My first experience with education was through religion. My parents were raised religiously and made an effort to do the same for my older sister and me. So starting when I was three years old, I was put into religious schools in order to augment the religious instruction I was given in church every Sunday. My earliest days of learning, socializing, and reflection were all based in a Christian context. There was chapel every day, prayers in the morning, and I remember on some occasions the teachers would use Velcro figures of Jesus and the Apostles to tell us stories from the New Testament. In hindsight, this seems like a lot to be exposed to as a very young child, but it settled into me the moral positions, worldview, and understandings that I carry with me as an adult, for better or worse.
As I’ve grown older and departed from the image of what a Christian is “supposed” to look like, I’ve encountered a new environment in which people are surprised to hear me say that I am religious. On campus, interactions with religious people have a tendency to become conversations about me proving my religious faith. I’ve had people try to play demographer and figure out how Catholicism managed to get a hold of me in rural Georgia. Since I’ve come to Columbia, I’ve had people ask me to say certain prayers to prove my faith and I’ve had people get confused about how I interact with my faith as a queer person or as a black person in predominantly white religious spaces.
Then, on the other hand, I have had people who are not necessarily religious make light of my religion or actively criticize it. I try to take it as a joke, but sometimes it veers off into conversations and jokes that make me uncomfortable. I’ve had people ask me things that I would never think of asking in any context, like if Jesus Christ and Saint Mary Magdalene were involved romantically; others have mocked prayers that I recite. I’ve even had interactions where people simply ask me how I’m able to participate in religious practices that have been used as a basis to take away my rights in the past and the present. Sometimes they accuse me of not being completely dedicated to ideas of liberation because I am tying myself to a system of belief that they would personally consider repressive.
These are the conversations where I find it hardest to communicate, because they involve disconnects that I am working through myself, attempting to understand how I relate to a church that has not always been a safe haven for black people, queer people, trans people, etc. (The list of whom Christianity has historically wronged as an institution goes on and on.) When I try to have these conversations, people try to talk over me instead of talking to me in order to explain their perspectives.
However, following this year’s season of Lent and Easter, I think that I am beginning to address and examine my relationship with religion. This past season gave me a time of intimate reflection and a greater level of devotion to my religious practices. Last year, I wasn’t necessarily in the same spiritual space because I had tried to center my religious life on campus. It felt like I was always either being asked to explain my religiosity or I was anticipating explaining it, which worried me too much to allow me to have any religious experiences. So I took the initiative to leave campus and to make space for myself to be in reflection and solitude. I wrote down a list of churches in the area I would be interested in attending and I went down the list. I tried African-American Methodist churches, predominantly black Catholic churches, and queer-friendly Catholic churches, but I settled on my current church because I felt at home.
The first time I went to my current church, I felt at peace and in tune with myself in the sanctuary. It reminded me of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia, so I felt a sense of comfort. It had the same tan color scheme inside and the same dark blue accents, speckled with gold fleurs-de-lis. Even the holy water font in the entrance of the sanctuary reminded me of home, which gave me the comfort to devote myself more fully in service.
Leaving campus helped me discover what my relationship to religion is. I have a better relationship with God because I discovered I needed to do that for myself. My mother always told me and my older sister that she could only raise us religiously, but that it was up to us to live religiously because she couldn’t make us believe in anything that we weren’t personally inclined to believe. I used my mother’s sayings to understand that my relationship with religion is only my own and therefore only I can get and give what is needed.
Since everyone’s relationship with religion is different, searching for the space to be alone might not be best for everyone. Some people better foster relationships with religion by getting to know others around them who are searching for the same thing, and if that is what works best for you, then do you.
However, it’s every religious person’s responsibility to not turn others away just because they don’t match our ideas of what our respective religions and beliefs look like. We should all work to affirm everyone on their own individual journey to either the acceptance or the rejection of a religious system, without any bias or ulterior motives. After all, we can’t force a journey on anyone in the same way that we can’t force our beliefs or our ideas of what a religious person looks like on anyone else.
Sabina Jones is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in English. Her column Transatlantic Trade runs alternate Wednesdays.
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