The church I grew up in set the bar high for what I feel able to long for in community. It was a tiny evangelical church in Trinidad and Tobago and one of a group of churches Canadian missionaries founded across the Caribbean region. My sense of God was grounded by expressions of togetherness that told me from an early age that I was loved and supported. From midweek prayer meetings to seasonal celebrations to youth camps, I felt held. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Certainty of faith acted as a glue for that community as I think it does for many evangelical churches. When you’re in it, you feel secure and your life has an immense sense of purpose. On the flip side, if certainty holds everything together, it mustn’t fray.
I became aware early on that there seemed little room for questions or rather that you could ask questions as long as you eventually arrived at the accepted conclusions. As life happened, I repeatedly suppressed doubts and internalised disappointment because I was afraid of losing not just my God but my community.
This isn’t something that I could have put into language as a child and teenager because I was taught to fear my rebelliousness and to regard myself as incapable of good. I don’t blame anyone for that because the message was preached by people who were hemmed in by their own fear.
When I moved to Brighton in the UK for university at 19 I spotted an opportunity to discover myself outside the confines of church and figure out what I really thought about God. This was extremely short lived. Having moved countries as well as left home for the first time, the upset of culture shock sent me hurtling back toward the thing that felt vaguely familiar, church culture. I felt vulnerable and very much in need of God.
I wound up settling into another tiny evangelical church that felt like family and met my husband who had recently started going to church and thinking about Christian spirituality. I remember liking that he wasn’t “too Christian” which may have been my subconscious telling me I wasn’t done exploring.
The church we were in didn’t suit either of us. I couldn’t get on board with its complementarian gender politics and stringent views on divorce having grown up seeing women harmed by those beliefs. But there was love there and, actually, there was a lot of diversity of belief among the small congregation.
We’ve moved further and further west since, each time jumping into a church straight away. I’ve felt progressively less connected to everything that was happening there, probably because I’ve felt that I couldn’t show up as my authentic self, that I had to hide what I was really thinking and feeling.
Somewhere in the midst of that I had my first baby and found that new motherhood was a time when I was learning so much, feeling all the feelings and willing to put up with a lot less, which definitely exacerbated the situation. It was a period of highly accelerated growth.
When I tried to talk about my disappointment with church, I was encouraged to separate what I felt about God from what I felt about the church and to walk by faith not by feelings. I could see some merit in the former though there was and still is no clean demarcation in my mind.
The latter, however, translated as a command to ignore my inner authority. I began to wonder whether God was really so unreasonable, so fragile. Why would God expect us to turn off our logic and intuition? In any other relationship, the demand for blind obedience would be considered abusive.
The arrival of our first child was an initiation. We’d moved cities just before I conceived, I had trouble with mobility during pregnancy and I was working from home so I kind of had an enforced desert experience. Then once she was here, learning to live life with her, though full of every challenge, made me feel powerful in a way I’d never experienced before. For the first time, I could trust myself.
There was also no doubt in my mind that God understood what I was experiencing. I could not be a better mother than God was. Nothing in me wanted to break anything in this little person I held. I just wanted her to know how much I loved her and wanted to know her. I wanted her to know that her value was unshakeable. If that was also true of God, I could bring to Her my questions and my creative, fumbling attempts at understanding life.
Meanwhile, my kids were growing and I had to weigh up my desire for them to have the immersive community I’d enjoyed with the possibility that it could one day reject them. I answer their questions candidly and hope I’m raising them to think for themselves. I’m unwilling to teach them that they must make themselves small, quieting their own voices to be accepted.
So we spent some time without a church. Sundays felt strange for a while – unmoored. For me it was the first time in my entire life that I’d not gone to church on a Sunday. For the kids too, actually.
At the same time, I was learning so much through reading, listening, having conversations with friends on similar spiritual journeys, and finding new ways of talking and listening to God. And my sense of church was expanding to include people who weren’t Christians and who had so much wisdom and love to share. I began to open up to ideas, practices and experiences outside the scope of the version of Christianity I’d grown up with.
We’ve since cautiously joined a liturgical church where there is, again, diversity of belief among the congregation but also softness from the front. I see it as just part of my family’s wider sense of community and just one of the places where I touch the face of God. Everything is so much more expansive now.
– Adele Jarrett-Kerr