I walked out of church this past Sunday feeling peaceful, calm and refreshed. A rarity in my life nowadays.
Every summer until I reached my teens I attended Vacation Bible School in the heart of the Southern Baptist community in North Carolina and Virginia. For a few weeks I would join my fellow children in learning about Jesus, making Crosses out of popsicle sticks, performing in Biblical plays for our adoring parents and reciting age-old songs, like:
I may never march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s army (Yes, sir!)
*Cue the appropriate ‘marching in place’ and ‘military salutes.’
I attended church every Sunday, and almost every Wednesday. Sitting usually in the first few rows listening to my grandmother as she played the organ and even singing “Amazing Grace” solo or with my cousin at special services. I enthusiastically played with the other church-going children during events, bowed my head to pray at the instruction of our beloved preacher and recited “Now I lay me down to sleep” before putting my head to rest on my Winnie-the-Pooh pillow each night. I faithfully wrote in my prayer book during our morning “prayer time” at my private Christian school – listing all of the individuals that I felt could use the healing powers of my time with God, as well as some animals like my dog, Shadow.
All of those actions slowly became less frequent however as I grew up and became influenced by the circumstances around me, specifically as a Third-Culture-Kid living in Saudi Arabia. To use the phrase made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow, I’ve had a “conscious uncoupling” with the institutional form of religion, specifically Christianity.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I believe every child should have some moral basis in order to inform them as they maneuver the challenges of life. Whether that be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or anything else – I’ve found that basis to be incredibly beneficial, when utilized correctly. (But again, “correctly” looks different to different people.) I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. Christianity, when divorced from the structural, political, and institutionalized versions that exist today, is a wonderful religion full of significant life lessons and advice for its worldly interpreter. Just like most religions in fact.
However, the year I turned eleven I moved across the world to Saudi Arabia. An Arab, Muslim-majority country. The closest I had come to knowing anything about this country, and indeed this region, was from a class-project my brother did when he was in (I believe) 5th grade. As well as the ideas encapsulated in the items my father brought back after being deployed in the Gulf War. I knew of dates, scorpions, elaborately carved jewelry boxes and of course, some religion called Islam. Up until that point however, I had never met anyone who wasn’t Christian (that I knew of) and had barely any contact with people of color. Yes, I lived in an intense bubble while living in the United States.
Without detailing every moment in the past 14 years of my life, there were specific moments or actions that led me to this point of religious uncoupling.
The first is the most obvious – I began forming close relationships with people who were not Christian once I moved abroad. That opened my eyes to the fact that there are amazing, wonderfully kind people from all faiths. Even before I was fully aware why, I felt uncomfortable with the idea that believing in other religions were a guaranteed ticket to hellfire. Now, as I looked across the lunch table I saw friends who had different beliefs – Is heaven shut to them and their families?
Somewhat in high school but particularly in college, I also began studying the historical and political aspects of religion from a secular perspective. Which some in the religious establishment may argue was a form of liberal “brainwashing,” but one cannot ignore the contextual events, contemporary people and worldly ideas that shaped all religions into what they are today.
Now, as an adult, I witnessed the rise of Trump and his support among the (particularly white) Evangelical flocks – which to be honest, shook my identity to the core. Even after he said what I thought were disparaging things offensive to the core-beliefs of Christianity, he still had majority support. Thus, the moral high-ground I had always thought existed within the community eroded further.
This post isn’t meant to give my sweet grandmother a heart-attack, as she still sends me prayer books and Biblical references in holiday cards, instead it’s meant to describe what I feel is an exploratory moment in my life.
Where I’m free to not only figure out what I believe, but what direction God wants my life to go in. The belief system that I was introduced to as a child made sense then and it was comforting, but I’m no longer satisfied with the simple answers I was given because the world isn’t simple, and neither is religion.
As I said, I left church this past Easter Sunday feeling a sense of peace and rejuvenation. Something the act of church has generally given me as an adult. Perhaps because my attendance is so rare. But the service also focused exclusively on the message behind Easter – a message I’ve never taken issue with, and still wholeheartedly believe.
It’s the human-built aspects of religion that I just can’t seem to reckon with.
Who knows what I would believe today if I had never left the “Bible belt.” If I had continued to go to that Christian school, and attended church every Sunday and Wednesday. If I had continued to live in that bubble that encapsulated my childhood. I think most Third-Culture-Kids deal with similar identity crisis, and similar questions with religions that flow from their parents into them. Particularly when living in a country or society that does not adhere to the faith of their family, and/or culture.
In the expat and Third-Culture-Kid community, we often talk of “reverse-culture shock” but what about “reverse-religious shock”? Who else has consciously uncoupled with the religion of their parents?
Growing up, I felt unable to ask questions aloud that countered the religious beliefs told to me because that was taken as to question my elders, the church and thus, God. But I question in order to understand – and I truly believe God made me a curious human being with the experiences that I’ve had for a reason.
Why that is, I’m still trying to figure out.