It was the last week of July 2016, and I hadn’t uttered a single heartfelt prayer in a month. And yet, as the youth director of our Methodist Church, it was time for me to lead 25 teenagers and parents on a mission trip across the country in Appalachia. Three weeks prior, I had a D&C after losing our second baby at 11 weeks. At this point in my life, I had never felt farther from God, and I was expected to be a spiritual leader for a bunch of open-hearted teenagers. It was laughable and I felt like a fraud. This is a story about finding faith after miscarriage in Mountain T.O.P., Tennessee.
The Purpose of Mountain T.O.P.
Mountain T.O.P. is located in the middle of Appalachia. It’s a camp where churches from all over the country send teenagers and adult volunteers to share God’s love by meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people who live in the service area. Basically, we build sheds and wheelchair ramps and listen to their stories.
I was skeptical, but it’s not what you think it might be. This is not some hegemonic enterprise where we descend on a devastated region, and impart our religious beliefs on unsuspecting people who really just want their porch fixed. The clients fill out a form to request help, and we show up with tools and teenagers. Many of these people are socially isolated due to their age or physical limitations. They long to share stories and a sack lunch. Sometimes, we share our faith, but only by taking the social cues of those who invited us. It’s the Methodist way.
Setting the Stage for Finding Faith After Miscarriage
The camp itself is kind of brutal for untrained volunteers. It’s drop-dead gorgeous, but we always went in the last week of July. The cabins aren’t air conditioned, and you sleep in bunk beds with about 20 people. It’s insanely hot, and of course you share bathrooms and little shower stalls. You climb this huge gravel hill twice a day for meals in a large cafeteria with about 150 other people. The entire experience is fairly physically demanding. The food is better than what you might expect, but it’s still low-budget cafeteria food that doesn’t lend itself well to dietary restrictions.
Women who have never gone a day of their adult lives without makeup forego it immediately. You do group chores in the morning and evening and no one is exempt. The ice breakers are either great fun or completely horrid, depending on your attitude.
Every night there is a worship service led entirely by teenagers and young adults. There are personal testimonials of God’s love and guitars and song books and actual hard copy Bibles, because there’s also no wifi. I’ll let that part sink in for a moment.
Yup, it’s really intense.
I came into the week with a lot of anxiety, which wasn’t normal for me. I usually approach youth ministry trips with lots of excitement and a huge amount of preparation. This time was different. I wasn’t even physically healed from the D&C, and emotionally I was in a much worse place. It had been probably two full weeks since I had a complete meltdown cry, but I was completely numb.
Being Open to God Involves Being Open to Discomfort
We got our work assignments on Sunday evening, already tuckered out from the long bus ride. We settled into camp and prepared to depart for the work sites at 8:00 am the following morning. I helped load the coolers full of our sack lunches and water. Every team received work site binders full of driving directions (again, bad cell service), instructions for building the shed, a bit of information about our clients, and directions to the hospital, just in case.
On Monday morning, we had our very campy breakfast, full of singing, chanting, weird yet efficient cleaning rituals, and prayer. We loaded the eight of us – two adults and six teens from scattered parts of the US – into our 12 passenger van. We snaked our way through the mountains for 45 minutes, carrying a U-haul trailer full of tools and fighting off carsickness.
When God’s Messenger Doesn’t Look Like Me
Finally, we arrived. The woods were thick, and carved from the pines was a perfectly rectangular, dirt lot, completely littered with milk jugs. That’s the first thing I noticed. Actually, there was quite a bit of trash everywhere, and a pile of lumber that had been left for us out by gravel road.
Towards the front of the lot was one of those prefab sheds you can get from the parking lot of a Home Depot or Lowes. The door to the shed was open, and even without electricity in it, I could tell that the couple had made it their home. Immediately visible was a portable toilet, a mattress on the floor, and packaged foods. There was no electricity or running water.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it, because a cheerful woman emerged to greet us, and her husband followed soon after. They were incredibly welcoming and even teared up with joy at our arrival. They fit the stereotype of Appalachian mountain people neatly, including the missing teeth, tattered clothes, and heavy accent. I was almost certain the woman had abused drugs in the past, but she seemed well now. They were lovely people who were eager to talk about God, and we were here to get to know them better – and build a shed from cheap lumber.
Finding Faith After Miscarriage Involved Vulnerability and Exhaustion
As our conversation continued, and we began sorting materials for the project, the reality of the situation began to gnaw at me. I was only three weeks out from a D&C, and still physically needing a lot of self-care. We were at least 15 minutes from a gas station, and at a work site with people I didn’t know. There was no running water. I began to get anxious about spending my days there. In the weeks since the procedure, my body punished me with more bleeding every time I exerted myself at home. How would I handle high temperatures, heavy labor, and long days?
Further, my emotional response to this miscarriage seemed totally out of sync with what I thought I should be feeling. Hadn’t millions of women worldwide had first trimester losses, even after seeing a heartbeat on the screen? Why wasn’t I coping? I felt a weird sense of shame about how much this set back felt like a black hole.
We had only been there a half hour when I noticed a gravesite where the edge of the lot met the woods. A small, handmade wooden cross was there, with a weather-worn, hot pink teddy bear at the base of it. A fresh container of impatiens was at the foot of the tiny gravesite. I soon realized I was studying the burial place for a baby. Given how preoccupied I was with my own grief, I felt suddenly paralyzed by my situation. As my eyes filled with tears, I blinked up at the sun, took a deep breath, and busied myself by hauling lumber from the curb to the back of the lot. I hoped my heavyweight coveralls would hold up for the day.
Getting to Know the Messenger
The week wasn’t about me, and I had a job to do. So each day, I dutifully worked under the hot sun on the shed, spent quality time with the teenagers on my team, and had countless conversations with the clients. It took a while to understand them because of the cadence of their speech, heavy accent, and unfamiliar colloquialisms.
