Evergreen Diaspora: A New Kind of Church

Last week I talked with Paula, my friend that I met years ago when we worshipped together at Evergreen Methodist Church (UMC) near Chapel Hill. At that time, my two sons were in middle school and active in the youth group as well as the Boy Scout Troop–based at Evergreen. It was a busy time of family life and the church became an extended family through those years. My husband, David and I were involved in various roles in the church– worship team, music, Sunday School, nurture committee etc. It was a small to moderate size church and we felt deep connections with fellow members whom we grew to know well.

Evergreen was a nice mix of “old church” and “new church” for me. We sang many of the hymns I’d grown up with at the congregation of my childhood– Shallow Well United Church of Christ in my hometown of Sanford. Eventually, Evergreen UMC followed the trend of creating a Contemporary worship service with praise songs that were being sung around the world, many popularized by Hillsong out of Australia. For a couple of years, my younger son, Ross played drums for our group, while David played piano and I mostly sang harmonies. Those late Saturday afternoon services were small in number but had such a sweet, Spirit-filled atmosphere; they felt deeply meaningful to my growth as a Christian.

Over the years, our church had typical ups and downs, from a parishioner’s point of view. There were concerns about the pastors–how well they fed the congregation in their depth of Sunday morning sermons, and their character–how they got along with various factions of the church. Eventually, after being at Evergreen for thirteen years, David and I decided we had to leave. There are some conflicts that ultimately can’t be resolved. When it reached that point, we found ourselves going through that struggle of “Do I leave or Do I stay?” Many of you may have gone through that same situation with a faith community, or another important group that you’ve been an integral part of.

When the reality hit me that we may go, I found myself saying, “How can I leave Evergreen? What would happen to the church if I weren’t involved?”

At that time, I was leading the Evergreen Women’s Group, hosting meetings in our home. I felt a strong connection with those ladies and had been told the group was filling a need for fellowship. If I pulled out, would that group continue? Other women were helping but I wasn’t sure they felt the same energy and purpose in carrying out the group. Later, I would realize that some of my concern wasn’t about those ladies; underneath, there was a strong component of my Ego— my sense of my importance. I’d always had a strong “helper” identity– as a nurse, a daughter, a mother and some of that role had garnered praise that could lead to almost a “martyr-like” degree of self-giving that wasn’t always balanced.

What I imagined would happen was that those of us who were leaving Evergreen, at a similar time, would somehow reconvene at another church, in another faith community. It was as if we’d made an exodus and with all we shared in common in our faith experience, our Evergreen Diaspora would end up in the same land; but that didn’t happen.

David and I considered joining others at the new churches they attended; but none of them fit for us. Instead, we started going to Duke University Chapel. That was the only church David and I could agree on. He liked the music—that was really too “High Church” for me–since I preferred the old hymns and contemporary songs sung to guitars, drums and other instruments. The Dean of Duke Chapel was a British man who had deep and poetic sermons and appealed to both of us; it was enough to meet our needs.

When I participated in the Adult Education Program at Duke Chapel, the first woman I met said she’d left her small church and come there when she went through a divorce.

“It was easier being anonymous in this large church than in the place where I’d worshipped with my ex-husband,” she told me.

I didn’t foresee being a divorcee– like her, at that time; I just liked knowing I could take a break from being involved in so many church responsibilities. I was worn down from all my volunteering, all my being “Super Church Member.” Duke Chapel fed me but didn’t require an immediate payment of service. Later, I would give my time and serve–but in more carefully controlled ways that weren’t personally draining. I made enough connections to have the support I needed through Mama’s decline with dementia. Later, when David stopped going to church with me, and then when we went through our separation and divorce, the Congregation at Duke Chapel came through for me. The female minister and a couple of friends in that fellowship, provided enough support to get me through the early days of that upheaval. By that time, I’d been at the Chapel for as long as we’d been at Evergreen.

Last spring, my older son, Brooks told me he’d run into a friend from grade school, Ike who’d become a minister. He and his wife, Sharon were now the co-pastors at Bright City Church in Durham that met in the movie theater at Southpoint Mall. Brooks and his family started attending their services.

Soon, I joined them in that church that was just down the street from my apartment. How wonderful it was to sit with my son and his wife, Emily in the services, and sometimes, my younger grandson, Parks. At first he wouldn’t go in the children’s Sunday school class– maybe because in the worship service he could watch the musicians on stage and eat a steady stream of snacks to keep him quiet.

Eventually, Parks wanted to join his older brother, Baker in Sunday school. Afterwards, we gathered both of them from the Kid’s City program. They were delighted when we arrived and showed us what they’d colored or constructed, later telling us something they’d learned from story time.

