The Glen Workshop: My New Local Church

I don’t go to church. I haven’t for a number of years. Apparently that doesn’t make me unusual; I share this absenteeism with an ever growing population in the United States, a group which includes even President Obama.

When we were newly married, my wife and I visited some churches, looking for a community of like-minded people to join, but nothing took. We tried one liberal Christian church that my wife liked, but I didn’t. The language of their worship service got to me. Even though I knew that in this church they didn’t mean quite the same thing as they did in my childhood church, I still had knee-jerk reactions to the churchy catchphrases.

We tried the Unitarian church, but the overall atmosphere was too angry and political. My wife’s dad advised that we go easy on them—they are, after all, Unitarians in Lynchburg, Virginia, which he said would tend to make you feel a little pissed off. Still, it felt more like a rally than a church service. After that we stopped looking.

I grew up in church. A pastor’s kid, I was, as they say, in church every time the doors were open. I am happy not to be a part of that grind anymore, not putting on dress clothes every weekend, not rushing out on a day I want to be lounging around on the day bed reading the Times, working the crossword puzzle. Truth is I don’t like church.

I am not thinking in terms of the church in its universal sense right now, the sense in which St. Cyprian writes that “You cannot have God for our Father if you do not have the Church for your mother.” I am thinking about the church in the local sense, as an interdependent community of like-minded people.

One of my problems is that where I live, as an artist, I do not feel that I fit anywhere: On the one side are believers who have no use for art except as a tool for apologetics, polemics, and evangelism. On the other side are those who understand and appreciate art, but have no tolerance for talk of faith or mystery. The well here is poisoned.

This year I attended The Glen Workshop East hosted by Image. My first actual Glen. It was made possible by a scholarship, for which I am grateful; without it I could not have made the trip. In mid-June I drove ten hours from The Glen in South Hadley, Massachusetts back home to Lynchburg, Virginia, tired and happy.

I had spent the week in Erin McGraw’s amazing fiction workshop. I’d gone to readings, listened to musicians play their own compositions. I’d seen artists of all kinds who were there to create, and to commune with other creators.

I remember The Glen in Santa Fe (now called Glen West), when I was there concurrently as an MFA student, with the theme People of the Book, and all the talk of art as this safe place, this sanctuary in which seekers of all faiths and traditions can come and meet and have meaningful exchanges in safety and mutual respect.

The idea washed through me and changed the way I see both art and faith. This idea does not make art into religion in some romantic way. Art is just the good clean dirt in which faith can grow, the woods in which mystery can be glimpsed like a running deer—and a fleeting glimpse here, a flash there, is all anyone is ever allowed.

And the people: The dorm where I was staying had a wide and solid fire escape where a group of us gathered and drank beer. We talked craft. We described our projects. We shared stories of our lives. We played instruments and sang.

And yes we discussed art and faith and mystery—sometimes with a healthy dose of irreverence that comes not from derision but from a desire not to take ourselves too seriously. At Glen East I reconnected with people from the MFA program I hadn’t seen in several years. I met for the first time a lot of amazing artists and thinkers. I came home with my soul full to overflowing.

I have always felt the outsider in church, even growing up as the pastor’s son. I have always moved on the fringes of every group to which I belong.

It might be telling that this group of people—many of whom I saw for the first time in three years at Mt. Holyoke; some of whom I only know online, and have not yet seen in person—make up what I now consider my church.

Do you have to be physically present, face to face with those in your community? Jean Vanier says that community is being created when we come together and thank God for “having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

Is it really possible to live this way with a group of people online? I don’t know.

I do know that the people with whom I feel communion are not around for me to meet with physically. We cannot have a Glen every Sunday. If we did, surely it would eventually wear thin.

But as artists connected by our belief in mystery, we are a church. We are spread all over. But in a very real sense, at least as I see it, this is my local church.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, PANK Magazine, Pembroke, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere. An excerpt from his novel The Calling was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award; other excerpts from The Calling are published in Portland Review and are forthcoming serially in Connecticut Review. His short story “Hush Little Baby” won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction. Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College.

