I was born, almost 40 years ago, into the Bible Belt of Texas. More specifically, I spent the majority of my youth and schooling in a small town of 600 people in West Texas in which there was a Catholic church, a Church of Christ, a Methodist church and a Baptist church – and you better belong to one. My mother, who did not grow up in that small town like my father, saw herself as none of the above, and she carted us an extra 15 miles to a larger neighboring town so that we could go to the Episcopal Church.
Most of my school friends didn’t even know what that word meant, so I learned to call it “Catholic Light.” (All the same rules, but none of the mortal sin! Did you get that? No? Then you probably aren’t Catholic.) My mother was active in the Episcopal church – very active. And I came to be, too. Mom volunteered for the Altar Guild, which basically meant going to a lot of trouble and ceremony, while leaving your family for large chunks of time… for funerals, weddings and general services. In other words, she seemed to be gone most of the time we were home from school.
I was persuaded to Acolyte, which meant assisting the priest during service. I did this most Sundays, at early church, throughout my high school years, as well as learning most of my mother’s Altar Guild duties so I could help her get out of there faster. So, I guess you could say, I’ve put in my time.
While I was being Episcopalian on the side, I listened to religious drama from my hometown friends. It became apparent that they saw each other through these religious glasses – and formed opinions based upon people’s religious affiliations. I was clueless in this respect. I was granted immunity from having to size people up based upon religion, simply because I did not partake in anything related to “organized religion” in that small community.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but it was a huge positive for me. As I grew up, I had friends from every church – it didn’t matter to me. I became very good friends with the Baptist preacher and his family. They ended up throwing me a 16th birthday party. One of my very best friends was Catholic, and I heard many tales of nuns and confession. My uncle (who was also my math teacher) and his wife went to the Methodist Church, as did my piano teacher (so our recitals were there).
I was peripherally involved in some way in all of those hometown churches. The only trouble I ever had that sort of centered on religion was a heated discussion (or two) I had with a good Catholic friend. The issue was abortion. He was an intelligent boy. We competed in science and math competitions together, and we even held hands at a dance, but on abortion we could not agree. It became clear to me as he argued, that his opinion was not based upon logic or even his passion; it was based upon what had been told to him at church. The church had made up his mind – or at least this is how I saw it. I saw my arguments based upon logical thought, and I saw his arguments based upon… something that was told to him. And that’s as simple as I made it at the time.
Being an independent feminist, even at 16, I sort of resented anyone telling me how or what to think… and giving me no way to discuss it or present my side. I think around this time I started seeing organized religion as a sort of dominating cloud. My little out-of-the-way church never judged me (or more likely I never hung around long enough for them to – I went back to my hometown!). My church never told me how to think. Or at least I didn’t think so at the time. I neither wholeheartedly identified with, nor vehemently challenged the Episcopal Church. It was just there, a place I went full of fairly decent people. I listened, so many times, to sermons, to the standard service, at special occasions.
Current issues (like abortion, birth control, flag burning, homosexuality) at church were never discussed in sermon – the mass was strictly adhered to (reading from the Bible), communion was had, a bit of a sermon (usually interpreting said Bible reading), then out for donuts. I had many an opportunity sitting there all those cumulative hours to ruminate upon a higher power.
One thing I did notice – the church took my mom away a lot. She was gone all the time, it seemed. The church made her cranky. Getting ready for Easter was traumatic (it was the only time my dad and brother came to church). We would celebrate if my mother didn’t curse or use the Lord’s name in vain on Easter morning as she was helping us get ready. After church, I remember sitting and waiting in the car for my mother for what seemed like hours while she spoke with people at church, or finished up her Altar Guild. There were social rules for us to follow – and obligations to people. We needed to be sure and speak to Mrs. Collingsworth because she had sent us a graduation card, or we needed to volunteer to make sandwiches for the Annual Meeting, or we should be in the handbell choir.
My mom let me wear whatever I wanted to church. She said as long as I was going, I should dress however I wanted, so there are many times I recall wearing my dad’s jeans cinched up with a belt, with holes in the knees, tucked into my tall black cowboy boots. As you might imagine, many people made comment. I thought it was kind of silly. Didn’t they have better things to do? I thought it was awesome at the time for mom to support me in wearing what I wanted, and I think it’s awesome now.
One time, despite my physical dedication to being at church and helping, and despite the sacrifices of my mother while she slaved away at the church, our priest called my sister and me “little shits.” I cannot remember what we discussed per se, but my sister and I were taught to speak our minds in respectful tones, so I’m sure we said something he didn’t like, but I know we weren’t disrespectful. In my limited memory, I think we were debating something, and I remember getting the best of him (I loved debate). I still remember his beet red face as he said it. That moment sort of turned me on religion. Right there.
(Incidentally, that wasn’t the last time I agitated a Man of God. Another time, several years later, working at a homeless shelter, I asked a Theology student and a reverend’s wife if God had a penis. I just wanted them to provide a well thought-out answer. But they never really recovered from that question… and I still kind of feel bad about asking it.)
As an adult and parent now, I do try to see how I might have been perceived at this point in my life as a young adult – by the priest, by our fellow Christians, by our church and community. I’m sure it isn’t easy to have a 15-year-old argue with you if you are the priest of a church, regardless of how “polite” she is being. I do know this though: adults do not really enjoy children or young adults thinking for themselves and having opinions… and they certainly don’t like those opinions spoken aloud against their own. But, on the other hand, I know in expressing myself, I could have come off as arrogant. I mean having a young adult school you in something is hard, even for the most enlightened of us. And so I take this into consideration. I am telling events only as I remember them, as they make up this story I call my life.
