It took me a long time to get into a frame of mind to write this. Like many of you, there have been few people in my life who I could tell my faith story to with any expectation that they’d understand. Some would understand the being a Christian part, but not the deconstruction part. Others would appreciate the deconstruction but not my continued pursuit of Jesus. After spending years sitting in a church pew hiding my heretical thoughts and trying to fit in, it’s been a great relief to find the Nomad community.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church in Alabama, which is situated right in the middle of the Bible Belt. My teen years were spent attending multiple church events every week from youth group to Wednesday night supper to Sunday school and service. We didn’t live close to extended family, so church community became my family. My dad died when I was 9, and the patriarchal structure suited my needs at the time too. To me, God was a father figure and an escape. The Holy Spirit was something magical that gave me goosebumps and told me to do random stuff for strangers. Jesus was this guy I knew was important, but I was too afraid to admit that I didn’t really understand why.
My young beliefs held pretty firm during this time, though I always felt different from other kids. Losing a parent at a young age was part of it. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have experienced something so life-changing decades before any of my peers. I was so lonely inside. On top of that, I had a severe stutter that I hadn’t learned to accept yet. I found refuge in the church, but neither I nor the pastors really knew how to help me in my pain. I thought church was the one place I could “come as I am” and receive healing and hope. I thought that if I followed all the rules and claimed to believe, that I would find freedom from my suffering. This disconnect between what I was told and what I actually experienced gradually became more confusing and enraging.
There was one point during my freshman year of college when I looked at all the questions swirling in my head and made a decision. If doubting and pursuing all these questions meant I might be going to hell, then I was willing to risk it. I think this might have been the first real pivotal moment when I chose my own life and healing over the prescribed Christian path. For the next ten years, I would bounce back and forth between the two, simultaneously knowing that my life depended on finding my own way, while being terrified of losing the only community I’d ever known.
In college, I ministry-hopped between the Methodists, Church of Christ, and Assembly of God to try to meet all my spiritual needs. Among the three congregations, I’d been rebaptised by immersion, been prophesied over, and been told that I wasn’t allowed to dance in public, serve communion, or teach men. In response to this, I started a covert ballroom dance class for my peers at one campus ministry and led a co-ed Bible study at another. In the end, it was the concept of people being “lost” and “found” that left me stumped. I barely knew any nonbelievers. How could I be sure they were all lost? I was 22, had been a Christian for ten years, had read the entire Bible, and I felt like the lost one. Something wasn’t right. This was the first of several times in my life when I would decide to take a break from church.
My journey unfolded from there, leading to more questions and experiences I didn’t share in my church communities for fear of being kicked out, or worse, losing my status as a Christian. Even as I pleaded with God to make me a good Christian woman who could attract a good Christian husband, I kept having more diverse experiences that fueled my doubt. However, even in my frustration and disagreement with God, I knew God was present. I never doubted this. I knew God was leading me. I knew this was part of my journey, even if I wouldn’t have chosen it myself.
During my post-college unchurched years, I decided that I didn’t want to believe in a God who only existed within the walls of a church. That an omnipotent, omniscient God would choose to only inhabit one religion didn’t make sense to me anymore. From here, God and I started our own version of Where’s Waldo. Only instead of looking for one figure of God in a sea of strangers, I found God in all the strangers.
During a summer abroad, I roomed with a Muslim woman who described her love for God exactly as I described mine. So why was I going to heaven and she wasn’t? In my mid-twenties, I did two years of Americorps at a Camphill community. Here I learned about anthroposophy and esoteric Christianity. I met other big-hearted volunteers from different cultures and beliefs, including a woman who was clairvoyant. I worked and lived with people with special needs, who might not profess a faith but who embodied the Spirit of Christ better than anyone I’d ever met.
After Americorps, I went to graduate school at a Buddhist-inspired university in Boulder, Colorado. Here I learned about transpersonal psychology, world wisdom traditions, and how to meditate. My cohort was entirely non- or ex-Christians who passionately pursued their own personal spiritual lives. I wrestled with my identity as a Christian and the overlap between the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of Jesus.
While in Boulder I re-engaged with church. Even as I surrounded myself with genuinely good Christian people, I still didn’t feel like I belonged there. I knew too much. The more I learned about the world and allowed myself to grow, the angrier I felt with the church and the less I felt at home in the pews. Though I did finally begin to understand Jesus one evening in those pews, at the age of 28, in the darkness of a Good Friday service.
Fast forward to today and I am taking another break from church, maybe for good this time, who knows. I’m almost tired of fighting and being angry, and I’m beginning to surrender to the reality that the healing I need takes time and work. At 34, I feel more grounded and secure in my decision to stay true to my own path of deconstruction and hope. I know there is more to come. Thank God for that.
– Jessica Sabo