true lament: can we love one another anymore?

I don’t want to go back to the way things were. The pandemic was a catalyst to the apocalypse of my American community. We’ve seen too much: once you’ve seen, you cannot unsee. Actually, the idea of starting again is not so bad. We may be on the verge of a spiritual revelation- a new era where we reimagine what “church” looks like. We could ditch the format to experiment with what it means to be Christ followers here and now -post pandemic.  It wouldn’t be the first time the Church has altered into something new. I imagine each new rendition in history spiraling closer to the Kingdom of God. An unveiling of what it means to be a Spiritual community, that we get to co-create with God. I want to be a part of building that. I just don’t want to build alone. I want to build it with you.

Have we lost too much? Is redemption for our community possible? Can we love one another again?

It was a trite little community church, and I was naive. But my heart is held there.

Maybe I am still a fool, but I think God cherishes that little church that grew me. I want to believe the God of resurrection can breathe something new in the interwoven lives of my American church. I want to find joy with the remnant -but actually I want everyone I ever loved (and more) next to me, singing a little off-key, delivering casseroles, debating ancient texts. Living life together, and loving whoever comes to the table. Expanding together -not in numbers but in heart. In our differences we become more and more like the Creator of us all.

So American of me, but I want to end this on an uplifting note: painting a vision of what my community could be. The trouble is, I cannot do that alone. A community takes us. None of this “build it and they will come” because we are the actual walls, and if we don’t come together, there is nothing to build.