I don’t exactly remember the first time I heard about IF Gathering, whether it was Jen Hatmaker’s Facebook page or Ann Voskamp’s blog. I certainly didn’t understand what it was all about until I saw people talking about it in #the4500 Facebook group. But I was intrigued. So when the internet began buzzing with IF 2016 registration talk last October, I decided I would register for an IF:Local. I signed up for IF:Mauldin—the closest one to me. If February rolled around and I didn’t want to go, I didn’t have to go—so I told myself. But the closer February 5-6 got, the more compelled I felt to be there.
Inviting someone to go with me did cross my mind, but more and more, I felt like God was telling me to go alone. So I did.
My car rolled to a stop in the parking space across the street from the stained-glass studded, red brick building. I shifted into park, turned off the ignition, and took a deep breath. “What are you doing here? Turn the car back on. Leave. You don’t have to go in.” Grabbing my phone, I summoned my tribe of internet friends to yell at me: “I’m sitting in my car outside the church. Somebody yell at me and tell me to get my butt out of the car and in the door.” And they did, immediately. I sat for a few more minutes, heart pounding, feeling nauseated. I knew no one inside the building. But I knew I was supposed to be here this weekend. I opened the door and stepped out of the car.
Getting out of that car was NOT what I wanted to do. Running the other way seemed like a more appealing option. But I got out of the car anyway. My steps were unsure and my heart was racing as I walked in the door and joined the registration line. I picked up my name tag, was checked off a list and turned to sit at a table. In a room full of strangers. Sliding into a chair at an empty table in the middle of the room, I pulled out my notebook and tried to look at ease. Eventually, a few others joined me at my table. At one point, a woman from the table in front of me came over and introduced herself because she’d noticed my name and had an uncommon name herself. Then the event started and I relaxed a little.
That first evening session was hard—I felt completely vulnerable and exposed, never entirely comfortable; hearing Jo Saxton speak was so good—she’s both wise and hilarious. And by the end of the night, tears were streaming down my face. I went home exhausted and unconvinced that I’d actually make myself return for the all-day Saturday session. I didn’t decide I was going back until an hour before the event started the next morning, in fact. I am so glad I did.
Walking into the building Saturday morning, I stopped by the registration table to pay for lunch. Standing there were two women. They moved aside as I approached the table, handed my money to the girl sitting there, and gave my name: “I was here last night. Ticcoa.”
As soon as my name was out of my mouth, one of the ladies standing to the side gasped and started gushing: “That’s such a beautiful name! It sounds Native American. I love Native American stuff. What does it mean? Where did it come from!?” I swear I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights. She had me by the shoulders, rapidly firing these comments at me, and I was struggling to keep up. I offered answers to her questions, hoping they were intelligible. (She really was quite lovely about it all—I was just shocked out of my little introvert shell.)
After a few minutes, she let me go, and I slunk off to the same table I’d sat at the night before, knowing the women who’d sat there the night before weren’t attending that day. Alone again. But not for long. (It was at this point that I Tweeted: My name forces me out of hiding. Darn nametags.) A few minutes passed and one of the women at the table in front of me waved me over and invited me to sit with them. So I moved to their table…and who would sit beside me but the lover of my name, Mary Carol?
These four women—Donita (who’d approached me the night before), Lisa, Mary Carol, and Wendy—along with Susan, one of the event hosts, changed the course of my day—they welcomed me into their circle with more warmth than I could’ve asked for.
One of the scariest, most beautiful things about IF: Gathering is that during each session, there is a time of guided discussion that is only effective if you’re willing to be real and get a bit vulnerable. Through one of these questions, I was able to share my story of the last year with these women—including my involvement with the 4500 and my going to Splendid in the spring. When I told these women—who I’d only known for a few hours—that I was flying alone for the first time, they were immediately asking for the dates, promising to pray for me, and writing down their names so I could find them on Facebook. Susan came and sat down with us as I ended my story, and was saying (of the 4500), “It was the best ‘no’ ever.” She asked if I had ever read Lysa TerKeurst’s book The Best Yes. When I said no, but it was on my list of books to read, she fetched a copy of it from a nearby table and handed it to me: “It’s yours from MUMC.” They were exactly what I needed in that moment. I’d gone from feeling alone among strangers to being welcomed into this circle of long-time friends.
And that was just the local aspect of IF:Gathering. There’s so much more I have to process and write about in reference to the actual speakers—which will come in pieces here and there.
This time a year ago, I was begging God for community—for soul-deep friendships. I was so caught up in and sick of the comparison game that I was ready to quit social media. And then I got the best “no” from Jen Hatmaker’s launch team people and found a crazy bunch of girls on Facebook and Twitter who banded together and formed a virtual community that has grown into something more special than any of us could have imagined.
Before the 4500, I never would’ve considered doing something like this. But those women have made me braver, more courageous, and shown me that I am not alone in my struggles. Because of them, I have realized that just taking a wobbly baby step of faith eventually leads to a steadier stride.