Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Spiritual Journey, Part Two

The more juicy bits to follow in this passage. Nothing like a coming-of-age story crossed with a confession. To introduce this section, my parents left a liberal Methodist church and my sisters and I began attending something completely different.


This was a church full of exceptionally polite but unapologetic conservatives. Though technically labeled non-denominational, its true orientation was Southern Baptist. Along with frequent reference to Satan as a real, living, breathing being were also sprinkled right-wing political statements. Abortion was murder. We were living in a fallen world and owed it to ourselves to live in an isolating bubble to escape the sinfulness of our neighbors. Virginity was romanticized as some state of purity between two innocent beings. One person my age became engaged at a young age and talked with rapturous zeal about the purity of two virgins on their wedding night. But he wrote a 'zine the same as any scene kid, just that this scene was based on conservative Christianity. Hipsters come in all forms, I suppose.

By now, I had completely rejected absolutely everything I had once held dear, except a belief in God. I was also depressed and misunderstood, beginning to descend into the fetid air of my own private Bell Jar. My parents stayed members because the outreach was superior. Methodists have a leave-alone belief about reaching out to members, but even the Non-Denominational Baptists know how to prepare meals, visit the sick in the hospital, and do not shy in embracing those in need. After I made it through the worst time in my entire life, somehow I managed to make it through a couple years’ worth of teaching that I didn’t believe and found absolutely worthless. I began reading about Unitarian Universalists, but assumed that Birmingham wasn't a large enough city to have an actual church. I got lost over by the Zoo one day on my way back from a coffee shop, I think, and found that I was entirely wrong. Birmingham did, in fact, have a UU church.

I told the Baptist minister that I was considering the Unitarian Universalists, and he nervously conceded that this might be the best thing for me. He was too polite to say what he really thought, but I knew enough by then to understand. I started attending UU service at 17 and joined six months later. It was small and not especially friendly to newcomers. Breaking in was difficult. By the time I joined, I was a senior in high school, just old enough to qualify for one last year of RE. The ten or so other high schoolers in my class had known each other since they were small children and weren’t eager to accept a new person. Most people might have never come back after such treatment, but I'm stubborn about things like this. Those ten people never came back to church after it was time to leave for college, anyway.

As I have been many times before in my life, I was the one young person in a room of much older adults. Many times I was the only person under the age of 40. Despite the personality problems, I always told myself that I believed in the UU principles and the framework of belief, not necessarily the people seated around me. I took church seriously there, too. Even when I was in college and engaging in fairly regular late night bouts of drinking and cigarette smoking with friends, I would still make sure I never missed a Sunday. It embarrasses me to think about the times I went to church with a hangover. One time, a woman my age, someone who infrequently attended, offered me pot prior to service, so we drove around in her car and smoked it right before it began. So far as UUs are concerned, this is not altogether unusual behavior, but I remember feeling still ashamed of myself for being stoned in church. Had they known, I am sure most in the congregation would have forgiven me.

With time, which is usually how it happens, I became more and more accepted. I developed a close friendship with the minister, whose reserved persona made her a bit of an enigma to most of her flock. She would allow me to routinely play my guitar and sing for the offering. That guitar opened more doors for me than anything else. There were always a few people who kept their distance, but I had to learn church history to understand why. Back in the 1950's, two specific families had been primarily responsible for establishing the church. They acted like they owned the place and this washed over into fights as to who had primary say in church decisions. But they were like that to everyone. You just had to learn where to tread lightly.

After two or three years of this sort of thing, I learned that there were national cons of Young Adults to attend. Some regional Districts (roughly analogous to Quaker Yearly Meetings) had their own conferences, but there were too few UU Young Adults in mine to organize anything on that scale. The South has relatively few UU Churches, or Quaker Meetings, for that matter. But it seems like everyone, regardless of location, managed the national gatherings. After frantically e-mailing the proper people, I managed to get my trip paid for in full and flew out to Toronto. That's where my eyes were opened wide. Having grown up pretty conservative in some ways, this was my first time to observe radical politics. This was my first time to meet someone who identified as transgender. This was my first time to eat all vegan food, whether I wanted to or not. There wasn't there much that qualified as religion. It was more a protest rally or collection of activists.

Though not discussed openly, a hookup culture flourished there. And it was accommodated. As part of group responsibilities, I was asked to fully stock the canteen. It included male condoms, female condoms, lube, and dental dams. And yes, I partook of it myself. I wish I had not, because it turned into needless emotional chaos. The woman I chose to sleep with rather dramatically broke it off with me halfway through, only to end up bedding a close friend of mine by the end of the proceedings. I very nearly started another sexual relationship with a woman who kept talking about this mysterious concept called polyamory, which I didn’t understand until it was explained to me by someone else. This wasn’t culture shock for me. This was electrocution.

I went to two or three of these gatherings before I started having serious doubts about UUism. I’ve discussed a few of them in some detail here on this blog. There's no need to repeat myself. Mostly, as Gertrude Stein put it, with UUism there’s no there there. And aside from my beliefs, I felt that I was moving towards a new path regarding faith and practice. Previous ideas once cast aside were looking more and more sensible. I began to pick up the Bible every now and then. I’d read some Parable of Jesus and realize the truth in it. And with time, I moved farther and farther away from UUism. I knew what I wanted was more substantive.

When I moved to Atlanta, I thought I’d give it one more go. They had enough visionaries in place to have established a solid 20s/30s group and had the right attitude to make it grow. My only issue with it was that it turned out to be a hook up church of a different sort. Several women in their early to mid thirties acted desperate for relationship partners, if not husbands. I made the mistake of dating a woman who had been divorced two or three years before and very evidently wished to be remarried, the sooner the better. Before realizing this for myself, we very briefly went out, but I broke up with her after a month or so. She was not especially mature about the whole thing, which created friction within the group.

But what really created problems occurred when I dated another woman within the group. At 43, she was technically too old to be a part of a Young Adult group, but enjoyed feeling younger than her age in years. We developed an almost immediate attraction and began a relationship far too quickly than we should have. As I look back on it now, with the benefit of hindsight, I note several warning signs. The first was how obsessed we became with each other. We were even talking marriage in a month. She had our entire relationship scripted from start to finish, so when I had a manic episode, her dreams came crashing down to earth. She hadn't fallen in love with me, she'd instead fallen in love with a fantasy.

Shortly thereafter, and after two back to back hospitalizations, I left Atlanta to return to Birmingham. I was feeling disheartened and demoralized. A Friend from grad school encouraged me to attend Quaker Meeting. Still healing, I figured that this was going to be my last experiment in organized religion for a while. If I was greeted respectfully and kindly, I would stay. But if not, then I probably would worship God in my own way. Maybe I’d try something else, but not for a while. Fortunately, they were more loving and ingratiating than I had ever dreamed. And finally something seemed to fit. I can understand why George Fox wanted to leap for joy. That’s how I felt, too. And I swear I heard a voice say, “You can stop searching now, Kevin. You’re home.”


Vertigo said...

This was a very inspiring post. I also used to attend a very conservative church for much of my life, but for the past year and half, I attend a liberal Methodist church which I like a lot. It is always delightful to feel welcome in a place of worship.

Comrade Kevin said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

In all of this spiritual enlightenment, when did you start dating men?