I was 13 the first time I questioned my faith. The previous year, I had spent several months in confirmation classes learning all about the origins of the faith I had been raised in. Like a good student, I took notes and memorized the Apostle’s Creed, among other things. My friends and I would sneak into the church kitchen to snack on the little tablets of shortbread that our church used for communion, not recognizing the irony of us noshing on those sweet little squares as nothing more than a treat because it was outside of the context we were learning in the Sunday school room upstairs.
After we were all confirmed, I was grateful that the cross necklace our class was given from the church was not as ugly as the ones from the year before; I even wore it outside of Sunday morning because I liked it as a fashion statement, not because it meant anything to me.
I never really took my job as acolyte seriously. I would sit in the front of the church, pretending to listen to the sermon but really playing the game our youth pastor challenged us with so I could hopefully earn the lunch she promised. The game was simple—listen to the sermon and pick out words in alphabetical order. If you made it to Q, she would take you to lunch after church. I never made it to Q, and mostly that was because the pastor never used a Q word as far as I could tell. I knew it was a trick to make it look like we actually gave a shit about the sermon while 300 people were watching, but I appreciated the possibility of the bribe coming to fruition at some point.
I still believed in the things I had been taught to that point, but that all changed that fall when my parents filed for bankruptcy and lost everything. For the first time in my life, we really struggled to make ends meet. We had just moved into a new house, but my dad was trying to start a new business with the shadow of his last business venture hanging over him and my mom went to work for the first time in my life. That Thanksgiving, our youth group hosted a food drive at our church, and our family dutifully dropped our cans in the collection boxes on Sunday morning, and later in the week, my peers and I sorted the cans and packed up the boxes for families in need. At the end of the week, my Sunday school teacher arrived at our door to deliver one of the boxes to us.
I was hurt. I was pissed. I didn’t think that we were that “in need,” and I remember my mom feeling insulted that the same people who had been her friends earlier in the year now saw us as a charity case. Looking back on it, I realize that this was probably the only Christian act that the people of that church actually did, but it was done out of an act of pity, and that just made it feel like shit and hurt my pride. Not long after that, my parents started looking for a new church because they had been ostracized from the circles where they had previously been accepted.
It was at that point that I decided that God was a fake. I could not reconcile the fact that this body of people who claimed to believe in Him could be so cruel and dismissive simply because we were struggling. We hadn’t changed as people, so why were they treating us so differently?
I started questioning everything. I learned about other religions and I asked the question, “How do we even know the Bible is real? How do we know that someone didn’t just write it, bury it, and then ‘discover’ it, claiming that it’s an ancient text?” There wasn’t a single answer that my mom could provide that was sufficient for me.
I sat down and wrote my parents a letter, not having the courage to tell them to their faces, what I had concluded. I didn’t believe in God anymore, and I was no longer going to attend church with them because it was pointless. I had completely lost all faith in everything I had been taught to that point, and I blamed God for not protecting my family. My mom was devastated.
My parents let me get away with not going to church for a few months, but then they dragged me along. I usually sat in the pew, doodling on the bulletin or staring out the window and counting the number of trains that passed by in the course of an hour. I wanted nothing to do with church and I resented my parents for making me go.
With the addition of our family, the new church now had enough teenagers in the congregation to start a Sunday morning bible study for us. Now I was not only forced to sit in church and listen to a sermon, I had to sit in a classroom with a half dozen other kids and I couldn’t even pretend to be listening. I had started to believe in God again, but this whole concept of religion seemed like a total sham. I decided to use this as an opportunity to answer some of the questions my mom could not.
One morning, we were discussing the migration out of Egypt, and completely bored, I said, “How do we even know our religion is right? We spend all this time worshipping this God, and if we don’t, we’re told that going to burn in hell. But what if we’re wrong? What if Judaism, or Buddhism or Mormonism is the right one? Or worse, what if heaven doesn’t really exist?”
Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. After that conversation, the elders of the church seemed to be hell bent on saving my soul. I got into youth group because it was an opportunity to hang out with the friends I no longer went to school with. We went to church camp, which was really only an opportunity for me to leave home for two weeks every summer. One year, I even gave my life to Jesus, not because I wanted to, but because the boy I liked got up and I followed him. I was really pissed when we were all brought to a dedication ceremony and had to listen to another two hours of preaching while the rest of our group went out for fish tacos.
After I graduated high school, I completely stopped going to church. I decided that it wasn’t for me. I had grown close to one of the older couples in our church because she had survived the Holocaust and I had interviewed her for a documentary that had I made. Not long after I moved out, they invited me to dinner, and I gladly accepted. We enjoyed our meal and by the time dessert came, their true agenda came out. They wanted me to come back to church. The betrayal that I had felt in my early teens rose up again. I thanked them for the meal and stormed out in tears and vowed never to step foot inside a church again.
Nearly ten years later, my daughter had just turned one and I felt this tug on me to raise her with some sort of religious foundation. Despite my feelings about church, my faith in God had been growing, and I decided to dip my toes back into the baptismal waters of The Church. One of my coworkers invited me to join him and his wife at their church, so I did.
We showed up one Sunday at a building that, on the outside, looked reminiscent of the church building of my youth, but we actually met in a big side room that smelled stale and reminded me of a community rec room. There was no pulpit. There were no pews. There were no offering plates or stained glass windows. There was no choir and no processional, simply a guy with an acoustic guitar, playing music to go along with the songs I didn’t know and wouldn’t learn because there were no songbooks either.
It reminded me nothing of the churches I had grown up attending. And I loved it.
For the next five or so years, we became active members of that church and it felt so different than my life’s experiences to that point. We learned about the history of what we studied and the contextual importance. We learned about caring for each other from a place of love. And most importantly, I started to get answers to the questions I had been asking since I was a teenager.
It was all amazing until that church stopped feeling like God was at the center of it all, and then it felt just like the other churches I had been to in life. I was disappointed and stopped going after a while.
I had a realization not long ago that my faith really has nothing to do with going to church. For the majority of my life, I kept looking for the answers inside of a building and within a congregation and with a specific label on it.
In the end, I realized that all of the answers have always been within me all along. My faith has never been stronger than it is right now, and even though my journey has come with a lot of pain, it has forged me into the woman I am today.
Read other writers’ take on this month’s theme: Faith
Opening Up to Faith by Amy Clark
Faith by Amy Rich
Something to Believe In by Sarah Hartley
Making Sense Of Faith by Adeola Sheehy
Pesticides and Jesus by Liz Russell
Indian Lilac Brings Me Home: Reflections On Relationships by Laci Hoyt
Twinkling Lights of Faith by Mia Sutton