Tag Archives: justice

Coming Out Catholic

“My Soul Longs for You, O God” is the title of the first chapter in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, a copy of which I received when I went to meet with my parish’s priest last February, after declaring I wanted to officially join the Catholic church. It was a fitting beginning to the book, and also a fitting beginning to my journey over the past year. It will culminate in my official initiation into the Roman Catholic faith, just over a month from now during the Easter Vigil.

My decision to become Catholic has been a decade in the making, really, from the time I left the homogeneity of rural Pennsylvania. Had I stayed there, and had I not stayed with my semi-Catholic boyfriend who became my fully-Catholic husband, I might have eventually become Lutheran, and if I’d moved somewhere else I just as easily could have become Unitarian. It could still happen, sometime in the future. Around my mid-twenties, I concluded that Christianity was probably the best fit for me, and that every denomination within Christianity has its positives and its drawbacks. But it would be impossible to explore every single aspect of every single denomination, and every individual community within that denomination, and anyway, none of those were going to be completely perfect. My job wasn’t to find the perfect denomination or the perfect community, but to find one that was a good fit. It happened that I found a good fit in a liberal Catholic parish in New Haven.

As I hope I’ve accurately painted in my posts so far, I’ve been a skeptic for most of my life – or maybe an empiricist is a better word. I like proof. I like evidence. I see evidence of God in the existence of the universe, but not evidence of a personal God with whom one can communicate and have a relationship, as they spoke about in Sunday school. The History Channel documentaries on Jesus Christ offer no evidence of his divinity, and neither does the Bible, which, though possibly divinely inspired, is a creation of man and not a creation of the divine and does not stand in for fact. When I feel pulled toward God, which has happened on occasion, or an urge to go to church or to pray, I tend to look for a psychological or biological reason instead of a divine reason. Genuine faith is a struggle for me, and when all around me growing up were Protestant churches who put faith in Christ above all else, it’s no wonder I didn’t see a place for myself among them.

A couple years ago when my husband was living abroad, and I was working two jobs and not attending any worship services, and I generally felt like my life was on hold, I had a conversation with my mom about spirituality and religion. She had been going through her own spiritual awakening and had lots of new ideas. I realized in talking to her that my convictions – the few I’d had – had atrophied. I’d been curious about faith at one point, and had had good discussions with my faithful friends, but as I tried articulating my beliefs at that moment, I realized I had fewer beliefs than ever. My conception of the afterlife had never been static, and I had none then – we just died, and that was that. I didn’t entertain the notion that God listened to, or cared about, human problems. Our lives probably had no meaning and no judgment aside from what we grafted onto it. Nihilism, existentialism, near-atheism, whatever this was, it was far from the vibrant and lively spiritual world I’d once glimpsed and reached for. It was boring. It was lame, as Einstein said. And it was not what I wanted to believe in.

The really great thing about these types of non-belief, though, is that in the absence of a caring God, the individual bears the immense, ultimate, and urgent responsibility of justice, of shaping the world and enacting good. Of being the change. That’s how I saw myself, trying through my jobs at public libraries and in my daily interactions with others to ease their suffering, bring them a smile, sometimes even make their day. My insignificant life would end, as everyone’s insignificant life would end, but they are significant to us while we’re here, and if I could make somebody else’s life a little better, then I would have been a successful human being with a meaning to my life. I would have liked to have the weekly reminder of Mass to push me into those good intentions throughout the week, and to start getting some spirituality back, but I wasn’t in the right place to get dressed on my single day off, to drive to New Haven and look for parking, to sit alone, or to put the effort into looking for conversations and friendships at the post-Mass coffee hour. I couldn’t even get myself to social meetups that I found online, and I frequently cracked dark jokes at work about how I could barely take care of myself. So I let myself do my public service job, and I let it be good enough for the moment. There’s only so much that we’re capable of doing.

Though spiritually and emotionally I wasn’t in the best place, I was doing well materially and physically. We traded in the beat-up, oil-guzzling used Corolla for a much nicer, more reliable used Prius. Our apartment was small, but we could afford it, as well as some nicer furnishings. I worked six days a week, but they were good jobs, and I had good health insurance for the first time since I was an undergrad. I was making headway on my student loans. My fears of having to leave Connecticut to move in with my mom in Pennsylvania while my husband lived abroad did not come to fruition, and I could support myself in his absence. I could afford a gym membership. I had the physical ability to use the gym membership. I felt blessed. “Lucky” wasn’t the most accurate word, “blessed” was, and sometimes I would offer up a whispered “thank you” as I drove to work.

