When I was thirteen, the headlines of the local newspaper read, “The End is Near, according to biblical prophecies and theological scholars.” It scared the shit out of me. I was stressed, I wasn’t sleeping and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. My classmates had their own ideals and didn’t take it serious, exactly how middle schoolers should’ve been responding, carefree and unbothered. But I wasn’t your typical kid. I read a lot, I wrote even more and witnessed more than most kids on a daily basis. I felt things, very deeply. I was always in my head trying to make sense of things. I couldn’t make sense of this.

My aunt is a devout apostolic. Between her and my grandma, I had a skewed picture of God and religion. My aunt’s church services were full of loud praising and running around the church, no tv’s in the house, no “wordly” music and lots of sacrifice and don’t do’s. With my grandma, we went to church every Sunday, the preacher droned on in a heavy African accent for what seemed like hours. There was no praising, just order. Every morning though, she read her bible in bed. The vision still gives me peace. It was a quiet hour, early morning and I’d wake up running down the stairs to use the bathroom and would glimpse at her with the side lamp on, sitting up reading the word. I never asked her what she was reading but I’d enter her room and start running my mouth and she’d gently place her bible in her lap and indulge me. She never talked to me about God, but her weekly service and daily reading appeared to me just as something that you were supposed to do when you got older.

During this time that the world was set to end, my aunt’s pastor told the congregation that they needed to part with any material things that they held dear. “You can’t take it with you and you won’t need it!” She had a huge thimble collection. I’m talking at least 500 beautiful, assorted thimbles from all around the world. She gave it away. When the world didn’t end the church presented it back to her.

Her church would also hold weekly “cell meetings” aka bible study. I’d attend on occasion and during this whole world ending mess, I attended my last one. It was at another member’s apartment and I can still feel how heavy that energy was in there. People were crying and praying and the leader of the meeting said that if anyone there hadn’t been baptized, they’d burn in hell. I cried and just wanted my mom in that moment but my aunt had always been a source of comfort to me, so when she came and knelt in front of me, I asked “Am I going to hell?”, expecting her to embrace me and reassure me that I was safe and didn’t need to worry about that adult mess.

With tears running down her face, she slowly shook her head yes. I cried so bad, she and a few other members prayed over me and after what felt like forever I was dropped off at home. It messed me up for a long time. In fact, I never mentioned it to my mom until last year and she looked over her reading glasses and hollered, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?? GIRL YOU SHOULD’VE TOLD ME!!

I didn’t know any better. And if I’m being honest, my mom was dealing with one son-of-a-bitch of a husband at that time. I watched that man single-handedly turn my mom into stone, I was not about to tell her something that I thought would be brushed off or create problems between her and her sister. I was never made to feel safe with sharing much of anything because she was quick to say, “I’m not trying to hear that crazy shit.” We lived in a house of crazy shit and I was not about to add to it.

That’s one of the reasons I was overzealous with my kids and now my grands. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for our babies to know that they can bring anything to us. I tell them, “No one can beat Mum-Mum, NO ONE. No matter how afraid they make you, I can beat them I promise. You can talk to me about anything!”

My aunt’s declaration did nothing but put twenty years of fear in me. I can remember having very vivid dreams for a good while of me in my bedroom and awakening to a dark sky and people running around like crazy outside, waiting on God to come and send us all to hell. I would wake up sick to my stomach. I think back and goodness, it still triggers me. I carried entirely too much as a child. Children shouldn’t bare burdens like that.

For years and I mean years, I saw God as this big, huge, mean man in the sky just waiting for you to mess up. If you did, you were going to hell. It didn’t make me a perfect child, just a fearful one. It made me extremely depressed because when I did get in trouble, all I knew was that I was in trouble here on earth and I was always doing so much wrong that I could count heaven out, I kid you not. No one ever taught me that God was love. Every thing that I knew in relation to God and religion was sad and heavy. At church, the songs sounded sad. The people crying made me sad. My mom singing along with her gospel on Sunday mornings made me sad. As if I needed anymore of that in my life. My home wasn’t peaceful. School wasn’t peaceful, I felt like an outcast or oddity most of the time. There was no joy and happy moments were far and few. There was no God in that.

It wasn’t until the death of my daughter that all of that was turned on it’s heel. The morning I found my sweet baby, appearing to be asleep but stiff from rigomortis, WHEEEW!! Right there, with her cold body in my arms, any life that I had left in me was gone.

When people die at home, they send an officer and crime scene unit out to make sure that there was no foul play. My daughter died in her sleep while laying on the chest of the only dad she would ever know. The officer stood at the bottom of the stairs while the crime lab examined the bedroom, and another officer help my mom throw all of the formula away, in case it was something in there that caused her death. The officer offered his condolences and asked if there was anything that he could do, any questions he could answer. I raised my head and asked, “Yeah. Can you tell me why type of God would take my daughter from me?” All he could do was cry. I put my head back down.

Sitting in the chapel of the hospital, waiting for someone to tell me if my daughter was still alive when I knew different but I just needed to hear the words, was like a mental suicide. I wanted to die right with her. My life felt like a series of unfortunate events. I had these other three babies, including her twin to tend to and now this? What did I have to offer to these children other than disappointment? I had never experienced pain of that magnitude but I was just so absolutely tired of pain.

And then something extraordinary happened.

