Today I decided it was time to talk about religion. Why, you ask? Because I miss it and it is important to me.
I’ve always struggled with my faith. As I reflect on growing up with a single-mother who deemed herself “spiritual” but never pushed her views on me – I realize that she gave me a wonderful gift. She allowed me to explore my faith on my own timeline. While my mom enjoyed her personal spiritual growth, I found myself seeking out God through my own journey. Faith was one of my mother’s least favorite (but actual favorite) topics of discussion because she got to remind me how insane her parents were growing up. Whether she admits it now, she loved reminding me that Daddypop (her father, my grandfather) used to break her vinyl records over his knee (Black Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, etc.) and preach how the Devil’s music was banned from their household. Her childhood caused her to establish a negatively fueled relationship with God, at no fault of her own. Her hurdles that her parents placed in front of her took decades to knock down. It wasn’t until I started opening up about my relationship with God (college) that I finally got to open up to hers. Sadly, those who were trying to push her to discover her faith ended up doing the opposite. Quite frankly, I would have just confiscated her record player based solely on not wanting to listen to scream-o, but to each their own.
I won’t spend much time talking about my family, although it is important to note that they are extremely intertwined with my faith. Today, the family dynamics have shifted dramatically. The turning point is a mystery to me, but I am grateful for it. My older relatives started to understand that pushing opinions down other’s throats is really annoying and has consequences. Those consequences can put an unwanted burden on those who you love most – the fear of disappointing, the confusion of not fully understanding, the uncertainty of intangible concepts, among a few to list. Growing up, I never felt like my faith was under a microscope. This allowed me to explore my faith at my own pace – whether that was a prayer before bed or choosing to participate in church on Sundays. My relationship with God did not blossom until I gave my faith a chance to guide my moral compass. While I didn’t start dedicating myself to my faith until college (for many reasons – including influence), I was not living without moral compass. My mother did an amazing job teaching the values present in the Bible as CORE values rather than the “regurgitated word of the Lord.”
My freshman year of college was a lot of not knowing. I didn’t know if I would be returning to Virginia Tech, which caused a lot of uncharacteristic behavior. I didn’t know how to maintain a relationship with my father with 2,500+ miles between us. I didn’t know if I was cut out for life on the east coast. I didn’t know who I could trust or who I could turn to. I also faced a lot of hardship in sharing my past with new friends, because relationships are new and you have to start all over. I felt guilt for burdening them. I felt guilt for leaving behind my mother. I found myself overwhelmed with fear and gratitude, which I couldn’t figure out a healthy release for. In high school, I talked a lot of game for the sole purpose of it being fun and getting a reaction – but I never followed through. College was when I started acting on my “game” and I found myself spiraling down. I was losing the pride I had in myself because I was losing myself. Mix all of the emotional abuse I was putting myself through with my deteriorating health and 2012 was a hard year.
I don’t want to make it sound like “at the perfect time I found the church,” because that’s not what happened at all. In fact, freshman year I attempted to take a step in the right direction after hearing about “Cru,” a campus ministry (the largest I’m aware of). As a freshman, I couldn’t have started at a worse organization for my own personal relationship with God. Cru at Virginia Tech was held in one of the largest auditoriums on VT’s campus, there were boys running around wearing tutus (not that there is anything wrong with that), the actual sermon was 45 minutes of monotone, and the reaction I got to “no I have not been baptized” was appalling and frankly, offensive. I went to the service with a girl on my hall that was notorious for her religious values and God-like judgment (sidebar: she just got married to the boyfriend she started dating weeks after we went to this service together). I left feeling extremely unfulfilled and unmotivated, and my ongoing conversation with God felt silenced. I can’t help but mention that it felt very cultish, which had me rethinking pretty much everything religion has to offer.
My sophomore year gave me a lot of time to figure myself out. I was taking part-time school credits and working 40-hour weeks at the local bookstore. My personal friendships had grown and were much more than skin deep. I was getting comfortable with my friends and relationships. I started to realize how little I understood of religion and how much more there was to learn. Carly, one of my roommates, mentioned “Cooper House,” our local Presbyterian community church that had a student ministry. The first time I tagged along was magic, I knew I had found my place. Not only was Cooper House the perfect atmosphere but the people I met were genuine, loving, curious, accepting, and all things spiritual. Cooper House quickly became my solace – I found myself seeking ways to be involved. Being involved wasn’t hard either – whether it was making dinners for Tuesday night gathering or meeting with our Minister for advice, to eventually leading a Tuesday night gathering – all involvement felt good. I realized that this was the atmosphere my relationship with God would bloom. And it did. In 2015, Carly and I went on a mission trip with Cooper House to Guatemala.
I wont spend long talking about my experience in Guatemala (because there is a whole blog dedicated to that specific trip), but I will take a quick piece of my writing and paste it below. This entry follows a trip to CEDEPCA’s seminary school in Guatemala City, where we sat in a classroom with 15+ Spanish speaking students.
“This is where everything changed for me—Jessie began her testimony saying: “Te amo Guatemala,” to which Herbert responded with “I am Guatemala.” Everyone laughed, the whole room, English, Guatemalan, didn’t matter, the room was roaring. I too, was laughing, but then I stopped because I was no longer laughing… I was crying. I was watching two different cultures, two different languages, and two completely different types of people, united under something so pure, so beautiful: laughter. I had goose bumps everywhere and tears were uncontrollably streaming down my face. Immediately, I was embarrassed—I hate crying in front of people. I gathered myself, confused, and nervously rubbed my arms. I wasn’t completely sure why I started crying, but I understood the gist.”
People often talk about their “come to Jesus” moment, which I never believed in. I was wrong. The moment I had been waiting for struck me like a lightning bolt and I was ignited. In answering a question from one of the seminary students about why America is the “land of the great,” I found myself choking completely. The land of the great, yes. But also the land of the privileged. As I drove from Guatemala City through the slums, there wasn’t a direction I could rest my eyes without experiencing complete heartbreak. I talk a lot about how things are black and white – right and wrong. It was wrong for there to be a child homeless and starving, while I sit pretty with a full stomach and place to call home. And the only notable difference between myself and that child is privilege. Don’t go fooling yourself – the only differences between someone suffering and someone comfortable is the life they were born into. Attempting to express my appreciation, love, admiration, and jealousy for the Guatemalan culture seemed pretentious, but something pushed me. It wasn’t until I reflected upon that moment that I realized that God pushed me. For the first time in my life, I could physically see and feel God’s touch. Using a translator, I attempted to answer their question with something of substance. Guatemala made me uncomfortable, and for that I am grateful. I was moved by the beauty intertwined between the land and those who call it home. Those tears that fell were uncontrollable, uncomfortable, and unexpected. Those tears were real emotion, physically spilling out of me. Reflecting on those tears remind me of how we gathered about vocation and talked about how tears are God’s way of pushing you, as a sign to pay attention. On that day, I felt my calling and my relationship with God become tangible.
Since, I’ve had a palpable and ever-growing relationship with God. One that I can speak comfortably about and one that has value to my emotional and physical health. Since graduating, I found that I lost track of that path. I do not hold it against myself, because I understand that I was transitioning in life. But now that I have gotten comfortable, I recognize that my relationship with God must be purposeful. In order for me to get the most out of my relationship with faith, I need to put my all into it. So, I have begun my search for a church in the Northern Virginia area.
If you have any advice, love, prayer, or words of wisdom – please share.