Pieces of the couple’s story began to come together as they shared more about themselves. They had been together for over twenty years and had several children together, one of whom slept in a tent with his own children at the back of the property. They showed me the tent, which was littered with dirty diapers inside for his own baby. I was completely, privately astounded by their living conditions.
They chugged soda and carried water in milk jugs from the nearby stream, and they wore the same clothes all week without any method of escaping the heat. And yet, they used their one beat-up truck to travel almost 45 minutes to their church. The man told me that church family meant everything to them, so they used almost every penny they had to pay for gas to get to church and back every Sunday.
Being Pursued by God (and the Crumbling Wall)
Physically, I did fine. I loaded up the students every morning and afternoon for a run to the gas station on the premise of a whole-group potty stop. I worked as hard as anyone else and was rarely punished with anything more than fatigue. However, the wall I had carefully constructed around my emotions, which had carried me through the past three weeks, was crumbling. I couldn’t stop looking at the gravesite. Several times, I found myself standing right by it, eying the cross and the teddy bear, and not even remembering how I wandered back over there.
In the evenings, I sat at the back of the outdoor worship space, and busied myself with checking in on the kids. As the music would start up every night, the cynicism and hardness in my heart would block any emotions that were welling up. As a safeguard against feeling anything at all, I’d mentally check off a list of things I didn’t like about the service – in spite of it being coordinated by hopeful college students. Then I would feel guilty, of course. When prayer time would begin, I’d allow my mind to wander back home to Turkey Burger and Hubs, as I wondered if they were doing okay without me.
The Conversation that Changed Everything
Thursday came, and it would be the last full work day with our clients. It turned out that the husband was incredibly handy, and he taught us all sorts of tricks he called, “a bit of redneck ingenuity.” His way of life, which was so foreign to us, was the only life he had ever witnessed anyone lead. I wondered what they would put inside the shed we were building.
The woman lingered around me more than normal on the final day. She loved hearing stories about my life experiences, and I enjoyed listening to her tell me about her church, which was her favorite topic. Finally, she said, “I seen you lookin’ at my baby over there.”
My heart started pounding, and I told her I thought the flowers were beautiful. She admitted to me that she used to take some pretty hard drugs. She wanted to quit them, but never could kick the habit. The years of pain and dependence showed all over her face. No one would ever meet her again and not know the worst parts of her story.
Seven years prior, she had gotten pregnant, but she didn’t know until she began feeling movement. She tried quitting the drugs again, but she said it was just impossible for her at the time. When she gave birth to a stillborn baby one night in those woods, she thought she’d never get over it. The guilt and grief had been overwhelming. Her husband dug a little grave right there on the property, and they carried on with their slow, quiet lives. I’ll never forget the words she said next.
“But you know what? God forgave me. God loves me, and He loves you, too.”
When Nature Does the Talking
I finished out the last day of hard work with her words clanging around in my mind, too loud to ignore. She wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard thousands of times before that moment: God forgave me, God loves me, and God loves you, too. There wasn’t anything revolutionary about what she was saying, at least to my ears. So why did it keep repeating like a broken record in my mind? We wrapped up the project, went shopping for souvenirs, and came back to shower.
The sun set, the moon rose up, and we all descended to the worship site a final time. I have no idea what songs we sang, or what scripture was read. I thought about turning around and leaving, as I began to feel more raw and exposed. But when I glanced behind me, there was an entire row of other parents, volunteers and leaders in camp chairs, looking like some sort of impenetrable wall. I couldn’t just discreetly escape. I was surrounded by nature and mountains and moonlight and fireflies and stars and a huge expanse, and yet trapped on that wooden bench.
It felt like scabs being pulled off, and I hated the feeling.
Once the tears filled my eyes, there simply wasn’t any shutting them down. But it wasn’t like the tears I had cried as I came out of anesthesia, or the tears I cried in the bathtub over the week the followed. They were the start of something new and hopeful, instead of the end of something painful.
A Jealous, Manipulative God?
In the days that followed, I was lost in my own thoughts. What sort of manipulative God would put me in that situation? To put a grieving mother at the gravesite of a baby for a week seemed like the Old Testament God that I always thought needed Jesus. It seemed shitty to me. Does He really need my love and attention that badly? People describe God that way, and I’ve always hated it. If you’ve ever had an insecure, jealous, manipulative romance, you want nothing of it. I want my God to be bigger than that.
I was becoming someone so consumed with bitterness, fear and worry that I wasn’t capable of loving anyone else. In just 12 weeks, I had become unrecognizable to myself. Maybe He wasn’t a jealous God, desperate for my love and attention. Perhaps He just knew that if I didn’t turn to Him, I’d lose everything. He needed to strip away every physical comfort and force me to confront the pain. In those moments, I simply had no choice but to acknowledge His presence on that mountain.
Finding Faith After Miscarriage Requires an Openness to Love
The messenger He sent me had nothing in the eyes of the world. She didn’t have health, beauty, water, electricity, respectable clothing, education, or even all her babies. She was open to the love of a Father who never quits, and the love of her husband who saw her pain and walked with her through it. Her church family knew her story and welcomed her back each Sunday.
I’ve heard it said that a marriage is only really in trouble when apathy enters the equation. “The opposite of love,” they say, “isn’t hate.” It’s simply not caring anymore. I was teetering on the edge of not caring about anything but myself and my own pain. But I met a woman who had nothing but love, and she was happy. Finding faith after miscarriage is simply allowing yourself to love again. Love requires vulnerability and access and softening yourself to be molded and made into a new creation.
Have you ever felt like you were being pursued by God?