So back to me turning on religion. Of course, everything that happened up until then helped with that, too. In my mind, there were many cons to church: the time it took for my mother, the familial sacrifice and impact it had for those that volunteered at the church, the crankiness it caused mom, the anti-logical (black and white) arguments it presented against societal customs, the misogyny that existed in Biblical interpretations, the judgments it seemed to cause people to have – and my priest cussing at me. The pros seemed… non-existent. I certainly wasn’t getting many pros from it. I didn’t feel full when I left. I didn’t necessarily believe that the Bible was a fact-based document. While the idea of religion could be so beautiful, it just never really settled with me. My idea of Jesus at the time was that His message was love… and that he supported me, no matter what I wanted to wear to church, much like my mother.
Several years later, in college, I had the exact same abortion debate with a boy, a Baptist, and his arguments sounded all too familiar. We had many religious discussions. He told me he knew Jesus had lived, he knew Jesus had been crucified, and he knew Jesus was the son of God. He KNEW it. I asked him how. He said he had faith, he just believed. This amazed me, this certainty he had, and it fascinated me. This was a very smart boy. What would make someone stake his life that something happened if he didn’t know for certain? The logical side of me didn’t get it. It didn’t take long to unravel that boy’s faith… and I don’t take full credit in the unravel. He and I spoke a lot about this topic, intellectually, emotionally and from our hearts… And then I married him a few years later.
What all of those discussions with my husband-to-be illustrated was the FEAR organized religions use to keep people in the church. I have cried at what my husband had to endure as a child. Elaborate scare tactics were used to keep him from having sex before marriage or listening to rock music. He couldn’t watch the Smurfs because they did magic. He never seemed to have that “Jesus love and support” thing like I had at my core – he seemed to take away that God and Jesus were angry and vindictive and would seriously send him straight to hell if he had an erection or a “bad” thought. Can you imagine what this might do to a forming mind, to a sensitive child, to a sexually maturing boy? I quite frankly, think it’s despicable. But I digress. Telling his story is something I can’t do. This is my story.
Around this time, I read a book called “Bloodline of the Holy Grail” and a new world was opened to me. I’m not saying it is all truth because I don’t know. But the world it opened up was one of question and doubt about the Bible as it is presented to us in organized religion The book offered at least one fairly good explanation of the history of Jesus. If it offered one, there could be others. It had some simpler answers to me than the complicated assertions of the Bible. Overall, I enjoyed it, and I felt like whatever Jesus was, son of God or a historical figure, I was content not to worship him.
I decided that I was not a Christian. I didn’t admit this out loud, but I knew it in myself. I even said it to myself in those words, feeling a little bit naughty. (Have you ever answered the loaded question “Are you a Christian?” with a “No”? I can’t even go there with them. I don’t have time to get into it with Christians… I’ve spent my life doing it, and now I’m tired.) I didn’t go Atheist or anything. I was content not to have the answers. The message of Jesus in the Bible still held a place inside my heart. The love, the acceptance, the equality he had for every person seemed right to me. And as I begin to know a little about other religions, they seemed to have this same core. There were stories and illustrations helping people be better PEOPLE. Most religions began with love – or so it seemed.
When you think about it, religions are so similar. Why do we concentrate on the differences? We magnify them and let them divide us, just as we do politics. But, at the end of the day, don’t we all just want to feel loved? I’ll answer that for you. Why, YES. Yes, we do. And most holy books instruct us how to do so with words and parables. They are almost child-like stories (at least in the Bible) of good and bad, right and wrong. In my mind, I have started to look at these stories as if written for children, setting the foundation for love and empathy (when the world is easily seen in black and white).
But it is up to us to mature and to grow in love, to develop further and leave these stories behind – to make our own. To question, to grow in knowing oneself, to be one with our fellow humans, to know we are all connected and to make the harder calls in life. When I had a miscarriage a few years after my husband and I married, I wanted to turn to something, to someone greater and bigger than me. I wanted to have ceremony again (as I had been raised in the Episcopal church). I wanted to remember this soul that left me while at the same time to acknowledge my place in this world, the love I have for others even when times were hard.
I had never prayed in any conventional way, and I didn’t believe in going back on that now to do a “Dear God” thing… so I thought about what was really important to me, what I truly believed, and this is how I began: “Father-Mother God, All-Knowing Universe, Inner Self… please hear me.” And I listed the people who were important to me, who needed light and love, who were sick, injured or suffering. I named myself because I needed healing… and so began the way I address my own personal deity. And it resonates with me deeply.
I am still on a journey, and that journey has long since left organized religion behind – and dare I say I most likely will never look back. I am now convinced that nothing is worth knowing really. We will never know with our minds. All we can do is live today, the best life we can, delving into ourselves, living simply, staying present, perhaps practicing yoga and self-reflection, doing good to others. I think with our actions and mental outlooks, we create the world around us. With our perspectives, we mold realities, we manifest destinies, we accomplish the incredible. I believe in blessing our food, our water and our friends (as well as their sneezes). I believe thoughts become things. I believe we are all one.
And, perhaps most importantly, I agree with Mother Teresa when she said “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Now, excuse me while I get a tissue. Sometimes the humanity gets to me.
Jolee’s website is: http://www.barefootandprepared.com/