It’s a long story, why we stopped going to church for the last four years, a story involving a sharp sense of betrayal, a we-know-better-than-you sabotage, and a shove to the periphery of the community at a particularly formative moment. The specifics don’t really matter. The same thing might have happened to you, editing time and place and cast of characters, if you’ve ever lost your religion over the actions of a group of people within it. My husband and I were once regular church-goers, that earnest couple standing closely in the pews, smiling at all the babies that came in, otherwise mostly keeping to ourselves, and then, one day, our faith came unmoored. What I remember most about the moment is the sound of the blood rushing in my ears; there is a picture that was taken that day, and I can see in the way I’m holding my mouth that I’m holding back tears. I remember walking down the aisle towards my seat and thinking “My God, how will I ever come back here again?” After that day, my husband and I became the God-believing but people-fearing couple that can’t bring themselves to walk through those open doors, to risk joining another community that might cause them to feel betrayed again.
Which is not to say, we didn’t continue to have faith. Only that we profoundly lacked a church home and a religious denomination to label it. At first, just after we were married, we spent Sundays trying to find a different church within the same denomination we’d worshipped in; looking online at churches in the city and driving up to them and not going in, or going in and wishing we hadn’t. Then, we changed our strategy to staying home and trying to spend some time each Sunday in quiet reflection, which was nice for the maybe two Sundays it worked. Once we became parents, Sundays became easier in the sense that sometimes we were so tired and busy that we had no idea what day it was. But they became harder, too, because parenthood reminded us daily of the miracle of life, of the presence of something greater.
But we wouldn’t go back to church, we decided. It would be even worse now to try out a church with three small children in tow. We imagined walking in, unable to be inconspicuous (who can be inconspicuous with three kids under three?!), the hush from the group of strangers, the whispers or judgments about our otherness. It had happened before and hurt my husband and me enough; we refused to let our children experience it before they could even begin to understand it. And so, although their foster mothers had taken them each at forty days old for a blessing in a historic, brightly painted Guatemalan church, although we thanked God for them in our lives every day, although we taught them some prayers to say when they couldn’t sleep (“God bless Mami and Daddy, God bless my siblings, God bless those we love and who love us across the world, God bless all the animals we know the names of, God protect us, amen”), we left our kids unbaptized. We stayed home on Sundays. “They can decide for themselves when they’re older what religion they want to practice,” we told each other, believing that they’d consider their spirituality as they got older, but feeling wrong about raising our children without much faith base now.
What changed: in the last month: I finally registered our older two kids for school for this fall. After a long, stressful, heartbreaking, search for the right fit for our family, we chose not a big school or a public school or a moneyed school or a magnet school or an especially diverse school. We chose a great school . . . and one that also happens to be a church-affiliated school.
Because my own mother raised me to be bien educada (polite), I thought, since we’d committed to sending our kids to the school, that we might try out the church, too,. The staff and moms I met at the Open House encouraged me to stop by one Sunday. Maybe just once, I thought, just to see. During my visit, I’d been so impressed by the school’s warmth. Truly, you step through the door here and there’s an openness, a genuineness that gets passed on even, or maybe especially, to newcomers. And so, we selected a Sunday and, during all the days preceding it, my husband and I experienced low-level panic while we prepared the whole family to go. We talked to each other about the same old questions, circling them over and over again: What if we, and especially our children, are unwelcome? What if we all walk in and people turn in their pews to give us dirty looks and we can’t find the exit fast enough? What if it never feels like a church “home?”
In spite of our panic, that Sunday we held the kids’ hands and walked into the church anyway. We filed into a pew towards the back, passed out one small picture book and one small stuffed penguin to each child, explained the need to be quiet, and settled in. The service contained many traditional reminders of our former denomination — the dark wood, the stained glass, the liturgy, the rhythms of standing and sitting and kneeling — but it was not the same. It seemed, how to explain it, a reformation, rather than a reinvention of the worship we’d known. After the service, many (so many!) of the congregation came up to us take shake our hands, introduce themselves, and smile at our kids. No one, even the elderly members, mispronounced any of our names. They made the effort to really hear them, hear us. The people of the church, which was where the heart of our fear lay, had nada que ver, nothing to do with the feeling other congregations had given us. From the first Sunday to the next, my husband and I marveled to each other, as excited and incredulous as if we’d invented something. “We’ve never been to a church like that! I guess that’s the spirit it’s supposed to have!”
It’s undeniably meaningful, being welcomed like this somewhere –whether it’s into a church, or a school, or a family — after having ever felt unwelcomed somewhere else. But it’s a leap of faith to get there, to put yourself, and especially your kids, out there if you can still remember your face burning in shame, the shadows and secrets you needed to keep in order for people to let you stay in a certain community, and then, only barely. Moments like these have happened to me in so many rooms, in a variety of companies, and I’m not naïve enough to believe my children will escape them totally — it’s one of the downsides of being different. I am resolute, though, that they not experience that in church.
And so we go back, week after week, to a service that’s familiar but to a congregation that is different from any other my husband or I have ever known. By the time this publishes, we’ll have had our children baptized (with one American godmother and one Guatemalan madrina) and my husband and I will be part-way through the adult classes for new members. After four years without a church home, we’ve found one: this not-too-big, kid-friendly church, where they end the service reminding visitors how they are welcome and telling the peregrinos, the strangers, the visitors, the pilgrims among them: me, my family, you . . . that it’s their blessing to have us among them.