We left through the corridor of theaters and smelled the popcorn prepared for the afternoon movie patrons. The Durham Police officer who is stationed in that area, gave fist bumps to my grandsons and wishes for a happy Sunday together, saying something about what a nice-looking family we were. At Shallow Well, we would have waited in line then filed past the preacher and shook his hand. That wasn’t nearly as exciting for little boys as a fist bump with a police officer!

Afterwards, we stopped outside for the boys to play tag– like we would have done in the church yard at Shallow Well while our parents were talking.

Then we walked down the broad sidewalk to a restaurant for lunch, or “Sunday dinner” as we called it when I was a girl. Instead of the fried chicken Mama made before church, we ate at the California Pizza Kitchen. Afterwards, we strolled to the fountains where I had my purse full of coins for my grandsons to throw into the spray beneath the metal sculptures of children playing. That was their “Sunday offering” to UNC Children’s Hospital, just as I put my coins in the offering plates that were passed down the pews of my home church.

It’s a new kind of church at Bright City, and when I learned that I was moving out of Durham to Apex, I made the decision it was worth driving back for. I talked with my Duke Chapel minister and told her I’d be moving and about my new church experience with my son and his family.

“It’s really special when three generations can worship together, Connie,” she told me. With those words, she blessed my departure from Duke Chapel and my entry into my new church community.

I never thought I’d be in the situation where my son and his family would live nearby. Unlike families in Shallow Well, where it wasn’t unusual for three generations to stay there and worship together, my sons had moved out of state after college. They had not come back home until fourteen years later, and that had been just before the divorce. How we’d benefitted by being in close proximity during the challenges of that difficult time. Now, I’m benefitting from watching my grandsons’ first experiences of faith, the “home church” they’ll remember.

It seems that Bright City Church pulls together the family ties of my Shallow Well experience and the contemporary worship we had at Evergreen. In between those experiences, my individual growth was nurtured at Duke Chapel with a broader theology and expansiveness of contemplative faith. In that community, I was pointed toward my journey to Iona–an ancient international pilgrimage site visited by a fellow Chapel parishioner. My mission experience in Haiti was nurtured by that community that reached out globally. Another fellow member at the Chapel pointed me to the ministry of Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr and now his book, Falling Upward is informing me in my ‘second half’ of life.

If we’d stayed at Evergreen, I wonder how my faith journey would have unfolded. No doubt God would have continued to work in my life, challenging me to grow, or allowing me to remain stagnant–whatever I chose. While the decision point of “Do I leave or Do I stay?” had been painful at that time and had disrupted our lives, ultimately, it moved us toward growth. I’ve seen this same thing in others who left–ways their lives have changed and evolved over the years. I’ve lost contact with many from that congregation and don’t know the ways that those who did stay have also grown; even places that appear to be the same change over time.

Rohr talks about the internal pull toward growth in the ‘second half of life’ when you feel that move toward what you were created to be. He speaks to the need to go down in order to go up, that death is followed by new growth. We all go through a lot of deaths in life, whether it’s the death of belonging to one community of faith to join another, or it’s some other long-held affiliation that needs to be broken in order to follow the pull within.

My hope for myself and for you, is that we’re able to keep the treasures from our past and carry them forward into our future, weaving them into a tapestry of experiences that are rich and fulfilling, sustaining and challenging. We may disperse to different places, belong to new groups, but our deep connection can remain and and nurture the new lives we find.



4 thoughts on “Evergreen Diaspora: A New Kind of Church

  1. Hello.
    This is a beautiful reflection on the journey of faith and the importance of finding a spiritual community that nourishes and supports us through life’s challenges. It’s inspiring to see how the author has found a new church home that brings together the best of her past experiences while also opening up new opportunities for growth and connection.
    Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi Michellenielsen98,
      Sorry for the delayed response.
      Thanks for reading and for your compliment. I appreciate your reaction–which helps me to better understand what I wrote!
      It is interesting to travel down our unique path in this faith journey.
      Wishing you the best in finding those places for your growth and connection.
      Connie Rosser Riddle


  2. Very interesting and thorough description of the different churches. I can certainly relate to a lot of what you shared from our experience at University Baptist. Keep up the good writing.

    Sent from my iPad



    • Hey Harriet,
      Thanks so much, Older Sis for reading and commenting and encouraging my writing. Yes, we’ve shared a lot about our challenges in finding the faith communities that fit our needs over time–and are also places where we can serve.
      Best to you,


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