Janice Shihadeh comes from a Catholic upbringing. She is the mother of a blended family of ten, six girls and four boys currently ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-five. Growing up, they would attend services at a local Catholic church on holidays mostly, and Janice would talk to her children about God, believing there was a higher ‘something’ in the world but not knowing exactly what. She did not feel satisfied by the idea of God presented to her in church and during her formative years in Catholic schools. Her dissatisfaction was compounded by the lack of community she felt in the local church.
Her youngest felt these deficiencies as well and would not be content. “Really it was [my daughter] Jackie, she’s the prompt. She’s the one that really wanted to find some place. It’s because of her that we found the church.” In response to her daughter’s urging and in support of her determination, Janice would take Jackie, then sixteen, and “every Sunday, we would go out and look for a church; maybe go and spend a week or two at a congregation, looking for a place.”
It was on one of these Sunday church-hunts that their path would take an unexpected turn—literally. On route to their church of choice for that week, they all of a sudden found themselves in the center of a high-intensity police car chase. “We could not break away.” There were, “something like seventeen police cars, three townships, and I could not get away. The van [the police were chasing] was in front of me and I was petrified.” Finally they had an opportunity to make a left-hand turn, onto Huntingdon Pike. Now no longer on course to the church they had planned to attend, they followed the road up through Huntingdon Valley into Bryn Athyn. They went with their first impressions, passing by several churches, until they came upon the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. “We saw the Cathedral and we were like, ‘That’s beautiful!’”
Making another left-turn, they decided to check it out, if only for nothing more than using the restroom and having a moment to recover from the very upsetting last half hour. The service had ended, but there were still people gathered in the great hall. “We started to talk to people and they were really nice. They said, ‘Why don’t you come next week?’ And they gave us a little hand-out.”
They did come back the next week, and the week after that, and several weeks following. And it was through the people they met at these church services that Jackie found out about and decided to attend the Academy of the New Church Secondary Schools. She would come home and fill her mother in on everything she was learning. Janice would ask her questions, “’I don’t understand this. What does this mean?’” They studied Heaven and Hell in tenth grade. “It was really neat.”
They began attending services at the NewChurchLIVE services. They discovered small groups and the Journey program. Being a little shy, Janice felt wary of joining a small group, “But I wanted to learn more about the religion itself and I figured this would be a conduit to that.” She decided to join a group for that year’s Journey program. That first year laid the foundation for what would become a deep appreciation and belief in the power of small groups.
Janice has found the small groups to fill a wide scope of spiritual needs, intellectual and emotional. She can bring her theological questions to the group, and people there who are well versed in Swedenborg’s works can help her understand. The group has become a strong community of support for spiritual growth that for her is invaluable. “Over a year they get to know you, good and bad, and they still like you and they still want you to be there. They’re still trying to support you and hold you in prayer when you need it.” She finds it so powerful “to be able to trust people enough with your soul, with your flaws, that they’re not going to judge you.”
Every time she goes to church she feels the message is relevant to her life, but it’s the small group that “gives you a structure in order to be able to work on yourself. Without that structure, I don’t know that I would be doing the work. I truly love that about the small groups.”
Although she was hesitant at first, she is really glad she made the investment. “I was intimidated the first time. I was a little scared. I didn’t know what I was going to be asked to do. But once you get there, you feel the love and support of everyone else. You feel really safe.”