When my husband returned and I got a full-time job that allowed me to have two days off a week, I resolved to dedicate one of those mornings to weekly Mass attendance. It was the Christmas season, the time of anticipation and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and raising candles in my grandmother’s darkened church while singing the low, droning harmony to “Silent Night.” I attended that Christmas Eve service, which I’d attended more years than not over the last decade, but I didn’t feel that connection I’d felt in the past. After dropping my grandmother at her home, my husband and I drove in the midnight cold to the Catholic church in town, searching unsuccessfully under the orange sodium lights for a posting of the Christmas morning schedule. Next year, we told ourselves, we’d attend the Catholic service. When we took a trip to the city in January, we attended Mass at a little church in Harlem, where my husband’s former priest from Chicago was now located. And when my husband went abroad for a couple weeks and I didn’t go to Mass, I genuinely missed it. He came back, and I’ve attended services nearly every week since then, volunteering my time to service projects here and there and joining RCIA in September, my husband acting as my sponsor.

My choice of denomination has puzzled and maybe even dismayed some of my relatives. After all, in my part of rural Pennsylvania, the Catholic church is the one with all the rituals, the one with strict nuns and hours-long Latin masses, with cover-ups of child molesting priests, anxiety-inducing confessions, hundreds of years of corruption, and regressive perspectives on sexuality and gender, where the church serves the church itself and not the community. I agree with half these criticisms. And I’ve spent the last few years trying to dispel the other half of criticisms by educating others on the reforms of Vatican II, the massive diversity within the umbrella of the church, and my own positive experiences with the church, its members, and the meaning I find in the rituals.

My church is not perfect. Roman Catholic institutions, leaders, and laypeople have traumatized and abused children, shackled adults in unhappy marriages, and facilitated gay conversion programs. They dig in their heels on issues that should no longer be issues in 2017, sometimes simply because they want to differentiate themselves from Protestants. It’s a 2000 year old institution, and it’s had plenty of time to screw up. But it also has a long history of doing social good, running some of the biggest charities in the world, feeding and sheltering those without basic needs, advocating for those without a voice, spreading the message of love and compassion, and offering a spiritual balm to millions. Pope Francis embodies and exemplifies the love that is central to the faith in a way that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented among popes, and he receives heavy criticism from the most conservative elements in the church. My own parish runs a weekly soup kitchen, sponsors a refugee family from Syria, and runs service trips to needy communities in Nicaragua and France. To echo my religion professor over a decade ago, this is the flawed, imperfect, beautiful story of all of Christianity, of men and women striving in their own flawed, imperfect, beautiful way to make this world better, to reach for a perfection we may never grasp.

Roman Catholicism, in particular, is how I choose to strive. It challenges me in ways that I didn’t feel challenged within Protestant churches. The feel-good homilies back in Pennsylvania didn’t shake me up, didn’t call upon me to step outside my comfort zones and act daily the way my priest’s homilies call me to act. I know somebody who attends Catholic services who was at one point, and possibly still is, an atheist, but who sees, as I do, the power of the church’s call to action, and the power of belonging to a community of others who are working towards the same goals. This particular faith calls upon me to think as well, to look at the Bible within a historical and literary context instead of taking passages at face value, to use my English major critical reading skills to interpret and to identify allegory and to get to the deeper truth. It calls upon me to do, and it has shown me the immense agency I have as an individual, both within the church and out in broader society. It has shown me how I can work towards justice, love, compassion, all those things I value as a human being even without affirmation from a religious doctrine, but more powerfully with the support of that doctrine. And my doctrine isn’t for everyone, for sure. There are many ways to be a good, loving, kind, compassionate, and just human being. The Roman Catholic faith is simply my own path, the one that shows me how to realize my own potential for goodness.

I’m taking shuffling, timid steps toward faith, too, and reconciling my compulsive need for proof with my desire to truly believe. My need for proof, at its core, is fear of being wrong. Falling back on proof, on what my senses can observe and measure, is safe, and it requires minimal risk. It’s not going to damage my Freudian ego. It’s what I, a first-generation college graduate, a professional, a nerd, have used as a basis for most of my decisions. It’s insurance against being wrong. Faith, on the other hand, is risky. It’s illogical. It’s difficult. It could be wrong, and it could make one look like a fool. Faith acknowledges, “this guy sounds crazy, and there’s no way at all to prove this is for real.” But faith then takes a deep breath and says, “I’m giving myself over to it anyway,” and steps forward into uncertainty. I want to believe that God hears the prayers that I am offering more and more easily as each day goes by. I want to fully believe that the thing I sometimes feel rising within me is the Holy Spirit, to not become preoccupied with the biochemical mechanism behind that feeling, and to instead allow the simple fact that I have been designed with the ability to feel those biochemical mechanisms be proof enough of the divine working in me. I want to be okay with not knowing all the answers, with Christ being both man and God, with His presence in the Eucharist. I want the image of the woman on the tilma I saw in Mexico City to be a miracle. I want there to be truth in the old book. I want to be like the blind men I read about in the book of Matthew, who answer “Yes, Lord” when Christ asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” and are healed according to their faith. I want to be humbled before God’s grace, and have my good actions directed, disciple-like, by my devotion to Christ. I want to let my light shine.

