Once, when I was about six years old, my mother rushed my sister and I into the bathroom of our home, shut the door behind us, and turned off all the lights. She hissed at us to be quiet. Her eyes were wild.
There was someone knocking at our front door, and from the fear I saw on my mother’s face I assumed it was evil incarnate, a monster with gnashing teeth come to suck the marrrow from our bones. After a few long moments, we heard footsteps as the monster walked away. The tendons in my mother’s jaw relaxed. She could breathe again.
Later, I found out that the creature at the door wasn’t the boogeyman, a winged harpy or even the creepy old man who lived down the street. It was a Jehovah’s Witness, come to talk about God and Jesus and salvation, which, to my mother, was just as terrifying. Apparently, someone of the faith had once told her she was going to hell, and it had spooked her for life. Spooked her to the point where an innocent knock on the door caused her to leap into action, to spirit her children away as if gypsies had come for our very souls.
Another time, my friend Renee gave me a small red book. I liked the faux leather cover and the pretty, colorful pictures inside of children frolicking with lambs and lions. When I told my mother I might like to go to church with Renee sometime, she got a pinched look on her face and tried to talk me out of it. I didn’t understand. I just wanted to see more pretty pictures. I don’t think I even realized at the time that that little red book had anything to do with God.
These two experiences — along with the unveiling every year of our as-yet-unexplained Christmas nativity set — comprise the whole of my religious upbringing. I was taught, more through actions then words, that religion was something to fear, that religious people were odd, deluded and possibly even wicked. For the first 30 years of my life, I wrote off religion and church entirely. I stayed away from moterhomes parked on the street, for fear that people inside would snatch me up and whisk me away to their “cults,” as my mother once warned me they would.
And then decades later, came Hurricane Katrina. As if compelled by some hidden force, I found myself at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Hillcrest, totally overdressed and more than a little perplexed. I don’t recall how I decided that this church, of all the multitude of fellowships out there, might have something to offer to me, but there I was, sobbing in the pews as I listened to Rev. Arvid Straube talk about how what happened in New Orleans wasn’t fair and wasn’t right and that we needed each other to get through it.
It was nothing I didn’t know already, but just being there, listening along with other people, was profoundly spiritual. I attended First UU a few more times, and upon moving to Encinitas, Mike and I have found UU San Dieguito, which we have come to love for its tolerance for all religions and its doctrine of “deeds, not creeds.”
The skeptic in me keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m convinced someone’s going to come out from behind a corner one day and say “Just kidding! You’ll need to hand over your first-born child, or you’re going to HELL!” But so far, I’ve felt nothing but a sense that I belong to this place, and that this place belongs to me.
And I might be right: I recently took the “Belief-o-Matic” quiz on Belief.net (try it! you’ll like it!) and discovered I am nearly 96 percent UU. I am also, however, 100 percent Neo-Pagan. So that’s something.
What’s strange is that I still find it difficult to admit to people that (in hushed voice) “I attend church.” I feel as though others will question my intellect or my sense of individuality, since I’ve always been one to silently chastise people who fashion their lives from something some dude wrote in a poorly translated ancient text. But then I remind myself of what my man Gandhi said: “I will not be a traitor to God to please the whole world.” As long as there is love in my heart, I don’t have to answer to anyone.