The nurse walked us into the ER so that I could see Micah, my daughter. All of the beeps and noise had me on edge, my heart was racing and I thought that I was going to pass out right in the middle of the emergency room. Before she pulled the curtain back, the nurse explained that because they had attempted resuscitation, there was still a breathing tube taped on her mouth. We entered the exam room and I saw my Micah on the bed, bundled up just like she was when I had delivered her and her brother 8 weeks prior. It felt like claws were digging through my body, it hurt so bad, I felt so incredibly helpless. I sat in the chair next to the bed and the nurse picked her up and walked her towards me. I mumbled, “I can’t. I can’t hold her like that.” She squatted down a bit and said, “I know it’s hard, but I do not want you to regret this moment later. We’re right here.” and she placed her in my arms.

As soon as I cradled her, my God. I was overwhelmed with this warm, calming sensation, a peace that would be minimized if I even attempted to describe it with words. I only held her for a minute, if that. But in that short moment, I felt the arms of God embrace me. I literally felt arms come from behind me and wrap around me. No one was standing behind me. I didn’t hear any noise. There was no one else in that room in those few moments. I felt light. I felt lifted. I remember kissing her face and it’s a bit foggy for me after that. I remember my cousin Michele picking her up from my lap and I don’t recall much more. I don’t think I’m supposed to.

But in the days and weeks that followed, my mind kept going back to that embrace. I knew it was God but in a way that I had never known. The God that I knew was enraged and angry. Not loving and most definitely not showing up in moments of absolute despair. The God I knew turned away from mess and took another tally mark of my failures. I couldn’t shake it though.

I bought a bible and attempted to read it to see if something would jar me, provide me with that same sensation but I wasn’t moved. I recalled the peace that I saw on my grandma’s face during her early morning readings but I couldn’t locate anything that resonated with me. So I started creating my own words. I took a dive into poetry, and started expressing that feeling in a million different ways. My best friend was so stirred by my writing that I became the unofficial poet laurate at her church. Every time they had an event, I’d be invited to share one of my pieces and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t fulfilled.

And then she bought me a book. Yesterday, I Cried by Iyanla Vanzant. She was one of our favorite authors at the time and her books gave us life. No one was delivering a message of impact like she did and it fed our souls. All we knew is that we wanted to feel better and I’m so thankful that I had her to as my partner in the quest for better days. We read a lot of her books but with this book in particular, it was as if I was reading about myself on those pages. All those feelings of loneliness and feeling out of place, and ugly and looked over, she was telling my story too. Thankfully, I didn’t experience physical abuse but emotional abuse just leaves bruises that no one sees.

The final page burst my soul open. She concluded by sharing the importance of celebrating children, making them feel welcomed. She shared that she knows her life would have turned out a whole lot different if she had been made to feel that way and how we should celebrate our babies not just on birthdays or special occasions, but just because. She goes on to say that we should make it a norm to tell our babies and all of our loved ones how glad we are that they’re here.

She ended it by quoting Isaiah 40:31: “But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount on wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I dropped the book on my floor and I criiiiiiiiiiiiiiied! But it was not my usual cry of self-pity. This cry was power. This cry was freedom. This cry was realization and forgiveness and eyes wide open.

I was shaking so bad and didn’t have a house phone at the time so I loaded the kids in the car and drove to use the payphone at the Aamco gas station up the street. I didn’t have any spare change so I called my best friend collect. As soon as she said hello, I was crying so hard that I could hardly get words out. She said, “Just breathe, I’m here! Talk to me.” I said, “Kia, they didn’t know any better! Our parents didn’t know! They did what they could but they didn’t know! She was in tears right along with me. We had been doing the work for awhile, studying and doing workbooks but it wasn’t until I devoured those pages, and saw relatable experiences and how she never let go of God’s hand that my views changed. I had never known that God had a hand to hold onto, or arms to carry us at our worst.

That book and that scripture changed my life. I have the scripture tattooed on my right arm. I still refer to her book as my bible. I learned in those pages what I had searched for most of my life. That God wasn’t some huge, angry man hovering in the sky. But that he dwelled right in me. In me! Messy Janell! That I was not forgotten or too messed up for Spirit’s love. That I was loved in the midst of mess. That I had never, ever been alone. There was deep, deep peace in knowing that. Peace that I had never, ever felt in my entire life.

I know joy now, even when it’s not near. And what I know more than anything, is that God loves me. He loves me just as I am. I find joy in everything that represents His love. I don’t care if it’s Christian doctrine, Islam, Buddhism, conversations and encounters with beautiful people, and I’m so glad that I know His love isn’t keeping tally marks.

People attempt to box the Ominpotent in, create this thing that’s only for the extremely sanctified and that only the sincerely saved can access. A privilege that is only designed for a few favored folks. I know that’s absolute bullshit. I love a stirring sermon and respect the views of everyone because even if I disagree, I learn something.

But my greatest lesson is that those who attempt to put a boundary line in God’s love for us, those folks don’t know peace or love. He loves my ratchet self, just as I am. In those morning moments, in the middle of my bed, with my hands lifted, sometimes with no words, sometimes with words I can’t even make out, they just pour, I know love. Good love. Peaceful love.

God is love. And I don’t want anything to do with anything or anybody that tells me otherwise. It’s the most freeing knowledge I possess. No one gave it to me, and no one can take that away.

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