I realized Joy went to church with me on Pentecost Sunday.
I sat with my parents at the special outdoor service, held in the local high school stadium. In the bleachers before the service, I shaded my eyes with my hand to see the stage. There was a girl up there. A girl my age.
I knew her, I realized with a jolt. We had PE together; her space was a row over from mine in the girl’s locker room.
Her hair always hung in lovely, soft curls; she had the kind of pale, vulnerable skin that wasn’t fashionable in Southern California. We were in the same grade, both on the honors track.
And, most remarkably of all for Junior high, she was nice.
Seeing a kid I knew in church was a shock, like seeing a teacher in the grocery store. Usually, I was too nervous to go to Sunday school, each week I sat next to elderly ladies and belted hymns while my parents sang with the choir.
I didn’t mind. I was used to being alone. Alone was safe.
But that Pentecost, on the bright bleachers, I realized I didn’t have to be alone. There was a kid my age.
I tried to figure out what to do with that information.
Truth was, church was a new experience for me. I’d gone as a preschooler, but then for five years—hard years for my family—we’d stayed home on Sundays.
Now, I stumbled over the words to the Lord’s Prayer, wondered at the melody for the Doxology, and had no idea where any of the books in the Bible were.
Seeing Joy up there on stage, I realized there was more I didn’t know.
Specifically, what would it mean to have a friend in church? What would it feel like?
I watched Joy tap the associate pastor, Mary, on her elbow. Mary gave Joy a side hug.
This girl was connected.
I looked down at the names of all the church staff in the bulletin. Suddenly, I heard Joy’s last name in my head, just like every PE class. McCullough.
I blinked. Her father was the head pastor.
I looked up again, saw her give Mary another hug. Then she hopped off the side of the stage with the casual air of someone at home.
The service started, but I kept looking for Joy in the congregation, wondering what it would be like to sit beside her.
You would think I made friends with Joy after that.
But you’d be wrong.
After that Sunday, I smiled broadly at her in the hallway at school. I was thanking her, in my head, for being nice, for existing. And I thought I’d do her a favor.
I’d keep my distance.
Back in junior high, I had this sense that I contaminated people. It was so ingrained in my view of the world that I didn’t even question the decisions that flowed out of it.
I simply assumed Joy would be better off not knowing me. I’d help her by staying away.
If it had been up to me, I’d probably never have gotten to know her at all.
But a year later, my sister moved home for the first time in six years, and she started going to the high school youth group. She encouraged me to come too. She made friends with Joy’s older sister.
My very first Sunday in youth group, I sat next to Joy on the floor. We’d talked before group started, and I could tell she wasn’t just being nice. She was—she was reaching out to me.
A year before, I’d wondered what it would mean to have a friend in church.
Now, my heart pounding, I knew the answer.
It meant everything.
That year, Joy and I were thick as thieves. We played Trivial Pursuit at her house on Friday nights. She brought me fresh-baked cookies in Spanish class; we giggled over boys, joined the children’s choir together. I found a tiny empty bottle of Joy perfume and filled it with tiny treasures for her Christmas present.
Twenty years later, she’s still one of my dearest friends.
Honestly, connection comes hard to me. I grew up keeping everyone at arm’s length. It is a hard habit to change.
I remind myself to say hello to my family in the morning. I remind myself to touch my kids’ hair, to pull them close in for a hug. I remind myself that my friends want to hear my voice on the phone. That they want to know about my problems.
I need courage to presume, over and over, that people still like me.
It has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older. I have good friends, and I try to be a good friend to them. I’m learning how to be brave and lean on people.
But the main thing I’ve learned is this:
Even if I’m horribly incompetent at connecting, friendship comes anyway. Because I’ve found I don’t make friends, really, any more than I make a squirrel.
No: friendship is a gift that’s handed to me, in the form of lovely people who walk into my life at the right time. But it’s the oddest present—in order to enjoy it, I have to open myself, not the gift.
When I think of me in the bleachers, and the girl I watched on stage, I am astonished at how much we needed each other, then as now. And I am so grateful that despite myself, I was opened up for that precious, wonderful gift.