No Longer Strangers, Gregory Coles, Foreword by Jen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.
Summary: A personal memoir on struggling to fit in and giving up on belonging to pursue Christ, and in the end, finding both.
Gregory Coles grew up struggling to fit in. He was a third culture kid, American-born but raised in Indonesia, returning to the U.S. in college. He grew up pudgy, the least athletic kid in most rooms, thinning out in adolescence. He was a bit of an egghead and he holds a doctorate in English. He is also a Christian, openly gay, and celibate, about which he writes compellingly in his first book, Single, Gay, Christian which I reviewed in 2017. You can see how he might struggle with fitting in.
And yet in his pursuit of Christ, he found belonging as well. But first, something of the story.
The book is written as a kind of a memoir, on the theme of being an alien, an image at once biblical, one that fits his story, and that he plays with in his “Notes From an Alien Anthropologist” at the beginning of each chapter. He traces his family story of how he became a TCK (Third Culture Kid), raised by Jesus movement converts who pursued mission work in Indonesia. He speaks with nostalgia about playing Pooh sticks with friends by the open sewer near his home. He describes airports as his favorite place–where everyone is a misfit and all are passing through and his struggle with national anthems, when one connected more with where he’d grown up than that of the country whose passport he held, and none connected with the one nation he’d given total allegiance to that had no national boundaries.
As a first year college student, he struggles with the question of how he can be from Indonesia with white skin. Three years later, a Christmas trip home results in a case of dengue fever, meaning he only return at the risk of a re-infection that would be far worse, closing the door on that part of his life.
In the second part of the book, he moves from the idea of belonging in a place to belonging with others. He describes the wedding of his boyhood friend Zack to Anna, both the joy and loss, and a wonderful visit to Chicago and a hilarious bingo game he and Anna made up during a Lord of the Rings marathon that sealed a new friendship. Carrie grew up in Indonesia, she and her husband Evan welcomed Greg into their Santai (Indonesian for “relax”) Sundays. There is a wonderful friendship with the Hennings and their boys Grant and Max, who at one point turn a painful conversation after Greg’s “coming out” into “the best Monday ever.”
The last part of the book is about “belonging to.” It begins with his willingness to let go of the importance of reputation to follow Christ when his first book was published, and to know there was One to whom he would always belong. He recalls his habit of giving out carrot sticks in high school, the people he came to know, and the realization that neighboring is giving with no thought of return. He writes of a critical reviewer who became a friend because of her review of his book and concludes with the tattoo that became his Ebenezer of Christ’s love for him.
This is a memoir that is funny at one moment, that takes one (at least this pudgy egghead) back to childhood at another, that catches you up with tears, and sparkles with the joy of one who has risked all to follow Christ’s call only to discover belonging on the other side of loss–of a congregation who does not let him go, of friends who welcome him for dinner and laundry and origami, and of a Christ who never stops loving. Through his own story, he points the way for all of us “aliens” who long to belong.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.