My journey into and, later, out of Christianity (Introduction)
This year, I’m planning to write a series of posts about my journey into and, later, out of Christianity. I guess I should start at the beginning.
I was born into a multi-faith family. My mother was of Jewish heritage, although her father was an atheist and their family did not practice religion. My father was raised in the Catholic faith, and his mother was very devout. They went to Mass every week, said the rosary every day, and their home was filled with reminders of their faith.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been surrounded by friends and family members who were different than me. I never thought I was unusual in this way. Even with a start like that, I was still ignorant of the amount of diversity around me. I was six years old before I realized that not everyone was Catholic or Jewish.
I stood on the front stoop with my mother, looking down the block toward Trisha and Diane’s house. My two friends had invited me to go to Vacation Bible School with them, and since school was out for summer and I was bored, I wanted to go. My mother wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.
“It might seem strange to you,” mommy said. “They’re not Catholic.”
“Oh,” I said, “They’re Jewish?”
I didn’t understand. How could someone be not Catholic and not Jewish at the same time? I didn’t ask.
“They’re Christians,” she said, which didn’t clear things up for me at all. Until that moment, my universe did not include anything besides Catholics, like Grandma and Grandpa Druchunas—and us—and Jews, like Grandma and Grandpa Tolen and half of the kids at school.
Vacation Bible School at the Protestant church turned out to be not all that different from Catholic catechism except that we met inside a church instead of at the teacher’s house. The classrooms were dark and dingy, with cinder block walls and small windows that were too high for five-year-olds to look out of. We sat in a semi-circle of miniature plastic chairs, and a the teacher stood by a big felt board covered in paper-doll cutouts. Instead of paper boys and girls with paper clothes, these dolls were characters from the Bible. As the teacher told us stories about Moses and the burning bush, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and Jesus feeding the five-thousand with the loaves and fishes, the little paper Moses and Jonah and Jesus and the whale skipped and swam across the felt board under the control of her fingers.
After the Bible story, we sang songs that were different than the ones we’d learned at school. Nothing with cheery melodies and words about the farmer who had a dog named B-I-N-G-O or the oink-oink here and the cluck-cluck there on Old MacDonald’s farm. Instead we sang a strange sounding song that I didn’t understand. The tune was easy to learn, and the words were repetitive.
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya,
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya-ah,
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya,
Oh Lo-ord, kumbaya.
The other versus added some words I understood, one verse after another, building on the theme.
Someone’s sleeping Lord, kumbaya…
Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya-ah…
Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya…
Each verse ending the same way.
Oh Lo-ord, kumbaya.
The music made me feel happy and sad at the same time and I sang along and swayed to the music, even though I didn’t know what the words meant.
I kept humming the song to myself as we worked on a crafts project, making a cross out of noodles, coloring pictures of Jonah and the whale, or some similar childish artwork.
It wasn’t until we all went outside to play and have snack of cookies and Kool-aide that the sweet eeriness of the singing faded away in the sunshine as the noise of sugar-buzzed kids playing drowned out the tune lingering in my mind.
I didn’t think of Vacation Bible School much after the week was over, but I never forgot the new song we’d learned with the strange words and the haunting tune.
Growing up, I didn’t realize that one could choose one’s religion. Although my mother went to the Catholic church, she was still Jewish, wasn’t she? Religion was like nationality: something you were born with, something you shared with your family, something you didn’t — couldn’t — change. Religion wasn’t about belief. It was about tradition and heritage. I didn’t know that many people believed that their religion was “right” and everyone else was “wrong.” Religion, to me, was something you inherited from your parents and grandparents, like your eye color and the shape of your nose.
It was only later, when my mother was born again and when I was baptized in the Holy Spirit, that I started to see religion as something more personal. I would have said, “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” And perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. When religion becomes too personal, when it’s not about tradition and heritage and holiday celebrations, but when it’s about belief and salvation and personal sanctification, that it becomes dangerous. When I begin to feel threatened by those who don’t share my beliefs, I become dangerous to myself and others.
After I realized that not everyone was Catholic or Jewish, I found that I had many neighbors who were of differing faiths: Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, Protestant, and even unbelievers. We were all friendly and we all spent time together, focusing on the things we had in common. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is often so difficult for people of different faiths to respect and befriend each other. When I read the news and blog posts, I feel like most people are surrounding themselves completely with others who are just like them, who believe the same things, and who have the same opinions. I can’t help but think that this trend is dangerous and stifling.
I never ask people what they believe in when I meet them. It eventually comes up, usually months, or even years, later, and by that point it’s irrelevant. Although I also became a born again Christian, and then left my faith behind, many years ago, I still keep in touch with my childhood friends and my evangelical Christian friends. I still like them. We are all still the same people we were all those years ago, even though we’ve followed different paths.
I feel like I’ve come full circle in my life. I was born into a diverse family, as a child I discovered that I was part of a diverse community, and today I find myself living in a diverse world. I would like to embrace that diversity. Over the past eight years, I’ve felt angry towards Christians, written blog posts that were rants against religious extremists, and forgotten that people who are different than me are still people. I’ve started to remember, and I hope you will remember, too. I hope the next eight years will be filled with discussion instead of debate, conversation instead of criticism, and acceptance and inclusiveness instead of anger and isolation.
I look forward to sharing more of my journey here throughout the year.