“Hello, my name is Ellen and I am the new girl!”
Those words would be repeated over and over again throughout my life. Being the new girl was a role I played every year in my elementary school. I played the part, not like an understudy, but as a star. It seemed that our family moved every single year. As soon as my parents announced, “We’re moving,” my heart leapt with joy. To me moving was always an anticipated adventure. There were always new places to go and new people to meet. By the time I was in fourth grade we had lived in five states: New York, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. My biggest challenge, other than learning to spell the state, was learning the culture of each state. Each state, as well as each person I met, was unique.
Even though I was a child, I was well aware of the fact that it was almost impossible to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Nonetheless, it was always the number one question asked of the new girl. It was refreshing to hear, because it opened the door to conversation. In no time at all something I said, or their response, grew a connection. Friendships were birthed that would last a lifetime. In no time at all I began to feel comfortable in my new surroundings, and call it home.
Moving from place to place became the norm for me. God used these journeys to form my character. I changed from a once-shy child to a woman who had never met a stranger. The experiences I encountered in my life gave me the courage, at barely seventeen, to live independently in three different states. It gave me the wings I need to fly the friendly skies as a flight attendant for Air Florida Airlines. It gave me the confidence to speak on both television and radio. Unless you walk a mile in someone’s high heels, you will never be able to grasp how they got there. God alone is the GPS. He has mapped out an individual journey for each of us to follow. The destination, however, will always lead us to the heart of God, if we set the compass of our heart towards Him.
Part of my journey has been to full-time ministry as a writer and speaker. As a deacon’s wife, it has been a perfect fit for me. The Catholic Church and God’s people, next to our large family, is what Deacon Pat and I hold dear to our hearts. I will never forget what God said to me when I embraced His call on my life, “Ellen, the ministry is a lonely place!” It was an exhortation and an invitation rolled into one! It was how I received the call on my life to full time ministry. Do you remember in the scripture when Jesus invited the disciples to lay down their nets and follow Him? What was He asking of them? It was a call to those He had chosen to be His disciples to leave behind what they knew and loved, fishing of course, and to follow Him. Following Jesus almost always takes us into the unknown. We may be asked to walk on unfamiliar waters like Peter, or leave our homelands like Abraham, or face the lions like Daniel, or even sail away on an ark like good old Noah! I believe that I have walked a mile in all of their shoes. I have learned that when I set sail towards the unknown, not to forget to ask Jesus to be the captain of my ship and also the GPS.
When Pat became a Deacon, God implanted these words deep in my soul, “Oh, the places you will go!” Surprisingly, the speech at graduation day as Pat received his masters of Pastoral Theology came right from the Dr. Seuss’s book of that same title. As I look back on our journey of almost a decade, I laugh out loud, as the words ring in my ear, “Oh, the places you will go!” Pat’s journey as a Deacon has taken us to The Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, Ga., St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, Ga., Our Saviors in Cocoa Beach, Fl., St. John’s in Viera, Fl. and St. Mary’ s Help of Christian in Aiken, SC. Oh, the places we have gone. Each time we relocate we have been asked just, like the disciples to lay down our “nets” of familiarity and follow Him into the unknown. Each time, just like when I was a child, I have been asked to play the role of the new girl.
I will never forget that day in Florida, when a middle-aged gal came walking up to me after mass and asked, “Who are you?” I, a gal who was raised in the south, politely answered, “I am the deacon’s wife, Ellen Mongan.” Her answer came in a matter of fact way, “We have a deacon?” I forced a smile and walked away. I could not help but wonder, where was the, “Welcome to our church, we’re so glad you are here!”? I was disappointed and perhaps waiting for an inviting response like, “I would love to have you over for tea and introduce you to some of the parishioners.” I would have normally been able to brush it off but we had been at the parish for two years and unfortunately those words stung my heart. I beseeched the Lord with, “Why did she not ask, ‘Where are you from?’ as when I was the new girl as a child. I knew just how to respond to that, after all I had rehearsed that answer. Lord, the answer to that question always leads to getting to know each other, finding common ground, and making friendships that will last a lifetime.”
