Weird religious backgrounds. Everyone has one. “Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious”, as the cool professors say.
In my Religion and Science Fiction class this semester, we were invited to offer a critical sketch of what we take to be our religious background. This was mine!
“Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?”
– Mary Oliver, Upstream
Just about every good thing in me can be traced back to my mother — the beginning of my weird religious background journey is no different. I recall being around 3 or 4 years old seated on the fireplace ledge in our living room, listening to her honey voice tell me about this guy Jesus. My sister Ruth was at school, dad at work, and mom home with me, rollers in her hair wrapped up with a scarf in a floral silk halo. She told me how Jesus was God’s son, how he came down from heaven to die for my sins, and that if I accepted him into my heart he would live forever inside of me. I was a cautious and calculating kid, but I remember trusting that what she said was true and repeating a prayer after her. That night, as our family ate spaghetti for dinner, I meticulously swallowed each noodle whole so that Jesus inside of me would have something to eat.
Beyond the individual invite-Jesus-into-your-heart shebang, I’ve found truth to the definition of religion as perceived necessity, both personal and communal. Seeing as faith is lived out in the context of community and woven into the fabric of tradition that I inherit from my parents, I’ll begin by coloring in some of their background. Emigrating from Ethiopia as teenagers in the late 70’s, my mom and dad came to the states seeking asylum during the Qey Shibir, as well as all of the prospects and promises sold to them of The American Dream™. They met in Denver in their mid-twenties, fell in love, and moved to Atlanta. As is the case for most Ethiopians their age, both were raised in Eastern Orthodox traditions, which they tell my sister and I was more fear-driven cultural participation than spiritual experience (though I often wonder how their current religious perceived necessities color this memory). My dad laughs recounting to us nights of wild partying that fumbled into hungover Sunday mornings of liturgy just hours later. After they were married, a change of heart and miraculous healing of my father’s chronic migraines led to my parents’ conversion experiences, and they adopted a more Pentecostal tradition. At this time in the late 80’s, they only knew a small handful of other Ethiopian immigrants in Atlanta, and of that bunch an even smaller number who had left Orthodox traditions to become “Pentays” (as they were not-so-lovingly referred to). Soon they came together and formed a church, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Atlanta, which has since grown to welcome and serve over 700 members in our community. This year the church will celebrate its 25th anniversary, with my parents present and active for all 25 – mom as choir leader, dad as elder.
I grew up on the bright, persimmon orange back pews of this church (no doubt the 70’s remnant of a congregation before us) — reading Nancy Drews, painting nails, and pestering the old ladies for mints during choir practice. Sunday as a “day of rest” was a foreign concept to my family. We came early, stayed late, and filled our many hours with imaginative antics alongside the other kids that shared our fate. Simultaneously, I suppose there came a point when my parents wanted to invest in the spiritual lives of Ruth and I beyond our back-pew shenanigans. Seeing as our Ethiopian church had not yet established a Sunday school program (or one comparable to those of nearby “American” churches), mom and dad would also take us to a multicultural (but white-led) megachurch, Mount Paran Church of God, thirty minutes away. I can never remember a time apart from bouncing between these two places: my American church and my Ethiopian church. This back and forth confirmed much of what I felt outside the walls of the church: the dissonance between my parents and I, between their home and mine (and yet part of my home is in the memory of theirs) and the gnawing question of belonging.
At its worst, I’ve found that which is called religion to systematically reinforce existing power structures: excusing exclusion and abuse, muddying missions and imperialism, othering and undermining non-white faith expressions, burdening congregants with legalism and prosperity gospels as a means of disenfranchisement. Of my more personal perceived necessities, it is how I repay a disappointed God: anxious participation in order to secure a spiritual return-on-investment that leaves me endlessly, bitterly empty-handed. A shame-laden means of exchange for that sacrifice I’m not sorry enough for. In my early teenage years, religion accounted for much of my refusal to take stock of the pain around and inside me — attempting instead to extract meaning from every situation and make sense of the nonsensical, opting for hollow optimism and escapism. It was an excuse not to do the hard work — praying for deliverance rather than assisting in its coming.
