Monday, October 12, 2015

About Leaving Church and What Comes Next

Before I try and do my best with the spiritual/community questions I’ve been wrestling, I want to spend a little time acknowledging the personal heartbreak that happened around the same time. There was, as I’ve written a couple of times, a guy I really liked, and there was a morning he’d planned to come to church with me. I was so excited and I told all my friends, but we reached a dealbreaker in the night and he couldn’t come. I felt sad at the loss of him and hurt by his rejection, but I also felt ashamed for getting my hopes up so much, for getting so excited, for telling my friends he was coming and then having to tell them I was wrong. It was humiliating, and it goes along with the fear that comes from leaving the church, that every time I feel like I really belong somewhere, every time I go all in and let my guard down, the rug will be pulled out from under me.

Also there is the simple shame of this: I’m embarrassed about how long everyone knows I have been looking for my guy, how wholeheartedly I’ve tried and come up empty, how many OKCupid questions I’ve racked up over the years, how easily everyone else seems to pair up and slot into their lives and how I just never seem to fit. That pain is too much right now, just part of heartbreak, I guess. It’s relevant and not relevant but mostly I just have to get it out.

Every Wednesday at the library we have Lego Club. The only rules are that you have to make something awesome, and you have to take it apart at the end—no KraGl for us. It’s a beautiful way to look at creativity, but sometimes I wonder if my life isn’t a little bit too much like Lego Club—leaving the Unitarian Society that had been my spiritual home on and off for eight years feels like taking apart a beautiful, bright thing that it took time to build, and I don’t know when the next Lego Club of the Soul will come along. (And let’s not even think about the Lego Club of the Heart!)

When I signed the membership book at the Unitarian Society of Germantown in 2009, it was a huge deal to me—I had found a lot of spirituality in secular life, but I’d been without a steady and official faith since the age of ten, at the moment that I sat in Catholic Church and realized that it was just stories, and moreover, that it was stories that didn’t make sense to me. (Side note: My dad once told me that he stopped believing in Catholicism when we kids were born—he just couldn’t see how a baby could be born with sin. Aw, that’s nice.) For a long time, I thought not making it as a Catholic meant that I wasn’t entitled to a relationship with God, that I couldn’t really be safe in a religion, and maybe that is still true.

Every so often, when I felt like I wanted to make more of a commitment to Unitarianism, I even made a monetary pledge, just a token amount, but similar to the way that my wedding ring kept getting not-worn, my pledge checks went unpaid more often than not. Similarly, although we were supposed to wear nametags to be more approachable to the other attendees, I never could bring myself to wear one. You can either see that as keeping things at arms’ length or liking to be free, maybe both are true.

The first time I left the Unitarian Society of Germantown, about three years ago, it was because of something that happened in Small Group Ministry. One of the women in the group had struck up a friendship with a married guy from the congregation, I guess what might be called an emotional affair, and he got a crush on her. The lady felt upset and constrained by this, said it made her not want to come to church anymore. Without the man’s side of the story, the group instantly united against him. They closed ranks in a way that terrified me, the leader even offering to tell the minister on the man.

I got angry all the way down to my guts that they would gang up on him so quickly, that they wouldn’t show him compassion—I mean, who hasn’t had a crush before, for god’s sake? As a poly person, I became deeply aware that though they claimed to welcome all expressions of sexuality, the church still existed for the old reasons: To jealously guard the boundaries of heteronormative marriage, even uniting against errant feelings. My voice came all the way up from my belly and I said “It’s LOVE, the most powerful thing in the universe, and who do you think you are to control it?”

I took that as my cue to leave the group and the church and delve deeply into love research, which was scary and fruitful and well-documented.

I found my way back to USG, though, and though I could never really settle into a Small Group again, I did have long conversations with the minister about love and poly—I felt like I could be a voice for the organic side spirituality and the unpredictable nature of love. Without really noticing, I built an entire circle of friends from the USG community, whom I loved very dearly.

Then the pope came. I’ve already said that the way the pope’s visit impeded traffic felt like a citywide metaphor for the way they’d colonized and oppressed so many bodies, including my own. It felt like there was no place safe from the grip of paternalism, that there wasn’t room to be ourselves and grow. I am so grateful to that feeling for helping me realize how much the Catholic Church still lived in me, and how much I wanted it out.

When USG announced that they would be televising the papal mass, I was at first shocked, but I realized it could be comforting—who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by thoughtful, liberal friends who, like me, believed in fighting for equality and justice?

But then, the Monday morning of Pope Week, I passed my church on the way to work like I always do and saw the sign: “Welcome, Pope Francis.” I sobbed all the way to work. I tried to share my dismay with the pastors and via the church facebook groups, but people’s responses let me know that as a congregation, we were not doing what I thought we were doing. In their rush to embrace this “more liberal” pope, they forgot women. They forgot GLBT equality. They forgot thousands of raped children. They forgot to stand up for those who need it. Just as in that small group meeting, they closed ranks, and the only way for me to stay sane was to walk away.

I was angry, scared, and lonely, but also curious. I got in the car and drove over to the other Unitarian Society in my neighborhood to see what was on their sign. It said “Building Beloved Community.” I took note of the other denominations’ signs around town that week, and no other church said “Welcome Pope Francis”—They had their own sermon topics and their own lives. They had backbone, and I decided that I would too. In that moment, I felt kinship with my Catholic aunts, who were angry at the pope for being too liberal—from waaaaaaay over here other end of the political spectrum, I could see their point—let’s believe in what we believe in.

Just like with the guy, there’s sadness and shame and loss in letting USG go. Just like him, it wasn’t a mistake to try, but it ended up a bad match, and I can only keep trying and keep hoping for something more fitting to come along.

Right at this moment, I can’t really believe there is such a thing as liberal religion, or maybe liberal isn’t good enough. I want radical, wild religion, the Earth’s religion, something deeper that can’t be contained in the same rituals, the same creepy group dynamics that have oppressed us for all of our thinking lives. Maybe that isn’t religion at all, maybe it’s just connection to the deep, sometimes dark, wild spirituality within. I’m going to look for chances to touch that divinity any way I can, mostly by just being here, loving nature, loving love, and making stuff.

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