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My Story

Chapter 3: Following God Out of My Comfort Zone

At 27, the small town life was all I’d ever known. But when God lined up a job for me in the Phoenix metro 2,000 miles away from my rural Ohio town, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I’d have no family there. No friends. I wouldn’t know a soul except a handful of coworkers. The cost of moving would be thousands of dollars, and my salary would be slightly less than my monthly expenses. I’d have to look for a place to live that was safe and free of Arizona’s pets from a computer across the country.

I was at a crossroads: Continue working at a comfortable job, stay surrounded by my family and the rural country I was familiar with, stay in the same church, and keep the same friends – or trust God and follow him to the unknown, and lean on him to provide.

The signs were too clear to ignore – the failure to get a promotion putting me in position to travel to Arizona for work, which in turn put me in position to get the job.

I had to do it.

I did extensive research and found an apartment. God helped me find a steal on a moving truck – the guy at the desk couldn’t believe the rate I found was only $500 for a one-way trip to Arizona. My dad offered, no, insisted, on helping me move – he took hours of vacation and made the trip with me.

The total cost of moving was more than I could afford, so I signed up for an 18 month interest-free Citi card. Perhaps not the best move in hindsight, but I essentially trusted God to provide in that way. I’d get it paid off in 18 months, and if I wasn’t making enough to do that with the new job, I’d get a promotion or another job elsewhere.

My parents and friends helped me load the Budget truck, and as it began raining hard I realized there was a leak near the front of the truck box – after it was almost full. I did my best to plug it and hoped for the best.

The next morning, I drove it west on I-64, with my dad driving my Ford Focus on four bald tires behind me. We drove into Kentucky, past Ashland and through Louisville until I no longer recognized anything. We drove through flooded, rural southern Illinois and stopped for the night just west of St. Louis as the Ferguson riots were still going on just north of us.

The next day, we stopped in Oklahoma City. The next, we drove I-40 through the northern Texas panhandle, even passing the exit for Pampa, where my mom had grown up. My family would make the drive there to see my grandma when I was little. We stayed in Albuquerque that night.

The next day was the home stretch, after miles of nothingness. We continued west on I-40 until we got to Holbrook, at which point we hopped to the Arizona state routes in order to avoid I-17 and I-10 through Phoenix at rush hour.

As we were approaching Maricopa county, my dad signaled me to pull over – he’d been listening to a story about an active shooter on the loose in Mesa, my new home city. We made sure that situation was contained as we got closer, but between that, the rain, and a couple other minor events along the way, it was a rough start.

We finally got to my apartment, which had a non-working fridge, A/C, and toilet. Fortunately, the staff got those things fixed quickly and we finished unloading the next morning. I showed my dad around the East Valley, and he flew home that weekend.

I felt truly alone for the first time in my life.

Work started right away that Monday, so adjusting to the new job provided a distraction from the mounting loneliness. In the weeks that followed, I finished unpacking and was excited to find a church.

But I was looking for a church through the wrong lens. I was looking for a church where the lead pastor would talk to me even though it was a room full of hundreds or thousands of people. I wanted the sermon to be one that I could easily digest, the atmosphere to be right, the worship to be my style, and for everyone to make me feel welcome.

I was expecting churches that didn’t know of my existence to somehow revolve around me.

Needless to say, none of the handfuls of churches I visited did that, so I got discouraged and stopped trying. I still wasn’t seeking God by praying or opening up his word. And since I couldn’t find a church to cater to my every need, I stopped hearing God’s word on Sundays, too.

I found myself in a pattern: Get up at noon, go to work, get home at 11PM, watch The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and other late night TV until 1AM, go to bed, repeat.

And my new job was awful. Was it worth barely scraping by every week and dealing with a job I hated with a boss and employer I couldn’t stand?

I realized I wouldn’t be able to keep paying my bills and found a better job with a much nicer boss, good location, and duties I actually enjoyed.

But because my cubicle at work was in a pretty empty part of the building, there were days I went without human interaction unless I stopped at Dutch Bros for coffee on my way in. In fact, there were days I stopped there more for the minutes of human interaction than for the coffee.

I wound up in a depression. Why was I here? Why was I alone? Why couldn’t I make friends? Why wasn’t I meeting anyone new like I’d planned? If I stopped showing up to work, would anyone even know I existed? Why did I exist at all?  Would anyone miss me?

It was crushing. The sadness hung around like a cloud. I withdrew at every opportunity, avoiding people at all costs. I didn’t want to be around anyone, and called my parents on the weekends just so they’d know I was okay.

Eventually I decided to try online dating. I went on various dates but didn’t make an effort to connect or let anyone in, then wondered why there was never a second one. This just made me try harder, and to no avail.

The continued failure accelerated my sadness.

Finally, I had enough. I knew I was done trying to live life on my own. I returned to a big church that I’d been to a couple times before, but it seemed to big for someone so used to small churches.

I learned by researching on Google that the church had another congregation just down the street from my apartment, and it was a smaller congregation located in an old office complex. Perfect for a guy like me from rural Ohio, right?

There was just one catch – it was a bilingual congregation of mostly Hispanic people. For a guy who came from rural, white Appalachia, a multicultural church in one of the country’s largest cities would have to be a big adjustment.

But I decided to check it out. There was an English service at that time, so it wouldn’t be too far out of my comfort zone.

My first Sunday there, I was greeted warmly by the pastors and a few other men. It seemed like a normal small church. When I left, there were several Hispanic men at the door greeting people coming into the bilingual service, and saying bye to those leaving.

It was my first real dose of being in close proximity to people who looked and spoke differently than me.

The following week, the same guys greeted me, and I was invited to a small group, which our church calls Redemption Communities. I went for some reason, even though I still wasn’t keen on meeting new people and having to speak up in a group of small people.

It was at the lead pastor’s home, and his wide didn’t know I was coming and had not met me – she thought I was with Arizona’s Department of Child Services there to do a home inspection since they had just started the fostering process.

Once I told her why I was there, she let me come in and we both waited awkwardly for her husband to come in.

The small group time went relatively well, so I returned the following week and the week after that, slowly building friendships with the families and individuals that were in the group – and that connected me permanently to the church.

God was moving in me, and now that I was ready to listen to him, he led me to a new church home after months and months of finding excuses not to return to any other church I’d visited.

I knew he placed me there for a reason, and I was ready to see what happened next.

I'm a 32-year old living in Gilbert, Arizona (that's in the Phoenix metro). I love Jesus, my wife, and my daughter and am doing my best to choose the three of them instead of myself - one choice at a time. I enjoy learning about Jesus, writing, photography, coffee, donuts, and good conversation. My personal website where I share my photography and design projects is joshsmithaz.com.

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