So here goes. *deep breath* I used to be a religious person. I was baptized at the Lutheran church my parents were going to at the time and stopped attending at some point pretty quickly after that. Not to say that they were ever nonbelievers – quite the opposite – but there was a good while there that religion didn’t play a huge part in our lives in general, outside of when we visited my grandma Ford and I carefully tucked the dollar bill she’d given me for the collection plate in my purse that, of course, matched the click-y heeled shoes I’d put on with my little flouncy dress. I’ve always loved an excuse to get dressed up, and this being one of them, I loved it – I felt very grown up, nodding along with the rest of the congregation, insistent upon holding my own hymnal and mumblesinging along quietly with songs I’d never heard, hoping against hope that no one would notice I didn’t know them. I went to Catholic services and functions with my childhood best friend, and it seemed like almost everyone in my hometown was Catholic, but that didn’t make it feel any more like a place I wanted to be. I didn’t get to do everything my friend did in the kids’ portion and I didn’t get to drink from the big pretty cup and there was a whole lot of kneeling and standing and their Jesus was in pain hanging from a huge cross, front and center, and half of the service was in weird sounding language I didn’t understand so I couldn’t keep up with what was happening – needless to say I wasn’t a fan. I had friends in different denominations, and attending with all of them never made me really yearn to go back. As I grew to be a teen, though, I started getting a sense somewhere within myself that there was more to life than what was immediately apparent to me, and I wanted to know more. Christianity was the only interpretation of spirituality I knew of – I wouldn’t get to know anyone who was Jewish until I moved to New York years later, had never really been exposed to or educated about any other faiths (except for the few kids in my school whose families were Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I considered downright tragic in that they didn’t get to celebrate ANY holidays, which my little birthday-loving, gift-obsessed, tinsel-covered brain couldn’t even conceive of). I had that one spiritual language to work with, so I asked my parents if we could start going to church, and we decided on their childhood place of worship, a pretty little UCC (United Church of Christ) church with lots of family, history, warm wood walls, beautiful stained glass that threw colors around the sunny sanctuary, pictures of a kind-faced, handsome Jesus surrounded by lambs, pews full of kind faces, and a pastor we all liked. Done.
I’d heard all of the stories of the bible as a kid, but I’d never read it – so, being the diligent student that I was, I got my own copy with a fun zebra print cover, and threw myself headfirst into being the best Christian I could be. Everyone told me to start with the New Testament, since the O.T. was more out there and not really anything our new church tended to focus on, and thank goodness, because whoa. When you’re not raised with all of these stories from a very young age, it’s seems pretty far-fetched to imagine some of what’s in those pages! I suspended my disbelief in some of what I was reading the best that I could, because I wanted to embrace this new chapter in my life with gusto, and so I devoured the Bible, learned the Threefold Amen and the Gloria Patri by heart, did readings and sang solos and came to love all of the other little intricacies of the ceremony that would become so familiar to me. I learned the hymns I’d hated not knowing so many years before. I did bible studies. I dressed carefully and demurely (not easy with a closet full of planet pants, shiny polyester button downs from Rave, leotards and tights, and hot pink everything), got to know the other members of the church (I was the only one under 40) and really enjoyed it all. I loved taking time out every Sunday to sit quietly and reflect, something my older self would continue to do because it helps quiet the noise in her head that tends to get way too loud. I loved the ‘family’ atmosphere, the music, volunteering and doing good in the church and our community, being considered mature enough to be included in a ‘serious’ pursuit with a group of adults I liked and respected, and the feeling of being ‘a believer’ and belonging to something bigger than myself.
After a few years, what didn’t I love? The infighting (‘Why does HE get to be the treasurer again this year?!’), the judgemental attitudes, the contempt of change (‘No, we hang the wreaths there, honey, because that’s the way we’ve always done it’), that first pastor doing some questionable things and leaving our church suddenly, my guilt over struggling with doubt, and of course, the aforementioned suspension of disbelief; I was more than willing to do it for the stage, but much less so for real life. Something felt off, although I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, but dammit, if this was the path to understanding the soul, then I was going to stay on it, no matter what. And maybe it was because I was a 16 year old kid, but I admittedly enjoy feeling just a tiny bit ‘holier than thou’ – I was a believer with a new pastor I loved! I had something bigger than anyone or anything to be passionate about! I was already prone to dramatics, so having a reason to sing and cry and repent and feeeeeel was a good feeling, especially as I got older, dated a boy whose family attended a church with ‘contemporary’ services with a band (!) and modernized sermons and tons more young people like me. I sang louder, I waved my arms higher, I cried and I definitely felt something. After I left for college, I started going to a church that had very contemporary, very large rock-concert type services on Sunday nights aimed, I would imagine, at college age kids like me, and I remember something in me having a sense that while I enjoyed being there and being an ambassador, bringing anyone willing to come with me and check it out, that old doubt never ceased to creep in. It was more than that I’d spent my early years of being born again in a church that was more hymnals and an organ and less tv screens and guitar solos. It was more than the fact that I was attending a church where I didn’t know anyone, and so I was missing that fellowship I’d come to enjoy years before. I saw the people in the rows of folding chairs around me out of the corners of my eyes (I didn’t want to stare, it’s my pet peeve), and they just seemed to be getting something I just didn’t get. Maybe it was because I was studying acting that I was aware that I had to, a good amount of the time, access something similar to look and behave like the congregants around me. They got it, what was I missing? What did it say about me that every Christmas, I would sit there at my old church, think about the virgin birth and go, huh?
