It was a hot day in June.
I sat alone in a cemetery and cried. Someone mowed the grass nearby, children played on the street, and everything was next to normal otherwise. It was this day that I lost a piece of the faith which was engrained in me since birth. I had just graduated and I would move to New York City for college in the fall. I had been spending my days walking around town for no reason at all. I would pack a bag full of essentials—my journal, water, food, sunblock—and head in one direction or another. I’d walk for hours and hours. I’m not sure why. And on this day the sun beat down on me more. I stopped in the graveyard and felt my confusion sucking me into a black hole I’d never realized was there, dormant in the depth of my chest. I felt betrayed and disillusioned.
That was the day my family left the church.
My father was a pastor of a Protestant Christian church and my mother was the worship leader. We were born-again, saved-by-the-blood-of-Jesus Christians! As a girl I spent evenings roaming the dark halls of our church by myself. I wandered around, looking for undiscovered things—old bulletins, broken chalk, used Bible study books. Sometimes I’d collect them and stash them away in my backpack. In this church, I played the piano in the dark sanctuary alone for hours, I had short lived flirtations with boys, I snuck ice cream from the church freezer, and skinned my knees a few times on the rough blue carpet.
This was where I grew up.
My senior year had been a difficult one. I’d moved to a new school that year. The previous year, a couple of classmates died and I was glad for a change. Senior year was spent staring out windows and writing in my journals. I made a couple friends, but I preferred to be on my own. Instead of going to parties, I spent evenings walking around my new town by myself. Once again, my brother tried to kill himself when he was away in college. My parents rushed off to a hospital far away. I had even more time to myself then. I wrote furiously. I would take my dad’s work keys and drive to the church. There I played the piano alone at night. I was free for a time.
By June I was finally finished with high school. I wanted to leave home and get away from all of that. I was relieved to get through the year, relieved to get out of my house soon, and feel free again. I didn’t want to feel the weight of being home and the familiar anxiety that went with it. We were on suicide watch with my brother. I couldn’t sleep. My parents were a mess. I was exhausted by the hot June days, the stick of humidity, and that dryness in my throat from sleep deprivation. Blisters began forming on my heels from walking around in my free time.
Then, some time during the week of graduation my dad was fired. The church elders walked into his office with a piece of paper. The paper was a letter of termination, signed and dated by all seven of them. These men were family friends we’d known for years. They gave little explanation. There was something about theology and their differences mentioned and something about praying to God about it. They’d been praying for six months now. Nobody knew about this. And after this time of thought and prayer, they’d decided my father was not called to ministry. After 13 years at this church, he was ushered off with little more than two month’s severance. And on Father’s Day, I watched my dad announce his resignation through deep bellied sobs standing alone up on stage. His eyes never looked so blue.
It was an uproar! Members of the congregation began shouting at each other. Women sat slumped over crying. Fingers were pointed at each other. This was the elders’ fault, they said. Shouts of “Betrayal!” echoed through the auditorium. Church members asked for a vote to overrule, but my dad had no interest in continuing there. We left quietly and politely and never went back.
That summer I kept walking around aimlessly, no destination in sight, befriending alley cats as I went.
I moved to New York City that fall. The King’s College, a Christian college. It was named after The King himself, Jesus Christ! I admit I was not quite in the mood for college at that time. I hadn’t been sleeping. And I hadn’t been back to church. I no longer felt like raising my hands in celebration to Jesus. I didn’t want to smile and nod as people spoke about their faith. I was unwilling to trust anyone fully, convinced I might be betrayed like my father, convinced people might suddenly die like my classmates or at least try to like my brother. I spent my first several weeks walking around New York City by myself, writing on the fire escape, and sneaking up onto rooftops. I met some wonderful people there. I had some painful relationships there. All in all it was a mixed experience, truly.
But I didn’t love that familiar sugarcoated language Christians used. I didn’t trust it, that it was real, that it was honest. I’ve known religious leaders who are not what they pretend to be, from the pornography on their computers, to the way they’ve cornered me. I’ve been to the same church in which they preach a message of purity. I’ve been corrected for bad language or bold language. I’ve had male religious leaders describe womanhood to me, describe female sexuality as something like a chewed piece of gum that gets passed around if you share it. I’ve had religious people offer to pray over me. I’ve politely said no thank you. I’ve been to Bible studies in which women gossip one moment about the same person they later describe as sick and in need of salvation. I even had a friend who after trying to dispel her own lesbian tendencies, decided to unfriend me very abruptly and confusingly. I was once uninvited to a Christian women’s event because I wasn’t a member of a church. It’s even been suggested that I’m infected with demonic spirits!
