My parents were both deeply wounded by family circumstances in their childhoods, and each in their late teens thought they could fix their worlds by being part of the “right” church. Then they met while working summer jobs at a televangelist’s conference center, and got married the next summer. When I came along, they turned to the advice of Dr. James Dobson for “Christian parenting,” which told them to break my “sinful will” even as an infant by ignoring my cries and desires, and using corporal punishment if I didn’t immediately obey them in everything. This didn’t teach me to respect authority, only fear it, and it prevented me from having normal early childhood bonding with my parents. It’s fair to say I was born into toxic religion.
And yet, at the same time I was reborn into the universal Christian family that contains so much more love and grace than my parents were able to give. I was baptized when I was two weeks old and have gone to church nearly every Sunday (and sometimes daily!) for the rest of my life—at least until the pandemic hit. I started going to Christian school for preschool and continued all the way through college. On Sundays and at school, I often heard that God loves me, and I never had any doubt this was true. No matter how lonely and sad I felt, I could retreat into my own heart at any time and any place and talk to my Heavenly Father, and feel some measure of peace and love when I did that. I am very grateful to the church members who taught me about God’s love and prayer.
Even though my childhood church environment wasn’t toxic, I was always hungry for something more. Though the churches my family attended were always Presbyterian/Reformed, for educational reasons I had gone to Catholic school for 4th-5th grades and then Lutheran school for 6th-8th, so I had learned a lot about the variations in theology and worship in the Christian family by the time I entered my teens. Though everywhere I went I heard preaching about the love of God, and about how we were supposed to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, I never felt like I really fit in anywhere. In retrospect, I think a lot of this had to do with me being expected to be friends with other girls and share their interests, but that wasn’t me. Nobody had the language to understand or support kids who were nonbinary or gender-nonconforming in the 1980s, and honestly, most of the churches I went to then still wouldn’t be affirming now. But I couldn’t see the issue clearly then, so I spent my teens sampling as many different churches as I could, hoping to find the “right” combination of theology and worship style and fellowship that would satisfy my hunger for belonging. I always felt fed with just enough Jesus to keep going, but never enough to find healing.
Around the time I graduated from college, I got around to sampling Catholicism from a more mature perspective. I was drawn to the sacramental theology and the liturgy focused on the Word of God and Eucharist. It also felt like a very stable rock to stand on at a time in my life when my parents’ marriage was breaking up, and I was building a new life for myself as a young adult in the DC area, far from any of my former friends and classmates, who mostly stayed in the Midwest. So I went through the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults and became a Catholic when I was 21. I soon realized that the fellowship and belonging I wanted so dearly was practically non-existent in every Catholic parish I tried. But I consoled myself with the conviction that I had the Real Presence of Jesus every time I went to Mass, no matter how little I felt like the parishioners were being the Body of Christ to each other.
Over time, my experiences with local Catholic churches turned from merely disappointing to toxic. Poor marriage preparation and false promises about what I should do to have a happy and holy family life did incalculable damage to my intimate relationships. A beloved choir director was fired for giving a favorable quote about women’s ordination in a Washington Post article. It was suggested that I was damaging my children, and not following God’s will or trusting Him enough, because I worked outside the home when they were small. A women’s study group regularly devolved into off-topic bashing of homosexuals. A priest frequently gave homilies containing partisan or racist comments. Another priest bragged about having children visualize Hell in their religious education classes, and yet another told them that wanting to eat candy when they are instructed not to is a temptation from the Devil. I kept speaking out on social media about what I perceived as abuse of authority, and trying other Catholic parishes where I could pray peacefully without being infuriated by the homilies. A local man who is a prominent Catholic writer started stalking me with fake accounts on social media, and then in person to each new parish I fled to. It was too much. If a church isn’t a safe place for me or my children to be and learn about God, that can’t possibly be where Jesus wants me to go to spend quality time with Him.
So one weekend early this year, I decided to check out a local Episcopal church. I chose St. David’s 11:00 am traditional service because I figured it would be the closest to the liturgy I was accustomed to and still loved. As soon as I walked in the door, I was warmly greeted and invited to sit next to the head of the Welcome Committee. Perfect strangers walked over and hugged me at the Sign of Peace. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a woman baptize a baby, with such warmth and joy to welcome a new child into God’s family! I was invited to receive Communion without any conditions about where I was a “member,” or whether I had a particular theological understanding of the Eucharist, or whether I was holy enough. After the service ended, I had a chance to talk with several people about different ministries and activities in the church, and got the impression that the members of St. David’s have a strong sense of ownership of their church, as well as inclusion. I was definitely coming back, and hoped to bring my family too.
My kids were reluctant to try something new and come with me yet, and unfortunately the pandemic closed the physical doors of the church a few weeks later. But the St. David’s community has stayed very much open, and continued to share the light of Christ even more broadly. My kids enjoy watching the Sunday services on Facebook Live with me, and I’ve continued to get to know people through the Zoom “Coffee Hours” afterwards. I’ve also participated in a book discussion group and Becoming Beloved Community through Zoom, sharing spiritually nourishing and vulnerable conversations with dozens of people in the St. David’s community over the past several months. Though I miss the Eucharist, I am fed richly by knowing that, when it is safe to return, we can celebrate St. David’s having continued to be the Body of Christ—as best as we can as imperfect but loved people—all along.