Kristen Shelly Matthews is one class away from completing a master’s degree in Human Resource Management from DeVry University. She works as the office manager of GTECH Strategies, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2010, Kristen graduated from Bluffton University with a degree in Sociology. Kristen grew up in Rochester, New York. She and her husband, Devon, attend Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.
I am not a person who likes risks.
I was surprised then to find I myself – a fresh college graduate and newlywed – in a new city, lacking adequate income or any solid plan for the future.
How my husband, Devon, and I arrived at the decision to move to Pittsburgh is a bit fuzzy in my memory. It involved a few friends’ encouragement, an idea to continue our college community living experience in a fresh place, a snowy February road trip, being turned down for voluntary service because we were too fresh from the altar, and an attitude of “the world is ours – where should we start?” Not wishing to stay in either of our hometowns, Pittsburgh it was – a city allegedly filled with opportunities and brimming with youthful energy and renewal.
So here we were, just over a week after the wedding, in a too-large house as we awaited our friends to move in, one temp job between the two of us and a dwindling savings account. That – and getting lost every time we left the house – made for a challenging first month in one of the country’s “most livable cities.”
A few months later, I found myself at my third post-graduation job: a Child Protective Services caseworker, investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. I never imagined working in social services in this capacity, but at the time it seemed like an improvement over door-to-door canvassing for a nonprofit or serving bagels and coffee. After spending long and draining days running between the office and client homes, I would bring my paperwork home with me, trying to stay on top of the rapidly rising mound, a task that proved impossible. It’s hard to say what was more difficult: the paperwork and phone calls required of even the most unsubstantiated reports, or the heartbreak I saw in a young mom’s eyes as I took temporary custody of her infant child on behalf of the agency.
I attribute getting through this stressful, tear-filled time to grit and grace. Grit was never giving up on our decision to move to Pittsburgh. Grit was treating my clients with respect, even when my job required me to ask intensely personal questions. Grit was applying to yet another job, seeking a better fit. Grace was low interest rate credit cards and generous wedding gifts. Grace was our dear friends moving in with us. Grace was securing a job that was at least slightly more sane and sustainable, even though it still wasn’t my dream. Grace was the community we found at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church that seamlessly absorbed us into its life. Lucky for us, PMC was experiencing a surge in young adult attendance and we immediately made new friends who shared our values and pastimes. We dove into life at PMC.
I wish I could say that community made everything easy. Instead, what has changed for me over these last five years is not the presence or absence of hardship, but my perspective on the hard times. I have struggled to understand that being okay is not dependent on having it all together (in appearance or reality). It’s not even determined by whether or not my internal boat is being rocked by the storm I’m travelling through. Vulnerability isn’t something that can be escaped or avoided. Being okay is embracing the knowledge that hard times are an essential part of the human experience. This realization has significant implications. Looking back, I can see the grace we experienced and the resilience we cultivated. Looking forward, I can have confidence in my ability to face an uncertain future. Our struggles – external and internal, interpersonal and intrapersonal, private and public – give us strength.
Let’s cultivate homes, churches, and communities where vulnerability is embraced and celebrated, places of authenticity, support, and resilience.