Content warnings: mention of rape and genocide
I begin my week under the dusty light of warped-glass windows in the half-filled pews of Natick’s Eliot Church. Once the preaching place of John Eliot, a seventeenth-century English minister who forcibly converted the native Massachuset people to Christianity, it is now a UCC/UUA church for the Boston suburbs. The descendants of the first “Praying Indians”* come here once a month to worship. Congregants from the suburbs do not discuss the history of the church as much as I think we should, but I hear conversations spring up like crocuses in the snow every once in a while. After several hundred years, we are beginning to understand our past. There is a rainbow flag out front. I smile when I walk by it.
On Monday evening, I arrive at the Multifaith Center. With its cushy orange sofas and bright tapestries, it has become home to me this past year. As I pass the communion cup from my hands to my friend’s, savoring the oddly satisfying mixture of bread and wine, I feel at peace. This same ritual has been passed down for millennia, and though it means something very different to us—to each of us—than what it meant to the early Christians, it is still holy.
On Tuesday afternoon I am back in the MFC for Heartspace, a gathering with a few friends and Reverend Jo, the Unitarian Universalist chaplain. We eat apples and hummus and Dove chocolate as we reflect on a poem and sing out of key. We light candles for our joys and sorrows and give our hearts to one another. At the end, we sing, “Courage, my friends, you do not walk alone / We will walk with you on your journey home.”
I return to the MFC on Wednesday afternoon—now in a less comfortable wooden chair, balancing a plate of Lemon Thai on my lap. This is Multifaith Council, a gathering of Wellesley students from faith traditions across the board: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Sikh, Hindu, atheist. We talk about what’s going on in our world. We discuss attitudes towards sex and muse about the afterlife. We are all so different, but we are all here to learn and to love.
On Wednesday night, I’m back for round four: Sophia’s Table. This is the official gathering of the Protestant Chaplaincy, though we twelve are only a small subsection of the nearly five hundred Protestants at Wellesley. We sit around a table, breaking bread and eating soup and talking about God.
When people ask me about my faith, they often expect a word. I have a lot of words. My grandmother was a Lutheran minister (her seminary class was the first to allow women), but my family was never religious. When I was younger, I would ask my parents to take me to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. “We’re not Catholic!” they would laugh. When I asked why we didn’t have a menorah, they said, “We’re not Jewish!” (I did not really understand the nuances of ethno-religious culture back then.)
In high school, I got proactive. I went to synagogue with Jewish friends. I toured the Bahá’í Temple (I happened to live in the town with one of the seven temples in the world) and attended a Bahá’í study group. I joined a Christian youth group at a local United Church of Christ. I dabbled in Druidic paganism. I went to my grandmother’s Lutheran church. I probably violated the ethical codes of nearly every religion whose worship I participated in, but how do you know what you like if you don’t try it first?
Then it all sort of…fell away. I stopped going to church and synagogue. I stopped going to youth group. I stopped reading (and getting confused by) sacred texts. My junior year of high school, we read part of Genesis in my English class. I asked myself, How could I have ever gone to church? Why the hell did I ever believe this stuff?
I stuck with that philosophy for awhile—never saying I was atheist or agnostic, because that didn’t feel right, but nevertheless eschewing organized religion for all that it was. I reminded anyone who would listen about the Crusades or the European Wars of Religion or the violence of fundamentalist missionaries in America. Just like the people before me who I so despised, I put religion into a box. Instead of believing that religion was Inherently Good, I cast it as Inherently Bad.
The second semester of my first year at Wellesley, things changed. I attended a community organizing event held by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (affectionately called Orr-sull) and listened to women—yes, women—from various faith traditions talk about social justice. Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, a black minister from Bethel A.M.E. in Boston, gave a talk on environmentalism. She discussed her work in climate justice and social justice at large, both the joys and sorrows, and how it truly does take all kinds. Mariama said she was a “build-it-up” person—someone who focused on reaching across the aisle and looking for ways to rebuild our society more justly. One of the other presenters described herself as a “shut-it-down” person: she was focused on dismantling the systems of oppression and taking down unjust institutions. This was the message: We need both. There is no one right way. We cannot create a better world without each other.
Through that training I realized that the historical institution of the church did not have to define my faith. It is true: since its establishment, the church has used its immense power to justify horrific acts, from rape to colonization to genocide. But individual churches have also been at the forefront of social justice movements—any book on the Civil Rights Movement will tell you that. When churches use their power for good, they can mobilize communities to do incredible things.
I jumped back in without really knowing why I left. I had a lot of uncertainty—I still do—but as many Protestants like to say, “faith is a journey.” I struggled mightily with the idea that believing in God, or any incarnation thereof, was weak. By refusing to see the world for what it really was, by denying the objective truth of science and rational thought, I was burying my head in the sand.
But nothing can ever be objective, not even science, because humans are not objective. Not only that, we simply do not have all the answers, and we never will. As someone who is very uncomfortable with uncertainty, I fill that void with religion: explaining the unknown with the unknowable. My beliefs are constantly changing and will continue to change as scientists and philosophers discover more about our world. But we will never know everything, and we must find a way to embrace that. Faith is a different kind of knowledge.
It has taken me years to realize that my faith does not make me weak. It makes me strong, and I need my faith to exist in this world. I see God as a light inside us—inside all of us, the unknowable expression of love, hope, joy, forgiveness, justice, and truth that guides us in all we do. Everyone has a different conception of God, but I think we can all feel when something Good inhabits our hearts. God is a flame, burning eternally within me, wherever I may go. Sometimes that flame is feeble. Sometimes it flickers and grows very small. I need faith—I need church, I need music, I need community—to replenish that spark so it can burn brightly once again.
I am reluctant to call myself any one thing. I do not consider Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior, because I do not believe humanity needs saving. I do not consider the Bible the infallible word of God. Nevertheless, I feel at home in church. I love being surrounded by organ music and stained-glass windows and joyful, welcoming people—even if I do not share those people’s beliefs. Despite my best efforts, the church continues to pull me back into her fold. I come from generations of churchgoing people who all read the same stories and believed the same things. The Christian story is my mythos, my mythology, and I know that buried underneath those long genealogies and questionable laws are deep, heartfelt truths. I take what I need from those truths and enjoy the stories. I hold the words on my tongue, knowing that people have spoken them for thousands of years in languages both living and dead. They root me in a long line of folks who had the same questions I do now.
Perhaps we are just bundles of cells careening through space and time at unimaginable speeds, waiting for a violent end. Perhaps we simply cease to exist after we die, and selfish, amoral people can go through life without any fear of repercussion. Perhaps everything we do is simply done out of a desire to survive. But I do not want to live in a world where we operate only out of self-interest just because there is no clear reward at the end. Maybe religion and ethics are constructed, or maybe that flame of goodness within me that cannot be detected by any instrument yet known is within all of us and has been since birth. Whatever the case, we all need something to get us by.
In the end, it is more than organ music and stained-glass windows—though those things fill my heart with joy. It is about “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I am called to love others and to give as much love as I can to this world. Everything else comes from there.
*This is an historical term for native groups in New England who lived in Christian communities.