I was born on thirteen forested acres, in a trailer on the American River Canyon in Northern California. Whenever my parents had any extra money, it went into renovating this rickety old tin-roof barn on the property. Their dream was to make it our home, and plank-by-plank, they did that, largely with their own hands. When I was fourteen years old, we moved into The Barn, in all its restored, funky glory. It was a beautiful place to call home.
But I didn’t spend too much time at home during my teen years because I was a part of a fundamentalist church. I was busy praying for revival.
In faith circles, the word “revival” is tossed around a lot. My church believed it was a supernatural phenomenon that would happen if we lived holy lives. It was something that was always about to happen; yet it was just out of our reach. Revival is coming, the preachers would say. You want to see revival? Pray a little longer, worship a little louder, stop sinning. I believed in this kind of revival with all the hope of a romantic teen. I never knew exactly what this revival would look like, but I had faith beyond sight. The promise of it illuminated everything.
And then, when I was seventeen, a spark on the American River canyon started a forest fire that rapidly burned through a thousand acres and one home—mine. The Barn. We had been evacuated, but didn’t find out that The Barn was gone until we saw it on the news. The Sacramento news anchor I remembered from childhood calmly announced that one structure was destroyed in the Steven’s Fire.
When she said “one structure,” the screen flipped to footage of a heap of mangled burnt metal and wood that I didn’t recognize with my eyes but I did recognize with my gut. One structure, she said—not a “house” or “home,” or a “place where people love and fight and stick together to carve their little spot in the world,” or a “barn that one family spent a lifetime dreaming and ten years building.” But how could I expect a news anchor to know all that?
In that moment, I lost my faith.
When the fire department escorted us to the property a few days later, I poked through the rubble looking for remnants of my life. All I found were some disfigured marbles from my old collection. I kept them.
I wasn’t angry with God. I knew, even at the selfish age of seventeen, that worse things happen to people around the world every day. I was angry with myself for thinking my faith was special or somehow different from everyone else. I wondered why someone would spend so many exhausting years pursuing holiness and begging for revival when in a single moment—a moment that begins with a single spark—the flames will destroy everything anyway.
I left the church after that and wandered spiritually for years. I drank a lot of alcohol to numb the pain.
Then one day, years later, I was watching my first daughter Georgie playing on my living room rug with the blocks she received for her first birthday. I sat on the couch with a second cup of coffee, bleary-eyed from those early days of motherhood. She carefully piled one block over another, until her tower stood taller than her. I knew the wobbly structure would fall soon, and I clenched myself for the toddler meltdown when it did.
But then the strangest thing happened. The blocks crashed around Georgie, and she didn’t cry. She smiled big and clapped her chubby hands and began to re-stack them one by one.
This happened over and over. Build, fall, rebuild. I sat there, amazed. I was amazed by my daughter’s tenacity and playfulness, in the way all smitten new parents are, but I was amazed by something else too, something I couldn’t name.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and caught myself off guard. Was that a prayer? It couldn’t be—there were no mashed knees on the carpet, no tears, no feelings of agony or shame. But there was something so familiar about it, something so natural, and I knew I was talking to God.
Crash. Georgie squealed at the rubble around her and began building again. This is revival, I thought. Building from collapsed pieces, again and again. I thought back to the days I yearned for revival, those long summer nights at church. I believed I could bring it by fasting and staying on my knees and reciting the right scriptures. When it happened, it would be big.
I never did see that that kind of revival. Instead, it crept up on me when I wasn’t looking. I felt it coming over me, block by block, a slow and steady process of awakening.
A few months later, I made a visit to my parents. After the fire, they put a modular home on the property. It’s nothing like The Barn, but it’s a place to live. The air was warm but tempered by a breeze crawling up the canyon. I hadn’t brought myself to say it out loud, but I knew it happened to be the ten-year anniversary of the fire.
Trees speckled the property again. Not as large or thick as they used to be, of course, as nature takes decades on decades to replenish itself. A bulbous sycamore tree, which had burnt to the ground ten years ago to the day, had grown back. When the first sign of life sprouted from the tree’s blackened base, we were shocked. Now the sycamore’s knuckled branches stretch over a deck at my parents’ home, providing shade for summer barbecues, and proving its resilience.
This is revival, I thought again. Small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps. It is not the intangible, tiring spiritual chase I thought it was. Revival is here, in the soil of this land I grew up on and inside me—inside all of us—and has been here all along, taking decay and turning it and churning it to create life. This is the process of being alive.
Carly Gelsinger lives in California with her husband and two daughters. She holds a master’s in journalism and runs a small business helping people write their stories. Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith is her first book and the story of her experience in a fundamentalist Pentecostal church as a teen. Buy her memoir here.