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Finding My Voice

At a dinner party the other night I was talking to a woman who was surprised to hear that I’d left parish ministry a little over a year ago. She knew I was a progressive pastor, both politically and theologically, and that for a decade I had served a congregation with a strong social-action mandate in the work we did.

Why, she wanted to know. Why did I leave?

Well, the reasons are varied. Some seem trivial. Some more monumental. Like, I have the kind of time to write now that I haven’t had since I was a graduate student in an MFA program over 20 years ago. That’s pretty big, especially since, if you think in terms of vocation, which is religious-speak for what-I’m-most-drawn-to-do, then writing has always trumped my call to parish ministry.

I also no longer have to sit through what used to feel like interminable meetings about things of minor consequence compared to the larger challenges of genuine spiritual growth and social action. (And this is not to say that my congregation was neglectful of either of those aspects of church life; it’s just that an awful lot of ‘being church’ means being a building that needs upkeep, an organization that needs funding, a social nexus where mountains of interpersonal conflict rise readily from molehills. It’s exhausting.)

Besides the concerns that impacted me personally, I also left because I fear that the larger church as a force for social good and spiritual growth is becoming—or already is—moribund. And it was hard to sometimes feel that what I was doing was hospice work for a 2000-year-old institution.

These are all reasons that prompted me to want to leave the church. But in some ways they are ancillary to the largest reason of all: The Christianity that I see so much of in the United States has little-to-nothing whatsoever to do with what I see as the essence of the Christian gospel.

And frankly, I got tired of calling myself a Christian when everybody already knew what a ‘Christian’ was. And I wasn’t—am not—that kind.

Because when non-observant people think of Christianity they think: anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-socialized medicine, pro-gun rights, pro-creationism, pro- abstinence and literalist when it comes to reading the Bible.

I can’t give you the percentage of how many Christians identify themselves in opposition to all those stances, but I suspect we are a small minority in the pan-Christian camp. And being a small minority, the temptation is to leave camp behind entirely and wander in the wilderness. In some ways the wilderness has come to seem a safer place.

Sure, I was appalled when the news came that Dr. George Tiller was shot while serving as an usher in his church. But I wasn’t surprised.

I’m sickened when Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist buffoons picket funerals and wave their “God hates fags” signs. But I’m not surprised.

I’m aghast when I periodically check out Christian radio and hear the preachers yelling their punitive gospels of judgment and exclusion into the airwaves. But I’m not surprised.

And so when I read the June 25th New York Times piece about Ken Pagano, pastor of New Bethel Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, urging his parishioners to attend bring-your-gun-to-church-day—which included a picnic, a handgun raffle and firearms safety lessons—I was disgusted. But again, not surprised.

The Times piece quotes Chris W. Cox, legislative director of the NRA: “We have a very active agenda in all fifty states. We have right-to-carry laws in forty states. Twenty years ago it was just in six.”

Of those 40 states, 20 allow guns in churches.

I gave the short version of all of this to the woman I sat with at the dinner party. She nodded, then shared with me her own complicated feelings of desire for and alienation from the church—the misogyny, the theological and political conservatism driving her away even as the potent ritual action, music and poetry of faith drew her in.

I miss good liturgy, I said. I miss hymns. I miss communion.

She nodded. She had found two places where she could go and feel it was safe to be in a church environment. You live in New York, I said. You’ve got more choices. We laughed.

Of course, all of this conversation went on sotto voce. We were at a dinner party full of intellectual people. You just don’t talk about church at dinner parties full of intellectual people. And if you talk about Christianity, you’re sure to do with a full measure of disdain—even if, inside of you, a part of you is wilting because you no longer know how to identify yourself vis-à-vis a faith life or faith journey. Or whatever.

I think she was disappointed I left the church. I do know some people who are. I was supposed to stick with it, slog through it, be the voice calling in the wilderness.

But sometimes I think that, in some ways, I am.

—Jo Page

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