I was so afraid to step outside of that comfort zone, though. I knew what I thought of nonbelievers, even if I would never ever say it. I pitied them, that they didn’t feel the sense of safety and assuredness that comes with being promised the keys to heaven. I wanted to be a good person, and in my world at that point, the vast majority of good people I knew were churchgoing Christians. If I wasn’t, what would my parents say? What would our pastor think? What did that say about me? Terrifying. I ignored all doubts and marched on.
During my junior year, I started seeing a new guy, Tom, and like always, I invited him to come with me to a service and check it out. I knew he was a nonbeliever, and in my head, my job was to lead him to the flock, even if I didn’t tell him that. After all, if I could get him to join, my life would be so much easier. I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people thought, my parents would easily accept and love him as much as I did, and life would be perfect. So he came with me, happy to support something I was passionate about even if it wasn’t near to his heart, and when he didn’t feel comfortable participating in certain parts of the service out of respect for the beliefs of the people around him I assured him it was fine – but a lot of congregants made it clear that day that it was not. I’d never really experienced this side of the church before, having been a part of it since I was old enough to have a real sense of inclusion and exclusion, and it wasn’t pretty. I left disillusioned and upset, but it didn’t keep me from returning. I was a Christian, dammit!
A few weeks later, the church brought in a speaker from an organization called Exodus International (link only included in case you, dear reader, don’t know what they were – I don’t want to give that organization one second more of my time than necessary). The message given and gleefully accepted by those sitting around me was, to me, completely unacceptable. As a musical theater geek, dancer, and someone who lives to love and accept those around me, I was beyond disgusted. I walked out of the middle of the service and never went back.
I still attended my childhood church with my family when I came home during college and after I’d moved to New York, though, and while the simplicity of how they did things ‘the way it’s always been done’ had a reassuring quality to it, and I found (and still find) a sense of continuity and comfort that I enjoyed, the questions that used to whisper to me had since risen to a roar, and so I asked them. I asked them of other members of my church, of the pastor, of other Christians I knew, and the answers that I received were, shall we say, less than enlightening. The key, they all said, was faith. Faith in what you can’t see, in what you can’t know for sure. And while my belief in the fact that there truly is more than what we know out there, that the light in each of our eyes is more than just the human brain keeping our pilot light aflame, I couldn’t keep on having faith in the absolute truth of this very detailed, very odd book full of impossible stories that were so different and yet so similar to so many other religions’ tenets and tales. I couldn’t look at my Catholic friends, my Jewish friends, my Buddhist friends, or my atheist friends and say ‘You’re wrong and I KNOW for sure that I am right.’ I no longer believed in a man (always a man) in the sky. I couldn’t not see the ignorance, the hate, exclusion, and judgement handed out in spades by members of that faith and just about every faith, as far as I could tell. With one foot out of the organization I’d found such solace in and learned so much from, I could see what the outsiders saw and felt. The hypocrisy. The double talk of claiming to love everyone and yet hating so many. I didn’t want to hate the sin and love the sinner – I didn’t want to hate at all. I have never and will never feel that I am able to judge anyone else’s actions in such a way, or take away anyone else’s rights because of my own opinions. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief any more. I chose to enter the church of my own volition, and in that same way, 20 years later, I chose to walk away from it.
The memories I choose to keep from my years in the church are the good ones – the fellowship, the works of kindness and charity, getting to know some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met, of singing the songs I grew to love so much, holding hands with my mom in the third pew from the front on the right. The smell of the sanctuary. Our pastor, an amazing man with a heart much too big to be real, who knew all of what I’ve written here but married my true love and I happily anyway. Good things happen in churches, and I respect the right of anyone to attend, join, and enjoy them; I just ask that my right to not do any of those things be equally respected. I’m still petrified to put this out into the world. I’m afraid of what people will think, that Christians will shake their heads in disgust, that atheists will roll their eyes at the obviousness of what I’m saying, the thought that it’s okay for me to think all of this in private but to put it out there is going too far. But if people choose to judge me or dislike me or change their opinion on me based on this, my truth, then that’s just more confirmation for me that I made the right choice in leaving an organization that supports that kind of thinking. The fact that people judge, dislike, mistrust, and condemn Tom simply for being an atheist, that I used to pity Tom for his lack of belief, is astounding to me now. What a pompous way to live. Where do Tom and I, the atheist and the spiritual-but-not-Christian-slash-religious-ist, get our morals? The same place that you do – our hearts and our heads. And if you have trouble loving, accepting, or being Facebook friends with either one of us, then so be it.
Truth telling is such a specific kind of freedom. Freedom feels good.