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This week.

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I have no one word that can accurately express exactly what the last week has been to me.

First there was… whatever happened Monday and Tuesday. I don’t even remember. Writing a ton, I guess, and reposting something on cervical cancer and how women of color are disproportionately affected, and coming out on Facebook to defend Planned Parenthood as somebody who uses their services and has gotten cancer screenings from them. I joined my local state park’s association and got in touch with people doing cleanups, and donated to my cousin’s March of Dimes fund for her adorable son. Then I found a news article buried somewhere on the internet rumoring that Trump was going to sign an executive order to ban refugees for 120 days. I spent the night furiously looking up my representatives’ contact information so I could ask them what they would do to protect and welcome refugees in my town, and what they would do about Connecticut’s sanctuary cities. And about what IRIS needed.

Wednesday I could barely function at work, between hounding my representatives and checking the news every 2 minutes to see if the executive orders went through, and posting entreaties to my Facebook friends. I despaired. I got angry with people who didn’t seem to care that people’s lives might be at risk, or the parallels between the terrible refugee situation we had during World War II and the current rhetoric. Some people online were still talking about alternative facts, and I was worried that the dozen or so refugees I knew… scratch that, it’s more like 20 refugees… would be deported and sent back to a place that wasn’t their home. I learned that the currently settled refugees were safe (for now), but realized that students and friends in academia would be barred from leaving, or at least coming back into, the country that was their workplace and home. And I started wondering what the next step in extreme vetting would be, seeing that refugees already undergo extreme vetting.

This is not justice.

My anger has not abated through the last few days. Through seeing the National Parks Service’s alt-Twitter account materialize, and protests that spontaneously formed at JFK Airport and other airports throughout the country yesterday, where attorneys showed up with handmade signs scrawled “immigration lawyer” in English and Arabic. Through hateful posts on Facebook from people who themselves have been radicalized. Through realizing how illegal, unconstitutional, and un-American it is. And how un-Christian the ban is, and then realizing how many religious conservatives were remaining silent through it all (all of them, it seemed). I did my RCIA readings on the topic of Christian morality and found them timely. I bought a megaphone on Amazon and I played sad songs on guitar until 2 in the morning.

Today was a day of action, though, as I feel so many future days will be, and I let my anger propel me to good actions. I did the church thing and again found the readings resonated with everything going on – the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 that steer one’s moral life, the first letter to the Corinthians that states ‘God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.’ Initially I read that as a reflection of our political climate wherein populists revolted against the “elite” in the Democratic party, and then as a call for me to humble myself before those who don’t feel the same outrage. Maybe it speaks to how our whole democratic system has been pulled upside-down in a matter of days. There are a few ways to read that.

In the afternoon my husband and I went with another student up to Bradley Airport outside Hartford and joined a protest that we found out about the night before, organized by CAIR. Hundreds were in the arrivals section chanting louder than I’ve ever heard before.

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No hate, no fear, refugees / Muslims / immigrants are welcome here.

This is what democracy looks like.

Build a wall, we’ll tear it down.

No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.

There were a couple “We the People” posters with the star-spangled hijabi, and a girl who was wearing her own.

After the protest wound down and I talked to a librarian from western Mass for a few seconds, it was back home to fuel up, then back to New Haven for a benefit concert featuring a bunch of Yale musical groups. We couldn’t make the vigil beforehand, but we heard the turnout was massive. As for the concert turnout, Battell Chapel was at capacity with more than 1100 attendees and standing room only by the time we arrived.

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The talent in this room was amazing. There was a quartet who performed video game music (!) and I had to explain to my husband, who has probably never played an RPG, the greatness of composers like Nobuo Uematsu. I smiled straight through their performance. There were combined choirs who performed peace song medleys, a capella groups, a solo guitarist who used distortion and sampler pedals to perform original works, choirs that performed moving pieces that reminded me of my favorite songs during my choir days, a fun song with a clarinet and electric violin, and an accompanied choir that did “No One Is Alone” and may have involuntarily caused me to cry, because, Sondheim. Didn’t help that I was singing along, though…

The money they raised was astounding too, roughly $14,000 that will benefit IRIS. After the performance, I read from IRIS’ Facebook page that their 5k Run for Refugees a week from now is at capacity, and they’re trying to have a second heat in the afternoon to meet demand.

Maybe we’ll survive the next four years. But only if we keep caring, keep fighting, keep giving, and keep loving.