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  • I’m glad you enjoy The Glenn Workshop, but I feel sad that you gave up on church. I don’t feel like I fit in either, not really. But that’s part of the commitment. I go because I need the reminder that church is broken–and so am I. If I start to think I’m better than all the screw-ups in my church, the ones who get on my nerves, the ones who seem a bit old and dead and judgmental and creepy, then I can remember that I’m a screw-up too.

    • Christy

      I appreciated your words, Marcus. I understand the challenge Vic is facing, and totally get not wanting to don dress clothes and do the “grind” of church. But you’re right – we have to be part of making our local churches the very places we want to be. If I want church to be a place where people are loved and accepted and encouraged, etc., I need to show and up and be loving, accepting and encouraging.

      Vic, I’m praying today for you and your wife, just asking God to lead you to a local church community where you will both feel at home. Perhaps you’ll be part of making an existing church more like the church you’d like to find.

  • Vic,

    Wonderful thoughts, sir.

    “Art is just the good clean dirt in which faith can grow, the woods in which mystery can be glimpsed like a running deer—and a fleeting glimpse here, a flash there, is all anyone is ever allowed.”I love this, Vic. You always write well, and always offer meaningful morsels to munch on. 🙂

    I most definitely understand feeling like an outsider in the church. My current church feels like a real and true home for me, but it was hard to find such a place, and it always takes me awhile to find a church that feels like home when I move to a new town. When I do find such a place, I cherish it as best as I can. I also recognize that my uniqueness as a person who creates means I can contribute that uniqueness to the church I attend, and hopefully make other creatives feel welcome there. When many outsiders band together, they become a band of insiders who feel like a family. 🙂

    But I think it’s great that you’ve found a church in the community at the Glen. I would like to attend sometime, and I am not usually the kind of person who champs at the bit to attend big get-togethers. I tend to shy away from things like that in favor of seclusion and creating in quiet. You’ve just further affirmed that I need to attend sometime. 🙂

    Thanks as always, Vic! 🙂

    – CTJ

  • Thanks for sharing Vic. The Glenn is pretty amazing.

  • Dyana Herron

    Great post, Vic! This year’s Glen East was my seventh consecutive Glen, the first being my first MFA residency in Santa Fe. It can be really hard to describe the sense of community found there, but you did that really well here. Hope to see you there again soon!

  • Thank you x 100. It was my first Glen also. I’m grateful for such a gathering.

  • Elena S

    I so appreciate these thoughts. I’m glad for the raw truth of your statements about not liking church. As a lifelong Christian, I hadn’t dared explore my feelings of loneliness and disconnection relating to the church. I’m happy to know I am not alone feeling these things. Church has stunk for me because I believed for a long time that participating in it is the only way to practice Christianity. That is misdirection…:/ I am glad to be part of the Glen community because it celebrates the finding, the searching, the loving.

  • Yes, Vic. YES.

  • Like Marcus, I’m trying to have both: both a local church, and the extended online arts community in which it’s okay to ask questions. I’m lucky– my church is arts-rich, with its own art gallery and a monthly readers & writers gathering. Sometimes I beat myself up for spending too much time online, but that’s where this group of like-minded people posts writing and reading. This post reminds me: long-distance friends are worth my time investment, too. The Church is large.

    Happy to have some fire escape time with you.

  • Luanne Austin

    Aha! So you were one of the ones making all that racket! Just kidding. This was my first Glen, too. And although the workshops, the worship, the readings, the art slides, all were outstanding, it was the conversations over meals and glasses of wine that spoke to me deep down fresh. I’ve found my peeps, I thought after a few days of this. And as I left, I thought, “Back to the world of small talk.”

  • i appreciate your comments about church people & art but we are meant to be part of the body. we need the checks & balances of “ordinary” people in churches, just as much as the church needs creativity & theological insight.

    as creatives we might as well get used to apparent-klutzy-dullards (my wife could easily fall into that category but sometimes she amazes me with her own crude creativity!) we will be spending eternity with more non-creatives than we care to imagine, those beside you in the pew. they are the 99% in many churches:)

  • Anne

    Vic–If you are looking for an “independent community of the likeminded” you will have a hard time finding a church. We all participate in God’s continuing creation of our world and a universe of worlds. There is no elite creative class appointed to this effort.