God was silent! I was not. Like the prophet Job I asked questions and complained. I grumbled and sometimes out loud. Being a new girl as an adult has not become the exciting adventure it was as a child. People have even rolled their eyes at me. I have experienced “no room at the inn,” facing the lions, and even being judged falsely. After five churches and three states, I find myself crying out to God, “Where do I belong?” The invitation to discipleship begins to make sense; the ministry can be a lonely place.
I was sharing after Stations of the Cross this past Lent that I have been in this new church over two years and I only know twelve people. I call two of the twelve acquaintances, “the Chicago couple,” because I haven’t known them long enough to learn their names. I, who was once known as the woman who had never met a stranger, found myself walking away from the conversation with a tear in my eye, all alone. That next Sunday after Mass a woman approached me. She was carrying a cheery smile and a welcoming heart. I greeted her with the same. She spoke first, “I overheard you say at Stations that you have been in our church two years and you only know twelve people.” I fought back a tear and then as if the dam of my heart had broken, I burst into uncontrollable crying. Clearly I had held in my sadness and loneliness way too long. She reached out her hand and introduced herself, with the words, “Now you know me.” She embraced me and held me with the arms of Christ. Then without skipping a beat she handed me a handkerchief as a parting present. What she did not know was that my article in CatholicMom that month was called “The Cloth of Compassion!” On that day she was St. Veronica to me and that was what my article was about. This encounter was a holy moment. The cloth of compassion which she extended to me with love has been used to dry many a tear. I will treasure it forever until God leads me to pass it on to someone who needs it more than I.
I often pray, “Dear Jesus, do not have me be so busy with my life that I do not have the time to notice the tear in the eye of someone in the pew.” It is in the church, just like in our family, that we are to experience the love of Christ! It is a place to be welcomed and to be loved. It is also a place to share our time, our talent and our treasure. We are called to make room at the “inn” of our parish for all those who look like us and act like us, and those who do not! It is the Year of Mercy! We are to welcome the stranger. A stranger is a friend you have not yet met. Where there is love there is God. Get to know the strangers: your first impression may not be who they are at all, but only who you think they are. You can never judge a book by its cover. Who are you can only be answered by getting to know who they really are. Take the time to care.
Many of you moms reading this article may be the new girl too! Unfortunately, not only are you trying to adjust to the unfamiliar path but you also have a responsibility to help your children to adjust as well.
What have I learned in my journey as the new girl?
- Never judge a book by its cover. Get to know people and then you can read them better.
- If you are involved in a parish you will feel a part of the parish. It is where you are to use your time, talent and treasure. If the door is closed, do not hide your talents under a “bushel basket;” use them elsewhere.
- If they offer social events or coffee after Mass, go and meet. Social encounters are usually the friendliest.
- Encourage your children to join youth groups, go to events and serve in their gifts.
- Invite the priest to dinner and let the family get to know him.
- Pray that God will lead you and your children to the friends He wants you to have.
- If there is a parish school, enroll your children in it, if at all possible. Life in a parish often revolves around the school.
- Make the first move; invite people over for yourself and your children.
- Get involved in the community; join things in your gifts.
- Sports for the children are a way to feel part of the area. Get involved.
- Meet your neighbors and maybe even start a neighborhood get together group.
- Teach your children to pray that God will give them the friends that He wants them to have; the friends that lead them toward Jesus.
- Teach your children to be themselves. If you have to change your whole personality for someone to like you; they are not worth the friendship. Friends love you in all kinds of weather. If it is raining out a friend brings an umbrella.
- Lastly, if after a few years you still feel like a stranger in your own church, maybe it is time to move on to a neighboring parish. You must feel at home in your church to make it your home parish. There are thankfully “plenty of fish in the sea.”
For most people change is difficult. Moving is one of those changes. God wants all to feel welcomed, loved, accepted and used by Him in His church. A welcoming church is a church where all are welcome. An alive church is one where new gifts and new ideas are accepted and put into practice. We are the hands of Christ. We must pray to be used by God to welcome the stranger: it is a Corporal Work of Mercy. So moms, if you see the new guy with a tear in their eye, for heaven’s sake, bring your cheery smile, your welcoming heart and extend your hand out in love to introduce yourself. You may have just met a friend for life.
Whatever you do, ladies don’t ask the question, “Who are you?” Instead get to know someone and then you will know the answer for yourself. Remember, when in doubt, ask, “Where are you from?”
Copyright 2016 Ellen Mongan