Ah, yes. My First Holy Communion at age 7. The only things I remember about that day include taking pictures with my godparents (shout out to Aunt Glo and Uncle Kevin aka "Pink Floyd") and getting my ears pierced for the first time as my Communion gift from my parents. Needless to say, I was raised Catholic long enough to make my First Holy Communion, but soon after my mother asked me if I would mind not returning to catechism. Mind? Mind?! Everyday, at school, was a relentless ride on the bully train. Catechism classes were quickly becoming an extension of that torture, so I said I didn't mind. At all. Like, not even a little bit. Thank you, Jesus!
And so began my journey of leaving religion for reasons having little to do with the religion itself. It's been quite a ride and I am nowhere near finished. Buckle up and leave your judgments behind!
I didn't think about religion again until I was 15 and dating my first boyfriend, an Italian boy whose family, himself included, were/are devoutly Catholic. Many of my friends had made their Confirmation two years prior and I was considering making mine after years of being a lapsed Catholic. I knew little about Catholicism, and even Christianity, but I wanted to be like my boyfriend. So, every Sunday morning, I walked a mile to the same church I made my First Holy Communion for the 8:00 am mass. I went through the motions; received communion, prayed, stood, kneeled, gave peace. But it didn't mean anything. I thought it did, at the time. But in reality it hadn't changed my life. I was still obsessed with having my first boyfriend and doing anything to make that work. Including going to mass weekly. In an effort to make my Confirmation, my mom even drove me to church to try to set up a meeting with one of the priests. It never went beyond that, because my boyfriend and I broke up just before the start of school in 1997 and my search for religion ended. For the moment.
I had little to no interest in religion again until my freshman year of college. Oh, yes. Everyone else does college right: parties, drinking, hooking up. Not this gal. In my first month on campus, I was invited by a student co-worker to attend church with him. He was a gorgeous, tall, dark-skinned guy from Haiti. Of course I said yes. The fact that this college senior was giving me-a chubby, insecure, college freshman-any attention was beyond comprehension. Well, let me break it down for you how the next eight months went:
- Attended "church" (aka a middle school used for service), invited to a Bible study, I accept.
- Bible study turns out to be less a group of people discussing their favorite scriptures and more a one-on-one study with me. I'm not going to lie, I loved the attention and the positivity. And the hugs.
- We quickly move through the Bible studies (which I later learn are plotted out "classes" to recruit new members) and soon I am at the pivotal point where I have to answer the question: If you were to die right now, according the The Word, where would you go, Heaven or Hell?
- Clearly being hellbound, I confessed all my sins to a group of women "church" members and set a date for my baptism. I explained I had been baptized as a baby, but full immersion in water was necessary. Apparently so was doing that in a giant Rubbermaid container...
- I invited my best friend, my parents, and my brother to witness my baptism. I felt no different after, but said I did.
- For the next six months, I devoted myself to spreading The Word and judged everybody along the way. I didn't smoke, drink, swear, masturbate, or have any kind of intimate relations. I also gave the "church" all my money. All. Of. It. Oh and I fell in love with my best friend in the "church"...who is a girl. (Just typical Melissa, getting everything right.)
- During those six months, I attended any and every service, convention, and meeting that was offered. I was "the perfect baby Christian", as I was told numerous times by the "church" elders.
- May 2000, I began to have doubts. Then they became serious doubts. I told my "discipling partner (an older, wiser Christian to help me on my new journey)" and we prayed. But nothing changed. Then, one Sunday in June, I just didn't return to church. I was inundated with phone calls, e-mails, and visits from "church" members, scared for my life (and theirs).
- Then, everything stopped and I was officially a "fall away". I had "fallen away from Christ".
The International Churches of Christ, as I understood, disbanded a few years later, due to speculation of fraud and embezzlement of "church" funds. However, looking up the name on Wikipedia, it seems they have regained membership the past couple years. Shortly after I left, I found a website called Reveal, a forum for ex-members of the ICOC to come together to heal. Reveal published a piece I wrote about my experiences in 2001. It helped me, and others, come to terms with our experiences.
