I sat at my computer one day sifting through my Google search results for churches, feeling guilty about evaluating a religious institution by the quality of its website. But I was looking and the time needed to physically pound the pavement was in short supply, so I found myself analyzing grainy photos of intense-looking sermons and Easter picnics and trying very hard not to judge. But judge I did, whether it was because a church’s website looked like it hadn’t been updated since the internet was created or, amazingly, because a church’s website looked too slick. How much time could they possibly spend ministering to the sick and needy and fostering parishioners’ deeper senses of spiritual self if they’re obviously pre-occupied with embedding links and mpegs and whatnot?
Then I came across the modestly appointed page of a church within my specific corner of the religion sky that had a beautiful mission statement including the words “open church,” and “we seek to be a safe place for skeptics and doubters as well as for convicted believers.” I’ll take that.
I identify as a believer. My faith has been tested, and it has also been completely lost, but I find myself drawn to it again in what has been a particularly challenging time. Regularly attending a loving and welcoming church has been something that has enriched my life in the past, in good times as well as bad, and I’d like to get back to that.
I was raised in a very religious Episcopalian setting. Church every Sunday was mandatory. My mother was the church organist and choir director for a time, and I’ve been singing in church for as long as I can remember. I didn’t always love getting up early, and I often asked more questions than any of the clergy cared to answer, but I did enjoy the churches we attended at first. I had friends at church, I was a part of special events there, and mostly, I am so grateful that the religion I was born into happens to be a very inclusive one.
I know, I KNOW it is so dangerous to talk religion. But here we are. We all know that unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the name of Religion, and that there are certain church policies that are still so steeped in exclusion as to bear no resemblance to the alleged teachings of Jesus at all. Which is why I am so grateful that I met our openly lesbian Presiding Bishop in church as a child and it was treated as any given Sunday. I am grateful that my aunt serves on the Vestry of the Episcopal Diocese of NY, so I was privileged to have attended certain meetings and services, such as when Muslim Imams were invited to speak at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Even in such a welcoming overall religious denomination, my youthful skepticism was usually tolerated more than it was nurtured. When I would raise my hand at eleven years old and bring up issues of geography and climate and the incongruousness with the pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus in the painting on the wall, I would be told “God has blessed you with a powerful brain” but never have my questions answered.
During one such exchange, I said that the painting of Jesus as blond and pale was not accurate, but that “it probably meant that the person who painted it was white and that was his or her narrow view and besides, if you believe in Jesus in the first place then he can look like whatever you want him to like, maybe not even like a person at all, right?”
IF. The organist’s daughter had said “IF you believe in Jesus in the first place…”. I got a stern talking to that night, but my questions continued.
My mother has had significant mental illness all of my life, and a psychotic break during my high school years led to her leaving the church in favor of a different religion after meeting someone that she felt she connected with. I will not name the specific sect of the new church because I do not believe that what I experienced is indicative of their teachings overall and it would be unfair to label it as such. No longer would we go to the church we had attended for years. We were suddenly plunged into a world of adult baptisms in a lake and a preacher screaming that I cannot fall victim to the “white devils” and the “gay demons.”
What followed were bizarre holy wars wherein I, a teenager, would essentially sneak out to go to church, organizing rides with friends or taking the bus, while my mother’s newfound tactics as employed through the tattered veil of her deteriorating mental health set about to convincing me I was wrong, and living a life of sin. I was called a slut (at the time I had never kissed anyone, been on a date, or even expressed desire to do said things to or around my mother). I had scripture shouted at me and taped to my bedroom walls. In one inspired moment, I was thumbing through clothes in my closet one day and I saw little glimpses of something on the back wall of the closet as I moved the clothes along. She had taped graphic illustrations of the Crucifixion to the back wall of my clothes closet. I often joke that except for the telekinesis part, the home scenes in the movie Carrie felt like a slice life to me.
Still, I didn’t turn away from my faith. Just from my mother’s madness and its newfound fundamentalist manifestations…
The story continues tomorrow, as I come to terms with faith on my own as an adult.