Testimony by Hélène Benink
To begin, there are some things you should know about me…I make my living as a scientist. I had an international upbringing, moving around a lot. I grew up without religion in my immediate family. Growing up my only exposure to faith was through my maternal grandmother whom I spent time with every year. She took me through Our Father every night and church when in France (my siblings were old enough, and blunt enough, to say "no" to all of this). This was an experience filled with lots of warning and words that I didn’t understand, but no warmth.
I began consciously exploring the idea of my own spirituality as an adult. I identified a gap, a need for something more than I had in my life. I turned to the one person who knew me best and with whom I share an unconditional love, Jeanne. However, our conversations about this didn’t exactly happen the way you might think that they did. That is, I needed answers and so, reached deep into the “scientist” part of me, and started asking questions; it was nothing short of an assault. Who could blame me, I had me a bona fide, albeit recovered, Catholic and I needed answers.
She was so very patient with me…
But faith is hard to explain.
Fast forward a wee bit farther in my life, through exploration of the Unitarians, and we come to walking into the McFarland UCC where I meet amazing people who are so very good. Fast forward ever so slightly more and we come to the reason that I am speaking to you today…
My wife Jeanne was asked to go to the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ as a delegate from our church. Shortly after accepting, she found out that she could not go. No one had spoken to me about this and so I didn’t know much about what it was; only that my wife had been excited to go and felt awful about letting anyone down by backing out. I then surprised myself saying that I’d go. Never in my life have I seen her eyebrows shoot up that far that fast. To be honest, I surprised both of us in that moment. But I assured her that I was in and to let Rachel know.
As the time approached I went to the website and officially signed up, looked at the meeting schedule and began feeling apprehensive; who was I to take this opportunity? After all, I didn’t exactly think the way other members did. I didn’t even actually believe in God, what was I thinking? And Robert’s Rules? I don’t even know who Robert was, much less what his rules are. (Not much of that at scientific meetings.) …I eventually convinced myself that this could all be made better in my head by reminding myself that floundering outside of my comfort zone is good and fun and means that I get to grow!
The night before I was to go I lay in bed and thought to myself that I could do right by this congregation if I did everything that I could to open myself to this experience and learn as much as I could. What I had to offer was me and so that is what I offered.
Joan picked me up Friday morning and after some getting to know you a bit better chitty chatting, I asked about expectations for a delegate. That’s when I also asked about Robert and his rules. She thought I was kidding… I quickly realized that one incredible gift that came out of this is experience right of the bat was that I had been given the privilege of finding a friend.
Though I started tentatively, as the weekend progressed I became more and more engaged. In between sessions of meeting, Joan and I cleared our heads and unwound our legs by walking the grounds, exploring the history that was there. By Saturday I began to recognize a slow and steady change inside of me. I began engaging with other members more freely. There was not a single event or moment of change, but I felt a shift. An opening. I even shared myself in a breakout session; believe that!
The whole experience was incredible. The speakers were moving and eloquent. The level of respect was through the roof. Every idea presented the right one…full alignment with my beliefs. I realized that the UCC is much more than faith…it’s acting on it to do good.
On Saturday evening PK had dinner with us and I’m not sure what exactly I shared with her (it is difficult to focus when you feel that your feet aren’t actually touching the ground).
At some point, she asked us what we were thinking for the evening session and next day. I pointed to the lay ministry evening session. Not sure that I caught it (with my feet off the ground issue) but I felt like both PK and Joan's eyebrows may have shot up on that one.
I went to the session and I felt so very overwhelmed by what I can only describe as a warm tether…I made my way to the door several times only to have a group of people surround me with conversation that engaged me completely. I got back to our room late…Joan was waiting up…I’m not sure that you could miss the grin on my face, even in the dimly lit room. I was exhausted in the best way possible. Blown away by the warmth all around me.
On Sunday at worship my emotions bubbled over as I put some pieces together…for the first time, I understood that God exists and that the Holy Spirit does indeed dance. I saw and felt God. I burst into tears, all the while trying to focus on gathering myself a bit. After service, PK offered me a hug…and I didn’t want her to ever let go…I needed so very badly to be held (what with the Spirit dancing and the light everywhere and my feet, my feet...)
Friends, I experienced a moment that I can only describe by borrowing the words of Pastor Kerri in one of her sermons. A moment in time, a space where heaven and earth meet. I felt that space and it shook me to my core. I acted in that space and I received in that space. I was forever changed by it. I was able to shed expectations of myself and be my true self. I was me, I felt the Spirit and I saw God. In that space I understood that God was love and that love was in each of us. Strangers showed me God in their hearts. Strangers were only strangers because we hadn’t seen one another yet. They were not strangers in how they felt to me…I still feel close to them because of the love that they shine. It was and is palpable. I felt it on my palms when I held my hands up in worship on that Sunday (and every Sunday since). I saw it in the eyes of the strangers around me. I now see it everywhere. In others, in my own eyes, in my hands. The interconnected, intertwined whispers of something stronger than any one. Stronger than any love. That which must be felt, for it cannot be explained.
I went to the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC and I found God. Already on the drive home the grass, the trees, the sky, were all different to me than on the way there. I lost all of my words and gained butterflies in my belly.
Today I can only somewhat rely on myself to control the urge to talk about this to everyone I can (continuing to cause many a scientists’ eyebrow to shoot up).
To relieve the bubbling over, I have also been writing some things down.
In closing I want to thank you, each of you, for holding me. Thank you for listening to me. You allow me to continue firmly out of my comfort zone and you help me, in countless ways, continue to grow and explore who I am. Please know that I am grateful to each of you and to each of you for this gift.
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