This is a guest post from a woman who grew up in a Christian cult and now has rediscovered joy in her faith. I appreciated her open-hearted story and I hope you do, too. Please welcome Caroline McGraw. EE.
This is a story about surrender.
It happened one Sunday after church. Though I secretly wanted to go home and have some introvert/alone time (I'm an INFJ, after all), I made a point of lingering instead. If there's anything I know about getting connected to a church community, it's that you have to be willing to hang out after service at least some of the time. That's where the relationships happen.
When I was growing up, I used to get so impatient waiting for my mom after church. That is, I until I made friends of my own, my sisters in spirit to this day. Soon, Mom was the one dragging me out the door. Having friends made all the difference.
Having friends meant that even though our former congregation required that we conform to some very strict, unusual rules, I remember love and laughter amidst the legalism. Having friends meant huddling together, 'secretly' reading novels and whispering instead of taking notes on the sermons like we were supposed to. We thereby missed many a talk on how we were God's chosen people and everyone else was sadly misguided. (Would that we had missed them all.) Having friends meant that, when the church split over doctrinal issues, I had people to turn to, peers who understood how confusing it was.
Here I must add that our church had some wonderful qualities: caring members, racial diversity, a strong youth program, and great annual festivals all over the world. And it had some very unhealthy qualities, such as a strong culture of conformity (with no room for questions or doubts), and the fiscal exploitation of its members. It was a cult, and it was home. I still struggle to reconcile those seemingly-disparate truths.
As such, it took me years to even begin to consider the harmful aspects of my childhood church. When spiritual abuse is the norm, you take it for granted. What you do understand, eventually, is that you are missing some really essential life skills, like being able to set boundaries or say what you actually feel. I struggle with people-pleasing; I'm really great at being the 'good little girl' … that is, until the anger implodes and I end up crying and hyperventilating.
I'm just beginning to heal, to make amends for the (many) times I have betrayed my true self.
Given this, it's no small thing for me to have found a church that makes me want to stay afterward, a church that doesn't make me want to bolt. When my husband and I moved from Washington, DC to a small town in Northern Alabama last year, I wasn't sure I'd ever find a place where I felt at home, a community that 'fit' as well as the one we'd left behind.
My husband and I met in 2008, when we were both live-in caregivers for adults with intellectual disabilities at L'Arche DC. L'Arche (French for “The Ark”) is a faith-based non-profit where people with and without disabilities share life together. It's a small, quirky, diverse, ragtag community, a place where relationships take priority.
L'Arche was a game-changer for me. As a firstborn over-achiever who spent a lot of time striving for perfect grades, perfect outfits, and the perfect good-girl image at church, L'Arche was … different.
L'Arche is about welcoming the stranger, without and within. It's about accepting people as they are … even ourselves. It's about realizing, on a visceral level, that we are all family, that we are here to wash one another's feet. It's not perfect – I mean, human beings are involved – but it's a place where you can see, really see, that we are all family, that we are all beloved. Not this 'elect' group or that. Everybody.
If you spend enough time in a place like this, a dangerous, beautiful thing might happen: you might start catching glimpses of God … that is, capital-L Love.
God in the car with you, in the sound of your Cuban friend's voice the first time he pronounces your name … because you've been trying so hard to learn Spanish to communicate with him, and he's finally reaching back in return.
God in the shower with you, while you're sponging shit off a housemate … because even though the smell is awful and you'd rather be doing pretty much anything else, you can see how much he needs you, how much he trusts you. So you're keeping your hands gentle, your heart open.
God in your housemate's bedroom with you, on the last night of his life. God in the small group gathered together, in each offering of love. God in the songs you sing, in the way you rub lotion into his familiar skin. God in the way you knew to be there in the first place.
After L'Arche, it was difficult to think about finding a new faith community. Fortunately, I talked with God about this. I told Her that I wanted just two things:
1) A place where people sought to love God and love their neighbors as themselves, and
2) A place where people would be open to the Feminine Divine.
I visited several churches over the next few months, but nothing fit. That is, until the first day I stepped into my current church. The opening song was, “Welcome Home to the Heart of Love.” The minister referred to God as Him and Her. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
True, I was afraid of what other people might think of me for attending such a church. I was scared of standing up for myself, for what I knew I needed. I was afraid that, though the church had captured my heart, my heart wasn't trustworthy. But on most days, that fear was eclipsed by a feeling of profound relief.
So I lingered after service that Sunday. When I headed out the door for the walk home, clouds were dark and ominous overhead. I thought: Oh well, I'll get a few raindrops on me. No big deal.
Famous last words.
As I walked, the drizzle turned to an actual rain. I kept trudging on, growing more and more uncomfortable. And then, about ten minutes from home, the heavens opened up with a deluge. In that moment, it became clear: There is no more 'staying dry.' There's nothing I can possibly do will keep me from getting soaked. So … I might as well enjoy it.
And when I quit trying, I was just – happy. Singing in the rain happy. Cat Stevens happy:
Well if you want to sing out, sing out / And if you want to be free, be free
Cuz there's a million things to be / You know that there are …
And for those ten minutes, I did know. I knew that there were two ways to walk home. I could fight, or I could let go. I could pretend that I had all the answers, like we used to do in my old church growing up, or I could start fresh, opening my eyes and mind to a love beyond comprehension, a love that has always, always been waiting for me. For you. For all of us.
Faith, I think, is like walking out into a deluge. A messy, crazy, what the ?!?$?! is happening and why did I not bring an umbrella? kind of experience. Much of it comes down to choice: to rebel against what is, or let go of what we think we know and accept, even embrace, the moment at hand.
God was in the rain. And so I ran through puddles like I was a little child.
When I arrived home at last, I had my husband take a picture of me, arms flung out, soaked but smiling with joy. I trust that no matter what comes, as long as I'm willing to throw up my hands and surrender, I will find what I'm looking for.
That the saint is now continually/ Tripping over Joy/ And bursting out in Laughter /And saying, “I Surrender!” ~Hafiz, “Tripping Over Joy”
I'm Caroline McGraw, a would-be childhood paleontologist turned writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. I write about choosing love, losing fear, and finding home at A Wish Come Clear; come on over and receive a free copy of my digital book, Your Creed of Care: How to Dig for Treasure in People (Without Getting Buried Alive).