In an effort to make up for lost time, if you will, I immediately started drinking, smoking, and all the other "fun" stuff college kids do. I went clubbing every weekend, where I shamelessly grinded into complete strangers. This made me feel "normal". For a time. Not long after publishing my piece for Reveal, did my same-sex feelings resurface. No longer having the "church" define whether that was right or wrong (Oh, did I mention I confessed DAILY to my best friend in the "church" that I was lusting after her? Because I did and, yes, it was as horrifying as you might think), I was free to explore without judgment.
Dealing with my sexual identity AND reconciling my recent cult experience made for a perfect storm of me exploring religions outside "the norm", and by that I mean MY norm of Christianity. I began researching Paganism, specifically Wicca. I connected with it right away. No terrifying, punishing god that didn't approve of me being gay or bi or whatever I thought I might be. Score! For a long while, it was purely theoretical. I read a lot, but didn't practice. I knew I wanted to do this solo, meaning no covens or groups of Wiccans. That seemed too close to my cult experience. I liked that I could worship and believe in something all on my own, without the judgment or influence of someone else.
Then, on October 31, 2006 (the Wiccan New Year), I found a quiet spot at Sleeping Giant State Park in my hometown and dedicated myself to Wicca. It wasn't what you might expect. It wasn't like "The Craft" at all. In fact, it was very understated and peaceful. I sat under a tree, with a stone I had found months before and silently said a prayer. The end. And I began celebrating The Wheel of The Year, including the 8 sabbats (solstice/equinox celebrations) and 13 esbats (full moon celebrations). And I felt connected with nature and felt more "myself".
Then, I started dating an ex, who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and I felt compelled to keep my religious practices secret, where they dwindled and finally faded away. (Are we noticing a pattern here?) We broke up for the last time in 2009 and my experiences with her, her religious conflict, and the hypocrisy that was the norm in her family and church really disheartened and jaded me. So it was an easy segue into doubting the existence of a higher power to flat out not believing. For years. The more time passed, the less I believed. And it scared me. I was becoming judgmental against religion and God, when so many years prior I was judgmental in the name of religion and God.
I attempted, over the years, to read spiritual books, such as "Conversations with God" and while the overall message was powerful, I could not get past the author's explanation of how the message came to be. Everything seemed to revolve around business and money, to where I was feeling as if religion was just another extension of capitalism. I started watching YouTube videos of atheist/Christian debates, such as those of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. And I found it refreshing and bold, but I never felt comforted. Only more disconnected and afraid.
Presently, I have, basically, started a new life. I left my job, family, and friends and moved 300 miles away. It had been, and in some respects still is, a hard transition, but each day I feel more confident this was the right decision. I am now living in upstate New York-"God's country" if you will. There are five FM radio stations here that are religious, compared to the one in Connecticut. Incidentally, there are also five country music stations (notoriously Christian-themed) here, compared to the one in Connecticut. On my way home from work, every day, I see a huge sign with a cross that says: Christ is the answer. Needless to say, religion, namely Christianity, is more prevalent than I am used to. Even having worked for a Catholic organization for years.
I have started questioning religion, again. But feel very cautious about discussing it, given my history. I'm certain some family members and friends would be very nervous if they knew I still listen to one of my favorite songs from my cult days ("Awesome God", favorite version by Jars of Clay). Or if they knew I listen to Christian rock on the regular (Another favorite: Hillsong United's "Oceans"). Or if they knew I have debated going back to school for religious studies. I'm also fairly certain they would have some concerns if they knew I have felt compelled to belong to a religious community, again. And I have felt that for some time.
Unlike me 15 years ago, I am extremely aware of the corruption and deceit that exists in some religious communities, because the people running them are human and have faults and flaws. I am also aware I will never find a religious community that is perfect, nor will I ever be a "perfect" member of said community. And, for once, that is refreshing.
The journey is ahead of me and I am excited and nervous to see where it takes me. In the meantime, I will continue listening to Christian rock and reading books by believers and non-believers, finding my way, in my own way.
*Title credit: Song "Crucify" released by Tori Amos in 1992*