School and church were the same place 6 days a week, 99.9% white, upper middle class, and the messaging was clear and consistent: Follow the script; We are disgusting, sinful, nothing; The ONLY good in us is because of God, and without Jesus we are horrible and condemned to hell. A real wham to the ole self esteem that one.
I babysat and wrote letters to raise support and pay my way on white savior mission trips. I had a purity ring and virginity pledge, I protested out on the street for the pro-life movement and cheerfully participated in fundraisers for the cause. I honestly enjoyed it all.
Yet by 22 I couldn’t wait to move as far away as possible for some reason. Guess I just knew there was more out there. San Francisco was the final destination.
My first job in SF rocked my world. My first landlord didn’t speak English, the local grocery store had live frogs in a bucket for sale, and other than one acquaintance in college, I interacted with LGBTQI+ people for the first time in my life. I spent days and night shifts with people of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and political leanings for the first time in my life. Culture shock is a cliche way to put it. Homesick, yes. Terrified, 100.
I was raised to believe being gay was a sin, as was abortion, and that while people should be judged for who they are on the inside, the black community was problematic.
While being surrounded by people outside my white southern bubble, I quickly learned how many other ways there are to see the world. In the hospital, I worked alongside saintly people who came from all different beliefs and backgrounds, providing end of life care. As a young nurse I admired and respected these professionals immensely, and I quickly understood that the experiences of all these interesting, amazing, caring people were both valid and many without a faith in Jesus. That this goodness was not dependent on a Christian worldview or supernatural Holy Spirit power as I had been taught was a revelation.
This shattered my basic understanding of the world and burst my tiny bubble. I listened to the people I met, colleagues, acquaintances, and patients alike, and their stories were powerful and life-changing. The stories of these “godless” friends with unbelievable lives checked my privilege at the door.
Suddenly the black and white, clear cut morality of my youth was exclusionary and made no sense. The good God I knew didn’t cast judgement on any of these people for the choices they’ve made and the lives they’ve lived that didn’t fit my Christian paradigm. These nurses who gave so much for 12 hours on a grueling med surg unit weren’t going to hell just because they were raised Buddhist in Asia or loved someone of the same gender. Suddenly these ideas were archaic, absurd, and just plainly untrue.
The expansion of my mind simply took off from there. Over the next 16+ years in SF my eyes would continue to be opened and my black and white thinking decimated.
At first, I continued to go to church (by the way, a church that supports same-sex marriage, and operates a homeless ministry unlike anything I witnessed in the south) and continued to save myself sexually for marriage throughout my 20s, waiting for the godly husband the Lord would surely provide.
Then I experienced a sexual assault that threw everything left of my theology into chaos. In church we sang of God as our protector, shelter, defender– and suddenly I couldn’t get out of my head the image of a passive God just watching as I was raped. He, apparently, was complicit in tacit agreement. This visceral reality was the dead opposite of those things we proclaimed at church. Mid-service, I would find myself angry and running out of church in tears.
That’s when I stopped going.
From there it began to set in for me the infinitely more horrific experiences of abuse and assault that take place all of the time, all over the world, and to children in poverty no less. What was this all powerful God up to when witnessing these atrocities? And suddenly this idea of a compassionate almighty God who ordained our futures and cared about the iotas of our lives, as I had been taught, was plainly absurd, naive, and honestly a cruel joke.
I felt unbelievably betrayed by the God I had loved, and by the faith and religious upbringing that had made me so naive. I was in a tailspin, honestly, and the hardest next few years of my life.
But through countless hours of therapy and screaming neighborhood night jogs, healing eventually came, and I emerged a different person. From that point on my faith would look very different, my theology agnostic, my belief more theoretical and less literal. Doubt had been cast to an irreparable degree, and reentering that safe, black and white, controlled-feeling bubble that my religion had once provided was just no longer an authentic option for me.
Sometimes I really miss that old feeling, the old certainty, the comfort of belonging. I miss it but I also know it doesn’t actually exist anymore, not in a way that is approachable for me. Instead I live with uncertainty, self reliance, and a little bit of prayer. Because I never said I stopped believing in God. I just don’t think God looks so much like the one I learned about in the Christian Church.
-Southern Belle in SF