My Family Was So Desperate for Community that We Joined a Church
My father and I were always the early risers. On Saturday morning at 7 a.m., I was usually sitting on a kitchen stool eating a bowl of Shredded Wheat. My father was a few feet away from me, sitting “lotus-style” on the window seat. He donned robes that used to be black, but after multiple decades had resigned themselves to a milky gray.
Amidst snaking pillars of incense, my father closed his eyes and for 20 minutes he simply sat there and breathed. Then he started chanting — deep, throaty chants — while kneeling on the floor and bowing repeatedly.
Growing up, my father’s weekend Buddhist rituals were about the closest thing I ever had to church.
Even though my Catholic and Jewish friends always complained about church or synagogue, I have to admit, I was a little jealous. They had a common bond, not to mention a whole group of other friends outside of school.
When my best friend invited me to a Catholic service one Sunday, my initial excitement wore off quickly. I didn’t know any of the songs, and people were endlessly standing up and sitting down. I just wanted to sit. The following year, I would begin to attend friends’ bar mitzvahs and realize that despite the supposedly intractable differences between the world’s major religions, they all shared rituals that involved a lot of standing up and sitting down.
I tried to follow what the Catholic priest was saying, but I wasn’t familiar with any of the characters in his stories, except of course for Jesus, who was prominently displayed behind him, starving to death on the cross.
I really didn’t like looking at that emaciated chest and those bloody hands. While traveling with my parents in rural England a few summers prior, I had nearly wet the bed at a Bed & Breakfast because going to the bathroom would have meant confronting a larger-than-life Jesus, who was perishing for posterity at the end of the hall.
As the interminable service wore on, church was seeming less and less appealing. But then I noticed a sandy-haired boy about my age looking over at me from further down the pew. He was standing next to a gangly redhead, and they seemed to be conferring with one another. After we finally stood up and sat down for the last time, the redhead approached me. Apparently, his friend wanted to know if I was interested in accompanying him to the comic book store, and oh, could he have my phone number?
I was 12 years old, all knees and elbows, hopelessly flat chested, with a mop of blonde wispy curls that I still hadn’t figured out how to tame. I was not used to getting attention from boys. Maybe, I thought, church wasn’t so bad after all.
My husband has a more complicated relationship with religion. When he was five years old, a Mormon missionary showed up at his front door in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother, recently divorced, needed a change, so she packed their belongings into a Chevy Chevette and drove to Salt Lake City to start a new life.
The plan was to stay with the missionary’s family when they arrived in Salt Lake, but unfortunately, the missionary had neglected to tell his family that his recruits were Black. The family was less than enthused. The year was 1982, only four years after Mormons had officially allowed, or more accurately, re-allowed, Black men to be ordained to the priesthood. (Women of any color were, and still are, out of luck.)
My mother-in-law always said she left Cincinnati because she was surrounded by men she didn’t want her son turning into — his father included. When you’re a cash-strapped 23-year-old single mother who knows virtually no one outside of your neighborhood, how feasible is it to pick up and move to another state? The Mormons made it feasible, even if things got off to a shaky start.
Throughout my husband’s childhood, other Dads adopted him for father-son fishing trips. The Mormon pantry provided them with gargantuan jars of no-name peanut butter and blocks of greasy cheddar cheese. Even when money was scarce, he never went without a Christmas present from Santa.
My husband grew up with structure, meaning, and the faith that he had a rightful place in the world. But eventually, something happened that makes many religious children question their faith — he became a teenager.
He began to feel stifled by the religion’s many restrictions. He was sexually curious and got tired of the accompanying feelings of shame. He wanted to try a beer. He wanted to hang out with other Black kids. He didn’t want to spend three hours every Sunday at church.
When my husband now tells people he “used to be Mormon,” many take that as an indication that he has shunned the religion and everything it stands for. They roll their eyes and make ignorant jokes about polygamy. They have all kinds of opinions.
Some of these opinions I agree with, and some reek of the same intolerance of which they accuse Mormons they have never met. I know, because I’ve actually set foot inside a Mormon church. In fact, we very nearly joined one.
Desperate for help after having our first baby and starved for community in the self-obsessed, work-obsessed culture of Washington, DC, my husband and I decided to try a few religions on for size. We flirted first with a Unitarian church, which was wonderfully tolerant and diverse, but which was a good 30 minutes across town and boasted no fewer than 800 members. We didn’t want to make 800 friends, and we didn’t want to spend an hour in the car on Sunday morning.
What attracted us to the Mormon church was its proximity to our home and its small, intimate congregation — all people who also lived in our neighborhood. So one Sunday morning, my husband donned his slacks and a starched button-down, I put on a modest dress, and we drummed up the fanciest baby clothes we could find.
When we entered the church, what struck me immediately was the presence of other children. Parents with kids did exist in Washington, DC, but one had to work to find them. Here, the pews were crawling with kids and though our baby’s cries, whether of anguish or delight, still registered at a unique decibel level, they were not the only cries in the room.
The service felt more informal than I’d anticipated, certainly more so than the somber Catholic service during which I tried to avert my gaze from Jesus’ bloody hands. We later divided by gender and the women discussed their womanly activities, which involved knitting hats for children in need. I couldn’t help but inwardly roll my eyes over a bunch of women in dresses talking about knitting, but I was also mildly impressed that these women were actually setting aside time to do something of service, to reach a communal goal. After five years in DC, I was starved for communal goals, which were few and far between in the city’s wide, statue-flecked streets.