In addition to thinking of religion in terms of perceived necessity, the language of controlling story is helpful to me; I am escaping bad ones, waking up to better and truer ones. In spite of false gospels above, I’ve found deep hope in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the love he has set upon me. To my questions of identity and belonging, I have unchanging, full membership in his kingdom, with abundant room and understanding. My whole person is affirmed and dignified, my overwhelming feelings of loneliness and insignificance quelled. When Wendell writes of The Great Economy, “the fall of every sparrow is a significant event”, my anxious striving is hushed and reminded that I am seen, known, and loved, along with every thing and every one else on earth. In this place, I am turned from escapism to take deep stock of the pain around me and enter into it.
Spring semester of my freshman year at Belmont was a significant time of this turning for me. That November, when Darren Wilson was not indicted for murdering Michael Brown, I fell into a deep state of lament. I remember walking around campus the next day on the red brick path from the Gabhart caf to my Patton dorm, feeling so heavy, wondering why everyone around me did not seem caught beneath the same weight. I remember classmates and friends questioning the protest they saw on the news, coldly critiquing a weary rage I shared with such “thugs and criminals”. On the internet and in real-life, Christians I knew were doing the same. Where did their allegiance lie? My rage multiplied. Later that afternoon, I happened upon a prayer vigil held by BSA on that same red brick outside of Gabhart. A group of about 20 students, all of different faith traditions, had gathered to cry and console, to speak out and lament together. It was a tangible token of God’s kindness to me.
In that scary work of religion reinforcing power structures, a tactic I often see used is the interpretation of religious texts in such a way as to justify one’s own agenda (insert quote here about Jesus hating all the same people you do), with scripture referenced out of context or interpreted slant. Often, these thinly-veiled appeals to political ends acutely, almost comedically, repel the nature of the life Jesus lived during his time on earth. And yet, in the worst of my heaviness that winter, I found comfort in these out-of-context words from Isaiah 58:
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
I clung to this promise like a madman. In all my disillusionment and despair, I felt as though Isaiah had penned these words specifically for me. I scribbled them in my journal, wrote them in fancy cursive and hung it up on my wall — meditating day and night and then some. Pretty soon it hit me that I should probably read the context surrounding the verses (duh) and understand what preceded that promise. When I did, my refreshment multiplied. The Israelites were crying aloud to God, asking why it seemed he had not heard their prayers or honored their fasting. His response, through the prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
And it is then that their “light shall break forth like the dawn”, that the promises of gardens and waters and refreshment will come. Jesus’ concern for justice, for the good of actual bodies on planet earth and the tangible betterment of human lives, was intensely invigorating and life-giving to me. I was never alone in my heaviness. Soon after this epiphany, I began to come across the work and witness of others who confirmed and encouraged me in this faith and justice tradition: Enuma Okoro, Christena Cleveland, Bree Newsome, Michelle Higgins, Broderick Greer, James Baldwin, William Matthews, and Audrey Assad among others. I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses Man of the Mountain and found clarity in the hermeneutics of Black Liberationist Theology. I met friends troubled by the same social sins, willing to notice and name injustice around them and arrange their lives to push back against it. In a conversation with Krista Tippett that I first heard last fall, public theologian Ruby Sales poignantly asks, “How do we raise people up from disposability?” I have pondered this question almost weekly since, and think that it encapsulates the prophecy of Isaiah well. I seek to order my life in this raising-up work, accepting the invitation into the healing that God’s righteousness pours forth, both a terrifying and relieving task all the same. By the Holy Spirit, I am beckoned into and propelled forth in radically upside-down kingdom living*, Great Economy tending**, and infinite play***.
This often feels like a lofty, out-of-reach ideal, but in the words shout-sung by Age of Adz-era Sufjan Stevens — it’s not so impossible! Rather, it is bound up in all of the little perceived necessities that I live into each day. And by the help of the Spirit, informed by the witness of those before me and the imago dei of those around me, we come nearer to this vision of life.
Seeing as all good roads in me lead back to mom, my participation in these perceived necessities is a reflection of the quiet, loving life that she leads: practicing uncomfortable hospitality, tending to food and people with meticulous care, putting herself in the path of beauty and pausing to enjoy it (her phone storage is 90% blurry sunset photos), noticing. Just as so much of what draws me to Jesus is the way he saw those most vulnerable in society, really saw them, I hope to live with my eyes open to beauty and need and human beings in this way. In the closing line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Yes! No!”, a religious admonition for us all:
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
* Matthew 6
** “Two Economies”, Wendell Berry
*** Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse