My first full time job out of college was as a Preschool English teacher at a bilingual Christian school in the Dominican Republic. My job was to go into each of the 6 preschool classrooms every day for 30 minutes and teach an English lesson. It was fun and exhausting and hard and awesome. The school is a part of a Baptist mission that has been working in San Pedro de Macoris for over a decade. It is just one branch of their ministry there. The transition from attending a Baptist church for my entire life to attending a Baptist university for 5 years to working with a Baptist mission made sense.
Well, it made sense to me. At the time.
Before I got my first tattoo (at age “just-turned-sixteen”) I asked a youth pastor at one of the myriad youth groups I attended if his tattoo (he had one on his forearm) had ever negatively impacted his ministry. I had always wanted to be a missionary (or so I thought), teaching Spanish-speaking kids in a Spanish-speaking country, and I wanted a tattoo (and a lip ring) but not more than I wanted to live this dream I had had since I was 11.
He seemed a little taken aback by the question and answered pretty simply, “No.”
In all of my interviews for post-college-graudation jobs I let the person interviewing me know, “I have a number of visible tattoos.” The person interviewing me for the preschool English teacher job assured me that was no problem.
After I had been teaching preschool English for a number of months, I was told (accidentally? indirectly? I don’t remember the specifics) that many of my coworkers, including my direct supervisor, doubted by Christianity, my saved-ness, because of my tattoos.
One of the other missionaries with this organization once Facebook messaged me to let me know that my tattoos were a stumbling block and could keep some people from listening to me talk about the gospel (which I had never been that great at anyway). I told her, “Great. You can have those people. They are clearly not my people.”
One of the other branches of ministry of this particular mission is a workshop for women who have done sex work and are looking for another type of employment. The interns at this ministry told me that the women at the workshop often talked about my tattoos and how cool they are and how cool I was by extension.
Aha! There they are. My people. People who would feel much more comfortable around my tattooed female body than the nontattooed male body of the well-meaning Facebook messenger.
One time, in my second year as preschool English teacher, I walked into a classroom ready to give my English lesson. My memory is not great and very rarely specific but I can see this moment in time so clearly in my mind’s eye. I walked in, and on the chalkboard there was a t-chart (handy teacher tool). One side was labeled “De Dios” (of God) and the other side was labeled “De Satán” (of Satan). Written clear as day under the “of Satan” side was the word tatuajes. (I’ll let you guess what that means.)
Later that day I got to have a very hard conversation in my second language with that teacher about how much it hurt me that she was teaching our students that I was of Satan.
From the very beginning of my four years working and serving with this ministry my very identity was questioned and doubted because of my tattoos.
I often sat and chatted and cried and prayed with the director of the school. She is an amazing woman who always made me feel heard and valued and cared for, even though some of what we believed about God was different. In my third year with the school she wisely told me that I could continue to put myself under rules I didn’t believe in, or I could choose not to.
It seemed simple. Either I could keep trying to shove my very self into this “Baptist English teacher” sized hole in this school or I could… not.
I am a rule follower. Clear, specific directions are my love language. Tell me what you expect of me and I will do my darndest to meet those expectations. This aspect of my personality is why I THRIVED in my conservative Evangelical Baptist church/college/job. There was a clear list of what to do (tell everyone about their need for Jesus as often as possible, read your Bible and pray every day, etc.) and a clear list of what not to do (swear, have sex, drink booze, be gay, get a divorce, be a woman and a leader, etc.) and I was very good at obeying the lists.
Have you heard of the phrase “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?” Well, there was a point in my time with this ministry where I felt sooooo much like a big expansive balloon of a thing trying to shove myself into a tiny round hole. And my conversation with the school’s director made me realize that I was the one letting myself be shoved into a hole that could not contain me* and that I was also participating in the shoving!
This morning I was listening to this episode of The Evolving Faith Podcast. Jen Hatmaker is talking about her journey into the wilderness – the moment when she decided to choose what she actually believed over belonging in the only community she had ever known. At least that’s what she’s talking about in the first half of things. I had to stop listening and start writing.
With Jen’s words I realized that five years ago, when I decided to stop trying to shrink down my expansiveness, my great big balloonness, that I chose myself over the only community I had ever known. I chose to belong right here. Both of my hands are on my heart and there are tears in my eyes. I no longer belong in “Baptist” or “evangelical” or “conservative” or “missionary” or “teacher.” And that’s okay. Freeing, even! Because I belong right here. Exactly where I am and as I am.
Which makes the wilderness of not-having-all-of-the-answers way less scary! Because no matter where I am or who I am with or what job I’m doing or what questions I’m asking or answering and no matter what anybody else thinks about the decisions I make about my life and my body and my time, I belong. I am my home. I carry the Spirit of Love with me.
The same Spirit that conquered the grave lives in me (Romans 8:11) and the Spirit says that I belong.
I have followed the Spirit of Love and Freedom (who lives in my gut) to Jarabacoa, to managing a hostel, to teaching English in my garage, to living with a Dominican family, to adopting and fostering and caring for so many adorable and annoying animals, to living with Sarah, to teaching first grade, to teaching 7th-12th grade, to being a Young Life leader, to YouthWorks and more YouthWorks, and being an administrator. I will follow that Spirit wherever They lead me and I will go without fear!
I don’t have to shrink who I am or what I believe or what I love or what I have permanently drawn on my skin for the sake of belonging anymore. And this makes me brave and bold and comfortable to participate in new experiences with new people, equipping me to learn new lessons about myself and God and others all the time without losing my sense of self.
I belong. Right here. Hands on heart. And so do you.
*that’s what she said