Since sharing the news of my matriculation to Divinity School, I have received mixed reactions. You’re going to Divinity School… do you want to be a priest???
Oh. How interesting…
Or, for instance, take this interaction with a colleague: “Are you really religious???? It’s religious studies??” My colleague asked the questions with an intonation that suggested I’d offended her, like she was simultaneously shocked and disgusted. It would not have annoyed me as much if we had not had the exact same conversation four times in two weeks. No, I do not want to be a priest.
I’ve also received feedback from the other end of the spectrum: WOW! Now God will really be on your side!! as if they are saying, “You’re so holy! Hallelujah!” That makes me feel like I want to jump out of my own skin.
I live in Manhattan, and though there is a church, synagogue, or mosque on every other street corner, New York is a deeply secular city. I share many common values with my colleagues and friends here. I understand that many young people (myself included) have had disillusioning experiences with organized religion. Many choose to leave the traditions of their upbringing for good reasons. I grew up in the Catholic tradition, and from a very early age, I developed a complicated relationship with the Church.
When I was five, I asked why women couldn’t be priests, why there were no women on the altar, why no women were speaking in church. By age twelve, I started noticing the ways the Catholic culture tried to control women’s bodies. I was taught in youth group that sex before marriage was a sin, that birth control was sinful, that abortion was immoral, and that women weren’t equipped to lead. The marching orders were clear: become a wife and a moth. The Sunday School teachings, on sex and politics, implied women’s bodies (not men’s bodies) were dangerous and would always be held responsible for sin, for wayward desire, for mistakes. No man wants a used handkerchief. I knew people who would stand outside of abortion clinics holding signs of bloody fetuses, shouting at women as they walked in. Women held the brunt of both progress and the lack of it in the Church.
By the time I was fifteen, I was thoroughly pissed off about what I’d learned in Sunday School. I had also learned enough about false equivalences to understand that women’s bodies are not equivalent to handkerchiefs. I had also thought enough about the fabric of my own soul to know that I wanted an eventual partner who would love me unconditionally, who wouldn’t determine my marriageability based on my physical and sexual history.
In 2008, I was passionately engaged with the Presidential Election. While I’d always paid attention to politics, I was fully invested that year in reading profiles of each candidate and their positions on relevant issues, including the financial crisis, the Iraq War, healthcare, women’s issues, and LGBTQ rights. My parents are registered Independents and though they lean Democratic, no one was shoving political one-liners down my throat. I decided to support Barack Obama. When a girl from youth group learned this, she equated me with Pontius Pilate publicly on Facebook, stating that I was a baby killer for supporting a Democrat and that I was washing my hands clean of the deaths of innocent fetuses. Such a Christian thing to do.
I understand intimately why people have negative visceral reactions to Christianity. In American politics, being Christian has become associated with regressive ideas about women’s roles in public spaces or uneducated beliefs about Climate Change. Being Christian has become associated with the image of someone standing outside of Planned Parenthood, holding a sign with BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS written on it in red scary Halloween font. Being Christian has become associated in our public life with turning vulnerable people away.
For many years, I turned away from Christianity. All four years of college, I did not once attend a Catholic service while I was away from home. I had become passionately involved in sexual assault advocacy, and at the time, religion felt antithetical to this work. Once you’ve sat with a woman for hours as she shakes from the pain and trauma of sexual violence, never will you stand outside of a clinic and scream at another woman in need. Never will you sit at a dinner party and pat yourself and other Christians on the back for attending a “pro-life” march. Life, love, sex, and human beings are much too complicated for that type of self-satisfaction.
By the time I got to college, I still had shame to put in the light. I still had to unlearn seeing my own body as partly dangerous. Am I still irrationally afraid of getting pregnant out of wedlock? Yes, Catholic guilt is real, but the process of stepping away from the Church, of stripping down what religion meant in my life was deeply important. All that was left of my faith were the frames and joists. I began to see the work that Christianity and spirituality could do in the world.
Here’s the Readers Digest version of the New Testament: Jesus came into the world and spent his time walking around loving people. In so many of the stories in the Bible, people are unjustly turned away. Pregnant unwed mothers, sick people, differently abled people, poor people, displaced people, children…Sometimes, Jesus’s friends or disciples would come along and tell those people to go away. But time and again, Jesus would say to those who were rejected: Come here. You are worthy. You are loved.
It does not matter to me whether you believe in Jesus or not. I don’t think the point is for us to go around arguing about all the beliefs that silo religions. Fundamentally, I do not think we should all be having the same thoughts about mystery and human life. I have Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and New Age friends who are the kindest, most thoughtful individuals I have ever met. They help me grow in love and purpose.
All of my friends and family agree upon this: we desperately need more people in this tumultuous period who go over to those who are hurting, look them in the eyes, and demonstrate in thought, word, and action: Come here. Yes, you are worthy. I love you.
This is an essential response to pain from which our cultural and political worlds could greatly benefit. It cuts through bullshit, and it cuts through belief. It’s a way of being that naturally aligns principle and practice. It is the rock upon which to build your spiritual house.
I understand why people are wary of religion. From both the inside and outside, it can seem like religion is more concerned with who’s in and who’s out than it is concerned with caring for people who are suffering or with helping people flourish.
Being a Christian does not mean crocheting platitudes onto small pillows, tearing up when they play the Servant Song at Mass, and standing around in a circle all nodding when someone says the Republican Gubernatorial candidate is going to win next year. Being Christian requires us to show up for those who are hurting, for refugees, as allies to Black Lives Matter, to tend to the sick (and ensure they have healthcare), to advocate for mercy. Being Christian requires us to embody love, to say, “I see your pain, and it matters to me. Let me help.”
I am the daughter of a teacher (my mother) and an immigrant (my father). I am biracial. I am a woman. From this collection of experiences, I feel indignant on behalf of those who suffer at the hands of injustice, but I do not only believe in justice because I fit into certain identity categories. I believe we are here to help the world evolve towards love and inclusion, in principle and in practice, in meditation and in daily life. I’m a Democrat and a feminist because that’s where love is constellated these days.
On two occasions since I’ve shared my decision to go to Divinity School, I have received a surprising echo from two friends, one who was raised Buddhist, the other who was raised Catholic.
Me, too. I’ve thought about that path, too.
It is beautiful to hear this, not because they believe what I believe, but because they, too, seek to heal the world.