Not Every Compass Points North
By Olivia Land
My story with religion starts the day I was born. My parents are both Christian-- my mom is Roman Catholic, and my dad is Episcopalism--and I grew up in a household that frequently mentioned God, Jesus, and the Bible. My dad and I read Bible stories every Sunday night, and I memorized the Lord’s Prayer at a bizarrely young age. While this might sound strange to those reading, for me it did and still does feel not only normal, but special. Of all the gifts my parents have given me over the years, a solid spiritual foundation is one of the greatest.
As one of the few churchgoers among my friends, I frequently got questions about whether my church was as virulently conservative as those on the television news. I was always filled with a sense of puffed-up pride when I explained that no, actually, the Episcopal church to which I belonged had a national reputation for being liberal and inclusive. In 1976, for example, a convention of Episcopal leaders ruled that LGBTQ+ individuals “have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church"-- a landmark statement when many denominations shunned homosexuality as sin. The Episcopal church also recognizes women as priests; growing up, it was commonplace for me to see women leading services and spearheading new initiatives. Perhaps most importantly, my youth group leaders encouraged us to engage in thoughtful, critical discussions about the Bible and our religion, and frequently brought social issues like Black Lives Matter into the curriculum. Growing up with conservative parents, my church life was my first exposure to some of these issues, and thus created a seemingly inextricable link between my religious faith and my political values of radical acceptance.
As much as I loved and appreciated my faith for providing me with a foundation for valuing charity and inclusivity, my church was far from a perfect place. Religious leadership is not immune to corruption, so perhaps it should not have been shocking when I saw my empathetic, justice-driven community crumble in favor of social connections and diocese politics. Things came to head in the winter of my junior year, when a beloved youth group director was fired without reason or explanation. The nature of his termination--and the subsequent freezing out of those who supported him--was the last straw for me. After Christmas that year, I did not go back to church.
After spending years dedicating part of my weekends and sometimes weekdays to youth groups, church events, and services, quitting left a big gap in my life. Not only did I now have more free hours on Sundays, but after so many years of being proud of my faith and what it represented, I suddenly felt conflicted. If those in charge would throw away our values of goodness and faith for social gain, I wondered, than was everything else just a sham? All the discussions we had, all the work I thought we were doing, did it mean anything at all? And what about me-- were my own beliefs genuine or simply the result of a desire to be part of the crowd?
It took a long time for me to sort through all of these questions, and even today I still feel conflicted about some things. What I have realized, however, is that religion is not about moral perfection, but rather about recognizing what is flawed. Although I still hold a number of the same political ideas as I did before leaving my church at home, I have a new sense of ownership over my opinions. Today, I am more likely to speak up or remove myself from a situation that does not align with my beliefs about how we should treat others and ourselves, from issues in the ballot box to basic, everyday respect and kindness. In this way, I realized that my religious and moral beliefs and my political values always went hand-in-hand; it was just a matter of reclaiming them as mine that made a difference.