Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gypsy Child – The Search for Community

Part 1 of this story series ….

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I am 11.

In my short life, I have lived in five cities in three states: Zanesville, Ohio; Lorain, Ohio; Bronx, NY; Suffern, NY (an upstate NY community near the City); and now Pittsburgh, PA.

I am about to go to my sixth city: Akron, Ohio.

My parents are Salvation Army officers, which is another way of saying they are pastors. The Salvation Army is a church as well as a charity. It moves its officers every two to three years around large geographical areas. This gypsy way of life is the only thing I know, and ironically the pattern will repeat itself in my adulthood.

I take moving in stride, as an adventure. It is the way my mother paints the experience, and I embrace it. A new city, a new church, a new school – a new chance to start over and forget things that have happened in the current location. There is always a new start.

But still … it eats at me, deep down in the places that no one can see … I wish I could stay on the same street with the same friends from school.

I wish I didn’t always feel like an outsider, someone who knows that friendships are temporary and will soon vanish with the next arrival of the moving van.

I wish that I didn’t hold people at arm’s length because of this. Even at age 11, I recognize this about myself.

I wish I were part of a community.

Summer 1982.
Syracuse, New York.

I am 17.

After five years in Akron, which is like a lifetime for Salvation Army families, we move to Syracuse. For the past year, though, I have made a concerted effort to keep to myself at my high school. I don’t want any friends. I know I am leaving in two years for college. I am tired of getting close to people and then letting go, knowing I will never see them again. So I eat lunch alone. I go to my classes and get straight As and then head home immediately after school. I make excuses if boys ask me out.

I refuse to be part of this community.

There is one exception to my refusal, though.

I have made friends with three other teen-agers at my local Salvation Army, where we attend church every week. They are also children of Salvation Army officers. They understand what it’s like to move around. We get together once a week, because the Salvation Army has a program called “Bible Bowl,” a contest for teens similar to Jeopardy. We memorize the book of Matthew and win all kinds of competitions. We relate well to each other. I don’t mind making friends with these kids – in the Salvation Army world, goodbye is never forever. When you move, chances are you will run into each other down the line in some other town or state. Parents’ careers cross paths frequently.

This is the one area of my life that brings me comfort, that gives me a sense of belonging. I don’t need anything else, I tell myself.

And then I have the dream that changes everything:

In this dream, my Bible Bowl friends and I are in a van, driving somewhere through pea soup fog. It’s night. They have suitcases. I don’t. I have no idea where we are going.

Then suddenly, the van stops. My friends get out with their suitcases. I start to follow them.

“Stop,” they tell me. “You can’t come with us. We have to go with our parents. You have to stay here.”

I wake with a wet face from the tears that I cried during sleep.

“At least it wasn’t real. At least they’ll be here for this last year of high school,” I tell myself.

But at breakfast, my mother shares the news.

“The list of moves came out this morning,” she says. “Your friends will be leaving. Their parents are moving to other states.”

I drop my fork. “That can’t be true! They’re high school seniors and juniors! The Army wouldn’t move their parents when they’re so near graduating!”

My mother shakes her head. “They’re doing it. They’ll be gone in a month.”

I spend the rest of the day lashing myself for allowing myself to get close to them. If only I had kept to myself … I wouldn’t be feeling so hurt right now.

Even so, I long for community.

I long for a place to be known.

What does this have to do with a Christian safehouse? Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of this tale …

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