Tag Archives: God

A spiritual history, part 2

If I feel mild embarrassment about my teenage conversion experience, I feel some major regret over the evangelicalism that dominated my college years. I would like to accept that this is one of many seasons and experiences that shape me, but when I feel the dull ache of the wounds I still carry, it’s hard not to wish that I had bypassed this phase. But again, I am the me of ten years ago as well as the me of today, and the people who were in my life then, some of whom are still in my life now, have left their mark, and in the case of many it was for the better.

Let me connect the dots on the timeline a bit. After becoming a Christian in high school, my faith in God rose to the top of my list of priorities and values. Coincidentally, and strangely, the majority of my close friends already identified as Christians, and a piece of me relished in this newfound sense of belonging I felt among them. I took the elements of spiritual practice very seriously, eager to prove my devotion to my new “heavenly father” through my commitment to prayer and being a good person.  I remember attending Bible study during the lunch hour at school, where a teenage white dude monologued his interpretation of a daily passage of scripture, verse by verse. I remember feeling confused, thinking, “Isn’t Bible study, like, an interactive activity? Am I allowed to raise my hand? Am I allowed to speak at all? Or am I just supposed to swallow his interpretation as fact?”

Even early on, at the height of my religious fervor, I wasn’t much for theology or reading the Bible. I just had a really hard time sitting down and doing it. I think it’s because, both now and then, I’ve tried to live my life by a principle of “don’t tell me, show me.” Thus, in my mind, the way I lived my life would be a product of my faith and evidence of my spiritual identity, moreso than my ability to recite scripture on demand, and it was in that way that the seeds of altruism and social justice were planted in my heart. When I went away to college, I initially planned to study Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with the goal of becoming a conservation biologist. I had done this random stint as a volunteer on a research project about leatherback sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands… long story (cool story too, actually), but the point is, I felt that my contribution to the world, and God’s plan for redemption, was to help humans be better stewards of resources and ecosystems.

Based on that plan and motivation, I took an undergraduate seminar in conservation biology, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I changed my major to Human Biology, because it had the word human in it, and I wanted to help people, so it made sense, right?

While I was trying to find my academic path, I was also grasping for social connection, and I found it in an on-campus Christian fellowship. There were multiple at UC San Diego’s campus, each one with a different sort of personality, but most all with the aim of providing community among Christian college students, AND encouraging them to evangelize to other students. Somehow, I found myself involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (they’ve since realized that is a terrible name, and rebranded themselves as Cru, which is ambiguous and vague enough to also be terrible, in my opinion); this may sound like an extreme statement but… white supremacy and internalized racial inferiority is what brought me to CCC. It was the “cool” on-campus fellowship, predominantly white, full of hot surfer dudes who also happened to love Jesus. This is what I thought I wanted, who I thought I wanted to be affiliated with. If I could find belonging here, I’d have found the thing that had eluded me all my childhood and teenage years. There was something mildly incestual about the way members of on-campus fellowships paired off with one another, and yet I spent four years anxiously waiting for my turn, not realizing that I existed in this community primarily as a token for diversity, and was only offered belonging because I defied most students’ racist stereotypes about black people.

The thing is though, people are complicated. That’s not really the ONLY reason I was offered belonging. I was also offered a space in this community because I was kind and fun and interesting. I was a token, AND I believe I was genuinely loved and cared for by many people. The two are not mutually exclusive. We can love one another in very sloppy ways, that aren’t at all the type of love that the other person needs. I’m guilty of the same towards other people.

I have a lot of journals from these years of my life. In them, I am typically struggling with two primary issues: the question of ‘calling’, i.e. a predetermined life path that one tries to discover; and the question of partnership, which was inseparable from the question of whether something in me was fundamentally broken and therefore repulsive to other people. I know. Oh, the angst.

I remind myself of this incessant angst now, at moments when I miss faith purely for the comfort it brought. It did bring comfort, but it also brought a fair amount of insecurity and self-doubt, always wondering whether I was a good enough Christian, always wondering if my life was sufficiently uncomfortable to confirm that I was following the call of God. The Bible says one must give up their life in order to find it. At that time, my understanding of calling was characterized by extreme sacrifice, rather than being characterized by an affirmation of one’s talents and desires. If I could speak to my twenty-year-old self, I would tell her that calling does not have to be painful, nor should it be. 

My uncertain journey toward my calling led me to vocational ministry, when, during my senior year of college, I applied for an internship at the church I had been attending in San Diego. The year I spent in that internship, and the subsequent three years I spent employed full-time were some of the most challenging, and formative, and painful, and complicated years of my life. I was also surrounded by a strong network of imperfect love and community. It was during those years that I discovered many of my gifts, that I clarified my passion for social change, that I joined Match.com, and that I finally realized I was Black. The last two happened back to back. It’s a good, sad story. Until next time.

A spiritual history, part 1

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.

 

Talking to God (a poem, from years ago)

Hi… (ahem)… hey… (ahem, ahem)…
Hello
No, that’s too formal
And I am done with formal
We are through with these formalities
Let’s be honest, you and I

I saw you yesterday
I saw and smelled you in the air
Your healing rain had brought the
Whole world into focus and
I can see, clearly now, that you
Are healing the whole world, and me

I heard you the other day, in
The lengths of waves crashing all
Along the shore; and I recalled
That you are anything but safe,
And yet I am irresistibly
Drawn to you, and if not to you
Then surely to
These waves that you have made

I’ve found that I find you
With the most ease when I am
Splayed on the ground, on the floor,
Feeling the mass of the world below me
The expanse of the world above me

I’d much rather see and hear and
Touch and taste and feel and find
You here, cocooned in the warmth of
The sun, smelling the wetness of dirt,
Talking back to the leafy green trees
Than find you in sanctuaries that
Do not shelter

I’m so glad you’ve agreed, we can
Put away pleasantries,
Bows, and curtsies and courtesy,
And instead speak to one another in
The pure poetry
Of all things alive, all things made