My name is Donna Ali. I grew up on a council estate in Wales, back in the day when kids could roam the streets and feel safe – back when your community played a part in reprimanding you, and you called your elderly neighbours: “Aunty” out of respect.
Life outside my home was fun, but life behind closed doors was volatile and confusing. I never really felt protected, or secure. My mixed-race heritage has been something I have grown to love, but initially I felt resentment about my ethnicity, because it made no sense to me. Finding out the man I thought was my father actually wasn’t, at the age of 11, brought my world crashing down. But at the same time, it finally helped me to understand a lot of the chaos that was going on around me. I had been a hard worker at school, helpful and popular, but I soon became an angry and insecure teenager.
I became a teenage mother of two beautiful girls and although my situation was initially met with an element of shame, I really believed that God had given me those children to love and to give me purpose. My mother was desperate for a child and one day blurted out to me: “God gave me that baby through you.” I knew that wasn’t true, because I felt that God, in my limited understanding of Him at that time, would want my child to be loved, something I never felt from my mother. Instead, I believed that God gave me my children to show me what love was.
Years went by. My girls had grown up, and their independence left me feeling redundant. Following a divorce and the death of two dear friends, my life seemed to be at breaking-point.
That was when a friend invited me to church – it was Easter 2013 – and quite reluctantly I went along. I’d always had a fascination with churches, often visiting them on holiday. My ex-husband used to say: “You can’t go in there, you’ll burn,” but I loved the peace and beautiful architecture. I always felt a spiritual connection.
That day, when I walked into the church, the song Oh Happy Day from Sister Act was being played by the worship band. It was the only song my daughters and I had sung at home to each other. It honestly felt like God was welcoming me, making me feel comfortable.
To tell you the truth, I was surprised by how upbeat the music was in the church. The people I met there were so welcoming, and encouraged me to get involved. They seemed to really rejoice in the fact it was my first real church experience. It felt as though I had walked through an invisible door, out of one realm into another. I felt free. I felt lighter and hungry for life.
My experience of church and faith has been transformational: I have never felt so loved, never felt so secure and never felt so protected. I came to realise who my real father is, and that my surname didn’t define me. I’m convinced that God knew that one day when the bottom fell out of my life, when life was still and quiet enough, I would finally hear Him.
I’ve been a Christian now for a few years, and I still feel as though my home church serves all people well. I don’t think that people treat one another differently due to class here – perhaps because we’re a city church.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been my experience in other churches I’ve been to. I’ve noticed the welcome of a homeless person to be less accepting; one church I know opts to put on a separate church service for the homeless, which I’ve always thought was very sad.
Although my own experience has been very positive, I do feel that the class issue is a big one in church; I know people who feel as though they have to come wearing a shirt and tie to fit in.
The truth is, sometimes I’m afraid that the “come as you are” message of Church is not something we do very well in reality.
What do you think of Donna’s story? What can we do differently to be a more class-inclusive Church? Let us know in the comments below.