We returned to service the next week, and then for several weeks after that. Then spring arrived, and it became harder to spend half a Sunday indoors. Plus, as much as we craved community, we were starting to feel like imposters. I knew that at some point, someone would approach us about converting, and I only owned so many dresses.
A few years later, after moving to Portland, Oregon, we would again turn to the church to find community, which elicited much shoulder-shrugging and eyebrow-furrowing from my progressive family.
This church took place in our neighbor’s living room, and it was free of the stringent rules and regulations that dominate so many forms of religion. It emphasized love and acceptance, not fear and judgment, and there wasn’t a bloody Jesus in sight. I could sit down for the whole service, except while chasing errant children, and I could even have a beer. Afterwards, we shared a potluck-style meal, enjoying the age-old tradition of breaking bread with friends, and giving me a night off from dinner duty.
It wasn’t just about Sundays, though — it was also about everything in-between. Our neighbors gave our daughter a ride to school in the morning, their daughters came over to babysit, and we sometimes watched another couple’s baby. The couple who hosted service also organized neighborhood Easter egg hunts, summer block parties, and Halloween bonfires.
We enjoyed drop-by visits from our “church friends” (I finally had church friends!) and the women of the church descended on our house at 8:30 p.m. every Thursday to drink wine and eat popcorn. We talked a lot about smashing the patriarchy, not so much about knitting hats. Then, like good Christian women, we all dutifully brought our potluck dishes to service and never said a word about the men showing up empty-handed.
When our family first started attending the weekly living-room service, my daughter was two years old and spent most of the sermon seeking out household items with which to wreak havoc or cause bodily harm. The living room included a hutch that glistened with precious glassware. That hutch was every parent-of-a-toddler’s worst nightmare. It haunted me in my dreams. I could just imagine the congregation at the apex of a song, the guitar furiously strumming, our eyes closed, our chins raised toward the ceiling… Praise be the one who brings the light…. And crash! Shatter! Waaaaaaaail!
Our son was born about a year after we first started attending service, and our church community dropped off four enormous casseroles, which was four more casseroles than anyone had given us after our daughter’s birth in Washington, DC. He nursed steadily through the Sunday services while I steadily nursed an IPA.
Our children were experiencing a childhood entrenched in community, which was exactly what we wanted. But the problem was, I still felt like an imposter. My daughter, in particular, was beginning to have some questions about this Jesus fellow. Who was He, why were our neighbors always talking about Him, and why had He never come over to play? During a visit to the playground after service one Sunday, she came running over to me, her face flushed with excitement. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” she yelled. “That girl knows Jesus, too!”
I do believe Jesus has worthy life lessons to teach us — and I would rather focus on those than his slow, wretched death on a cross — but I view Jesus as one spiritual leader of many, and frankly, I’m a little sick of hearing about Him. Surely some women throughout history have had some profound insights of their own? Why, I often wonder, does Christianity conveniently benefit so many white men? And what would Jesus Himself say if he were asked to comment on the many wars that have been fought in His name, on the countless ways that human beings have twisted His words to divide, judge, and justify hate?
And what about the many other gods and goddesses that human beings have turned to in times of need? What about Mother Nature — isn’t it she who we should be worshipping above all else? Isn’t it Her wrath that will finish us all in the end?
I didn’t have to fret over my imposter syndrome for too long — eventually, our neighborhood church fizzled out. The pastor’s wife, one of my best friends, renounced both God and the patriarchy, and stopped cooking the Sunday meal. After four Sundays of takeout fried chicken, the pastor decided to take a break.
As the church faded into the background, so did our community. Without a regular gathering to bookend our weeks, we started to lose touch. I thought about having everyone over for dinner, but the prospect of starting a text chain and choosing a date and spending a precious Sunday scurrying around to make my home presentable was simply too daunting.
The whole draw of Sunday service had been in its effortlessness. Much less so, of course, for my friend in whose home it took place, but all I had to do was throw together a salad and make sure my children had pants on. For me, as a working mother with young children, for whom every hour of every day seemed to present a logistical hurdle, being able to count on a weekly social gathering within walking distance that involved no planning or coordination was nothing less than a godsend. Pun intended.
Turns out, in the absence of church, everyone was a damn flake. Including me. We got wrapped up in our own lives and we sent well-meaning text messages and we occasionally saw each other in person, but the glue that once bound us was simply no longer there. We no longer sang together. We no longer had conversations about the meaning of love and forgiveness. We no longer broke bread.
It’s these rituals, along with the sense of community and shared purpose, that I miss the most. I don’t miss spending an hour of my Sunday listening to a white man enlighten me about God. I don’t miss some of the inevitable in-fighting about who is more enlightened than whom, and I’m relieved that my children are no longer regularly exposed to a doctrine that I feel ambivalent about, at best.
My husband and I considered joining another church, right before COVID hit, but it was all these things we didn’t miss that gave us pause. We were tired of feeling like an imposters, tired of “using” church to carve out a sense of community that otherwise seemed so inaccessible. Was there anywhere else we could find casseroles, childcare, songs, and self-reflection — preferably within walking distance of our home?
Of course, COVID has stalled our efforts somewhat, but we’re still looking. So help us God.