As a young woman, Christianity felt something like conditioning for marriage, childbirth, and childrearing. In many cases, Christian women have taken on careers as well. And many Christian men and women choose careers in the Christian realm. They are bringing Christianity to the masses in the form of plastic Bible verse keychains, and prepackaged revival experiences. There are Christian substitutes for everything these days! Christian radio, Christian literature, Christian movies, Christian schools and teachings in lieu of the secular!
Praise be to God.
At The King’s College, I was given a Christian education right in the heart of New York City. I spent much of my time sneaking off to the forbidden rooftop to write, or playing my roommate’s keyboard at the window overlooking Broadway. I walked and walked. I sat on the fire escape, watching the city below. I sat in a near empty Times Square in the middle of the night. I felt trapped in a life I no longer believed in but I could not find my way out of. I couldn’t sleep. I took midterms and finals while seeing double. Eventually I dropped out.
At this point, my story took on the unpleasant effect of being shuffled around from apartment to apartment, sleeping on floors and couches. I waitressed for a time, working overtime, and writing music in the middle of the night. I lived in Harlem and the Upper Westside. I lived in Pennsylvania and then back to New York. I felt like a cat with no straight path, wandering whichever way felt right. I made friends in Harlem. I made friends with Asian sushi chefs. I befriended Witches. I befriended Buddhists and Jews. I dated a Catholic, not “born again” or manufactured. He didn’t go to church. We went on drives at night, drank coffee at Denny’s. He never offered to pray over me. No one did. I was glad for that.
And in this time I found normalcy. No one tried to define one another. No one tried to offer advice, to change anyone’s mind, or judge things they knew nothing about. They were open and honest, flawed and complex. It was authentic. It was complicated. It was disturbing at times. It was exhausting. But it felt real.
I’ve spent years studying religions and spirituality. I’ve read about the body and energy. I’ve studied hypnotism and the deeper brain. I’ve had tarot cards dealt and read. I’m The Queen Of Swords, they tell me! I’ve studied the stars. They’ve read my runes. I’ve been to ceremonies of all sorts. I even learned to read palms, if you’re interested. I enjoy the reverence of Catholicism. I enjoy the beauty of Buddhism. I fascinate over ancient runes. I speculate over tarot cards. I’ve even been to spirit summonings.
And in all this time, I’ve yet to decide if it’s one way or another. I’ve never seen a demon or a ghost. I’ve felt uncomfortable at moments, but not judged or ridiculed. My faith is a winding path, much like the lines of my palms, crossing from one line to another, breaking from time to time. And in the journey I’ve felt deserted and rejected, but never by the people I expected. I’ve felt loved too, but never by the people I expected. I became a musician, an artist, and writer. I found purpose in there. I did not find it within the confines of that brand of “born again” Protestant Christianity.
Several years later I went back to that church for the funeral of a woman I once knew.
She had talked to these same elders about her thoughts of suicide. They prayed over her, as they did with my father, they consulted with each other, as they did with my father. They asked if it helped. She said it did not. They told no one, not her husband or sons, not counsellors or doctors. Three days later this woman shot herself with a rifle in the basement of her home. Her son found her on her knees, slumped over like in prayer, a pool of blood around her.
At the funeral I felt empty, sitting where I once sat, glancing at people I once knew. I no longer felt like the girl I had been, suffering under the weight of doubt. I felt stronger somehow, no longer lingering on the edge of life like a ghost in a cemetery.
When I was younger, I once walked through a field. It was sunset and I was wandering as I do. I asked God to prove he existed. Show me a four leaf clover in this field right now, I said. I had never found one before. I walked for a while, feeling stupid. After a minute or two I stopped. I’m not sure why. I looked down. And a four leaf clover was touching my shoe, bent neatly and distinctly right over it where I’d see it. Call it coincidence if you’d like. But since that point, I’ve always felt that all the wandering would lead to a destination. I still believe that.
If you asked, I’d say God exists in the lateral, the marginal, the periphery sense of understanding, somewhere between dreams and reality. I’d say it’s in the space between certainty and hope, reaching for something before we realize we wanted it. A phantom limb our mind calls upon, feeling that it’s there even if we’ve lost it. And calling upon the limitless spectrum of human experience in order to reach for it again.