Hello beloved listener!
So let me introduce myself first. My name is Gerrianne (you’ve probably got no clue how to pronounce that– that’s okay, however sounds right to you). I’m turning 30 this year. The Netherlands is my passport country, but I live and work in the humanitarian sector in Yemen. So quite literally have been a nomad for the past decade or so. I’m a social introvert, enneagram 9 who loves good food, baking, reading, strong debates and hikes and walks and pilgrimages in nature. So here’s my listener story.
It starts with drying dishes in a friary. Hilfield friary to be exact, where earlier that day the first Gathering Embers retreat had started, organized by Nomad hosts Anna and David. We’d just had the first session, getting introduced to the group and to be quite honest, I’m kind of wondering what the heck I am doing there. The demographic of the group is a little different from what I had expected. It’s been a few emotional weeks with an impactful, though beautiful death in my family and I am asking myself if coming to this retreat wasn’t all a bit too much.
While these thoughts race through my mind, I’m trying to focus on just being present and getting to know my fellow retreat participants. One of them, also with a tea towel in his hands, asks me: “so how did this whole faith shifting journey start for you?”
One that I had never really thought about honestly. But I do have quite an immediate answer (which is rare, being an enneagram 9) and it throws me back to an early childhood memory of saying to my grandfather that I wanted to be a pastor when I grew up. (For the Dutch Nomad listener – I grew up in the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerk – for everyone else, that’s pretty conservative, white, farmer’s community, only an organ, singing psalms and the occasional hymn, no space for women or LGBTQI+ community. You get the picture.) He immediately dismissed it and said: “well, you can’t be, because you are a girl.” As a little girl I moved on pretty quick, several other career options included mayor of a town called Dongeradeel (that just sounds fun in Dutch) and being a teacher became the preferred options. But somehow deep down, that answer felt wrong to me.
So while that initial question around the role of women in church remains in many ways my starting point in terms of asking questions, I never felt a negative space around asking questions growing up. In our family, which I now realize is quite rare, there was always space for debate and questions. There was certainly a view on what was right and wrong, how things ought be done, but there was always space to have open ended questions too. There was space to disagree with each other without that having any consequences on how much we loved each other.
For me the real evidence of that was when my parents let me travel on my own to the US when I was just 15 years old. I participated in an international leadership programme, which didn’t have a particular religious affiliation at all. This was the first community building experience that really opened my eyes to the world and all its glorious and beautiful diversity. I was hooked and was drawn to exploring different countries and cultures.
Fast forward to around 2018.
I’d been living in Uganda for about a year, working for an international NGO responding to the refugee influx from South Sudan as well as doing some other longer term recovery work in post-conflict areas in Uganda around land rights and education. My work? I absolutely loved it. There wasn’t a day that went by without energy and passion for what I got to do. It involved lots of travel all over the country and a wonderful social life alongside it. That involved being active in a non-denominational international church. We met at a school building, and it was all very different from the church I grew up in. It was a space where I felt valued and seen, where I built some real community – both through Sunday services (and extensive lunches afterwards) but also in a home group with the mixed participation of other internationals and nationals from all different faith traditions. It’s a space where I was encouraged to try out leadership roles, in worship and preaching. And although I concluded that that’s probably not for me, it was really helpful to work this through with a pastor that supported women in leadership. It’s around the same time that I got introduced to the Nomad podcast through a friend. I started reading Liz Milani’s ‘The Practice Co’s’ devotions every morning. My faith was already shifting quite drastically. My theology was challenged and changing.
After 3+ years of working in Uganda, the time felt right to transition. I was offered a position in the Yemen team, which I accepted. Starting date: 1st April 2020. Exactly, the pandemic threw that plan a bit off. I ended up working remotely for about 6 months in the Netherlands and moving back in with my sister. Since going back to my childhood church was not an option, with churches being online, I spent my days, like everyone else, at home. I read. A lot. One book stuck out: Sarah Bessey’s ‘Out of sorts’. Although she grew up in a very different faith tradition, she suddenly gave words to the process I had been going through, but couldn’t really give words to up until that point. And also the fellow enneagram 9 vibes are very real with anything this lady says and writes.
So that’s where I have been since. No longer connected to a church community because of my international work setting. I became a more connected Nomad listener, occasionally joining in a conversation in the Lounge, participating in the Book club alongside Anna and David’s contemplations and meditations that became a regular part of my spiritual practice, especially appreciated on the lonely weekends in Yemen.
Back to May 2022, a couple of days before the Gathering Embers retreat started. I am having lunch with the friends I grew up with at church. Most of us have spread out to different churches, we’ve all been on faith shifting journeys in one way or another, and still somehow remain friends. One of them asked me about the retreat I am going on. I literally have no idea about what it will be like and who’s going to be there. She says: “10 years ago we used to call you Google, because you always had all the answers. Now you’ve only got questions left.”
And she is right. I don’t have the answers anymore, just a bunch of questions. But for the time being I am okay with that.
My time in Yemen will be ending in the near future. Living in a war zone is something you can only do for so long before it really takes a toll on all parts of life. I will transition back to the north west European corner of the world. And that raises new questions around community building, my next career steps, relationships and more. And I simply don’t have the answers. Just a bunch of questions.
But then I remind myself that I was once this brave 15-year-old girl, who’d never flown or eaten a pizza before, had a fairly limited vocabulary of English words and decided to step on to a plane to New York City. Completely into the unknown. And that it turned out to be pretty good path of life from that moment onwards. I’m sure the next path in the journey, with all its twists and turns, will be quite interesting too.
– Gerrianne Pennings