The other day, my mom asked me if I ever pray. I said not really. She also asked me if I believe in God. I think I said, sometimes, or, I think so, or, kind of. We were talking on the phone, so I couldn’t see her face to assess her reaction, but I worried that her heart was breaking a little.
My mom and I have very different spiritualities. It has sort of always been that way, although there have been seasons when we were more closely aligned in the language we used to talk about faith and God. I was baptized in the Christian (Baptist, to be specific) church just days before my sixteenth birthday, and I remember it as a proud moment for young-me. I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel pretty different from our sixteen-year-old-selves; but nevertheless, now, my thirty-first birthday having just passed, I feel very distant and disconnected from this young woman who was so moved by the story of Jesus and the cross that she felt compelled to make a public declaration of faith before her community.
I grew up attending church with my mom, and with my older brother for a short while. When he became a teenager old enough to use his “no” assertively, he stopped going. I continued, mainly because I didn’t know how to say no, and I knew it was important to my mom. During those years, from roughly age eight to fifteen, I would sit in the pew and mostly tune out the pastor, and the choir. When I was younger, I would bring a book to read, but at some point I realized that felt really rude, which I didn’t want to be, so I stopped. I would sit through the two hour service, daydreaming, or sometimes listening to the sermon, and questioning whether I could find any truth in these words. Mainly I thought religion was a self-induced delusion that people leaned on out of necessity, in order to not feel so alone in the world, in order to have a roadmap for morality. It didn’t bother me. I just didn’t feel I needed it.
I didn’t feel I needed God, until one day I felt that I did. I was pretty depressed as a teenager, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Growing up in a very white neighborhood, and very white schools didn’t help. Belonging eluded me. But it wasn’t just an issue of race; I attended a predominantly black church with my mom, and Sundays were the most black people I ever saw at one time. And even there, belonging eluded me, in part because of the disconnect between their spiritual beliefs and my own, but also in part because of the dynamics of self-expression. Ours was a church where a good service meant someone caught the Holy Ghost, and fell out crying in the pew, shouting “Thank you, Lord!”, or went running up and down the aisles in an outburst of spiritual energy. I didn’t relate to this showy expression of faith. I was quiet, reserved, never wanting to be noticed, and simultaneously never wanting anyone to question my belonging.
Mostly I succeeded in avoiding attention. I attended Sunday school class, and could skate by with minimal participation, convincing people that I was one of them. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t just refuse to go. Was I that reliant on my mother’s approval? Was there a part of me that was searching for the same spiritual comfort that I internally criticized others for needing? I don’t know.
But I do know that making the decision to believe in God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit probably saved my life. Like, my actual physical life. As I said, I was depressed for a decent portion of my adolescence, and passive thoughts of suicide were a regular occurrence. Believing in Jesus, believing that I wasn’t alone, believing that there was a story written for my life, helped. I remember the day that things changed for me; I remember the passage in the New Testament that we were studying in Sunday school. I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing. These words stuck with me, and I remember awkwardly asking my Sunday school teacher for her phone number, mumbling something about the fact that I thought it might be useful to have. I called her that evening, crying, confessing my need for God.
For the me of the present, the whole idea of a conversion experience is a little uncomfortable, and I struggle not to feel embarrassed in describing my own. But I remember a genuine desire to know God, and a genuine hope that He was good.
He? She? They? Capitalized, why? These are the things that trip me up today, the reasons that I answered my mother’s recent question with “sometimes” or “kind of.”
Our paths that brought us to the present day are as much a part of us as who we are at this very moment, I believe. I am that sixteen-year-old girl, newly in love with Jesus, eager to please him, desperate for love and belonging. The ten years that followed were heavily shaped by that desperation. I am also the twenty-six-year-old woman, wounded by the whiteness, racism, sexism, and capitalism, of the evangelical church in the U.S. And I am also the thirty-one-year-old woman writing these words, feeling the strongest kinship with the cynicism of her early adolescence, yet filled with longing for the comfort that faith brought through my years of young adulthood. I think I would have experienced less pain during those years had I not conflated my desire for love from God with my desire for love from the people around me.
I like to use the language of faith journey, even if it sounds a little… whatever it sounds like. To me it feels like a dance, a clumsy one, falling in and out of step with faith, at moments seeing God eye to eye, moving towards one another, then retreating, not always having enough trust in God to catch me during the dips. This is part one of the history of my faith journey, and I hope I can come to accept and embrace each clumsy step.