Before I packed all my earthlies and headed for parts unknown, I was another single gal living in Grand Rapids. And let me tell you...
Being single in West Michigan is NOT easy.
Being single in general can be a tough and lonely season...and for some a very tough and long season.
But here, there is a different flavor, if you will. Let me try to explain. And in doing so, I don't want to sound like I was some angry single lady minus the cat. And I know full well that one can feel isolated and lonely no matter WHAT stage of life they're in, no matter WHERE they are.
This is a part of the country that is very, very family-oriented and conservative. I really appreciate that, I do. But I'm not gonna lie: it does lend itself to making someone who doesn't fit the married-straight-out-of-college mold feel like a social pariah. You kind of are made to feel like less of a grown-up. Most activities and events are geared towards families or marriage "encounters." It's just...awkward.
I remember even throwing my hands in the air one time over the name of a local grocery chain: "Family Fare." I wanted to open my own chain called "Single People Fare." You know, with smaller loaves of bread that don't go moldy because only one person is eating them. Fewer aisles full of family size!!!! boxes and more single-people size!!!! packages that won't go stale. You get my drift. A local Christian radio station touted that it was "the number-one preset in mini-vans across West Michigan!" I was like, SERIOUSLY? I was 25 and I got so many doleful looks from the ladies at work, like, "Oh, your life must be just awful, being alone." Argh.
Anyway, probably the most difficult place to be was church, of all things. When I worked nights I'll admit it was really hard to get plugged into a church. That's a different story, but I'll just suffice to say that working nights just made me a physical and mental mess. But when I DID go, I was always struck that, here I was in this big church nearly packed to the gills with people. And as I looked around, I noticed that I was the only one with a huge gap on either side of me...I know my perception was probably incorrect, but it almost felt like I had this huge disease (singleness!!!!) that no one wanted to brush up against. People are awkward when you're a onesie instead of a twosie. How do you relate to a half instead of a whole? At least that's sure how it seemed.
Church is a place where everyone should be able to breathe a sigh of relief and think, "Ahhhhh...here it doesn't matter if I'm married/single/rich/poor/ugly/gorgeous/etc." Unfortunately, on this side of heaven that may never be fully the case. Nonetheless, even when I was just out of college I remember being struck at the compartmentalizing our society likes to do...and how churches follow suit. We need to categorize people and perch them on the corresponding peg. Age groups, life groups, marital status, kid vs. kid-less status...line them up in their neat rows because that's how people get along.
I can see the real benefit of categorizing, I really do. But I also see how it hurts and alienates. Not intentionally, but it does. I mean, here's an example: (BTW, this has not hurt or alienated us, it just caused some uhhhhh-ness at first) There are two Sunday School categories at our church that Matt and I could fall into: young marrieds, or married with kids. We fall more in the "young marrieds" category simply because we are still fairly newly-married (and had been married less than a year when we started going). But age-wise, we fell more in the married-with-kids category (and heck, for Matt, he could even go into the next group up). Many of the young marrieds are remarkably younger than we are. But if we go into the married-with-kids class, where there are more people our age, they're in a radically different stage of life than we've been. So no matter where you go, there's a degree of awkward.
What annoyed me with some churches I attended was they would put all of the singles in one pot: post-high school and up. So you'd have this mish-mash of 19-year-olds up to 30-somethings who may be divorced. But that was your only choice, because you certainly couldn't join another group, that would be the wrong category!!!! And that would throw it all off!!
Anyway, I feel like I'm straying off of what I want my point to be, which is this: we need to be better at taking care of all of the "categories" of people at church (and in life in general). I need to be better about it, that's for sure. People feel alienated and lonely because they aren't treated like they fit. There are couples who are secretly struggling with infertility and are being told to "relax" and "trust in the Lord." There are people who feel snubbed because their kids go to public schools rather than being homeschooled or put in the Christian school. There are older newly marrieds who need to be mentored by an "older" married couple who may very well be their same age. And there are single people who need to be pulled into families and loved on, asked how their life is going, encouraged, mentored, and appreciated for their gifts.
I wish, when I was single and probably had more opportunity than I realized, that I would have had the gumption to start to get to know a variety of people, and not just see myself as "single and therefore a freak." My answer was to bail, honestly, and thankfully the Lord still directed my steps in that. When I got to California, though, the bulk of the people I met were married and I was like, "Oh my word, is this some cosmic JOKE?" but it was thanks to some wonderful couples/families who took me under their wing right away, included me in their date nights (I know, who does that?! Honestly, I would never expect that), had me over for dinner, invited me to Bible studies and movie nights...and that was all within two weeks of being there. Why didn't that happen in three years of being here? But now that memory reminds me of the extreme importance of dropping the category and loving on people. Married, single, weird, smelly, or otherwise.