Friday, June 8, 2012

Sigh. I've been doing a lot of rewriting these days. Which is to say, I start a paragraph, post or essay, then scrap it and start it again because I know I'm not getting it right. I've been rewriting this post for the last week or so, and it still feels undone.

For the first time in a Very Long Time, I recently felt remorseful about not being in church.

Years ago, I worshipped at a church in Humboldt Park. It was a multiethnic, non-denominational worship body full of good looking 30-somethings who claimed devotion to reconciliation--racial as well as religious. The thrust of the church was something called incarnational ministry-- because I've talked a little about it here, I'll try to stay brief. As a congregation, I really enjoyed it. It was the first church I chose to belong to, and wasn't dragged to, like the churches of my youth: black churches, either enormous or tiny, full of fire and brimstone, Southern gospel and conservative world views. When I found myself a few blocks from my apartment, in the Congress Theatre on a Sunday morning, listening to an olive-skinned white guy from the South Side talking about faith as a radical act, talking about Christianity as a kind of rabid love that changes you from the inside, with the transformative power to change lives, I got excited. It became my home, a kind of family to me. It was great for a long time. It wasn't without its troubles, though, and some of that trouble took out friends of mine. It was my first lesson in what so many people say, about houses of God being full of humans. Even so, when I left the church, because of life circumstances, not based on what was going on, I left with largely positive perceptions.

This isn't the church: it's one of the churches created on the California coast by the Jesuits? Or the Franciscans probably? It's in Carmel.

(God, this is a lot of exposition, isn't it? Do you know this story already? Let's see if I can do this better:)

Jump cut to open room in store front church: electric keyboard, projection screen, a handful of (mostly) white people seated in concentric semicircles of folding chairs. About half are tattooed, the other half look like they read/write science fiction. Worship music I don't know the words to, because it's all original composition, services painfully small for someone (me) trying to hide, the pastor: a bespectacled white woman who says pithy, intelligent things about grace and worship from an interreligious context. Pan to me, sitting in the "back" with my then-fiance-now-husband, and one row up my "friend": a dark-haired, fair-skinned white woman with piercing blue eyes and thin, wide fingernails, in an ironic t-shirt, faded loose jeans and worn Converse lookalikes. I was there based on her recommendation. She said it was a great place to be in an interracial relationship--which I was and am--and also in an interreligious one.

Montage of my "friend" and me arguing with each other: each of us sitting on our couches writing vitriolic emails to each other, talking with our respective men about the other with tear stained, wrinkled faces, shouting spit-laced hurtful things at one another, even in the presence of a mediator. Ends with me, at the table of reconciliation, alone.
Diane Arbus.
This makes it seem like spiritual conflict happens all the time, and it does. What hurt me particularly about this is that the dissolution of this relationship is what drove my husband and me out of a church. I asked this bespectacled pastor to help me come to some kind of resolution with my "friend" so that we could keep worshipping together, even if we couldn't stay friends, which neither of us wanted to do. My "friend" refused. The bespectacled pastor shrugged her shoulders and went back to tending her flock. Me and mine were abandoned. By believers. By Children of God.

Excommunication sounds like too strong a word, you know something for the Catholics. Frozen out. We were frozen out of a church. I thought stuff like that happened to people based on secret abortions and affairs with married people or pedophilia. Not about two women who couldn't be friends anymore because of their own petty bullshit.

I'm telling this story badly. My husband tells it better, he really does. Keep reading, but Listen here.

I believed that Christians were supposed to be and do better than this. I'd been taught this, this rhetoric of we forgive because Christ forgave us, turn the other cheek, seventy times seven. I was steeped in dogma, dogma that was now completely failing to be true. We (Christians) spend all this air and energy talking about the grace of God and how powerful it is, about love and forgiveness, and we drive people out of the church because we don't like them, because they won't behave the way we want them to. It made it really hard to go to church.
So hard that I've been in a church exactly once since my wedding day--which wasn't in a church, but was in a furniture warehouse/event space on the Near West Side.
Zenshui / Sigrid Olsson / Getty
King Pigoen--aka Eka Pada Raja Kapotanasana.
Say it softly, and it sounds like prayer.
Around the time I moved out of Humboldt Park, before all of the freezing out, I started practicing yoga pretty regularly at a studio in Edgewater. I would wander in on Sunday nights with my yoga mat for a community class that featured the first half of the primary series of Ashtanga. It was challenging and largely wordless, taught by a small bendy woman with long hair named Patricia. There were other classes I took there, too, but this one was my favorite. It appealed to me, a kind of physical practice of devotion. It was quiet, no hip-hop, or even kirtan, just breathing and whatever was pinging around in my skull when I'd come to the mat. Simple. Pure. Not perfect--my body rebels against all kinds of poses, and as often as not, I'd wind up thinking about what I was writing, what I was doing for dinner, what had happened before or what was coming next. But the practice itself was beautiful.
So like I said, I haven't been back to church. I feel unwelcome in church spaces now. Between that and the religious rhetoric of my past, church leaves me cold, as far from connecting to the Divine as it gets. There's some Alice Walker quote that my mother used to paraphrase about giving people more power over you than they need or should have or something. It's that voice I hear, some cross between Alice Walker and my mother (there's some irony in that, given my (lack of) relationship with my mother and Walker's with her daughter), when I consider that this skirmish has kept me out of church for years now. That voice says, "if you're giving some white girl that much power over where you worship, then you deserve that pain; if you just muscle up and walk back into that church then there's nothing she or that worship group can do to you."

But I don't think life works that way. I think that people feel pain, and that whole don't give people power thing is a kind of defense mechanism. I mean, yes, if you can genuinely not feel badly about someones mistreatment of you, then great. Lucky you. Teach me. But if you have to force yourself not to feel bad and paint a fake smile on your face--I have LOTS of practice recognizing those--then you're just fooling yourself.

So a week ago, my friend, and the pastor of my old church, recently invited me to a service there. Evidently there was this incredible speaker who lectures on the First Nations community and the role of a wider lens when it comes to reconciliation. I was stumped. It sounded like a fantastic opportunity. I believe in reconciliation, despite the fact that I feel surrounded by the shreds of all these dysfunctional relationships. There's a real part of me that wanted to go, that wanted to listen to what this man said and consider it in my own life. But I didn't go. I couldn't. The church spaces still just feel too... bad.

My yoga mat still feels like a very devotional space, perhaps the only one I have right now. I may not be able to bust out the king pigeon, but with all the chanting and the forward bending and the kneeling that's become a part of my practice, it's hard for it not to feel all old-world holy. I keep trying to describe it here, but it's really hard to put into words. Maybe I should respect that. Something is going on in me, in a spiritual space; it still hasn't sent me back into the flock, as it were. While my faith in the Divine has righted itself, my faith in the Lord's people remains somewhat more bleak. But my waters are being stirred. There was the humpback whale, and the bevy of butterflies, and some strange dreams that seem to keep telling the future or coming true... something is happening.

I'm not worried. Despite not being healed from my religious wounds yet, I see metaphor for reconciliation everywhere.

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