“So, Nikki – tell us something of the faith you inherited”. I can hear the Nomad question. Well, values, not faith. That’s what I inherited. My parents were fairly politically orientated. Our family of four would have mealtimes where everyone talked at once and we put the world to rights. I knew my parents loved me unconditionally. Always. Still do. I grew up with a distinct sense that not everyone has an equal start in life, we should help the disadvantaged and generally be kind and compassionate. My parents are the kind of people that others are drawn to and I always wanted to be like my Mum when I grew up – genuine, always herself, in no way false, generous and warm. After ‘O’ Levels, a move to another area sent me sideways emotionally, and when I suffered a severe depressive episode, this seemed unattainable.
Depression can make you fairly self-absorbed. But it is part of the illness. Long story short……I was invited to a small Methodist church by a girl I met at my new school (lots of old ladies singing out of tune is what I remember!) and when I came out of my depression I had no clue what these church going folk believed. I ‘researched it’ and ‘prayed the prayer’, and felt overwhelmed by the freedom that I was loved unconditionally by God, but also explaining my perceived ‘selfishness’ and lack of ability to be as giving as my parents to be as a result of my ‘sin’ and hence requiring the Holy Spirit to be ‘better’. I was 17.
Fast forward through University, I met my now husband of 25 years through the Christian Union and embraced evangelical Christianity in a way that will be familiar and fairly unremarkable to many in this Nomad community. I maintained a good relationship with my parents, though there was sometimes a nagging feeling that they needed ‘saving’, and I honestly believed that would never happen. They became humanists, my Dad an atheist, and continued to maintain excellent values that I shared on so many levels.
My work professionally in the mental health field over many years, I think is key to a gradual feeling as I went along on a Sunday that so many of the Christian clichés seemed hollow, and I struggled more and more to reconcile the simplistic and ‘neat’ answers to everything, with the pain, brokenness and general struggles of real life, that I encountered in peoples’ lives on a daily basis. I felt embarrassed by the evangelical message and could never imagine ‘selling’ it to any of these ‘real people’, just as I never believed my parents would ever ‘buy it’. About 8 years ago, I was struck by the strong and intrusive thought regularly “What if my parents have been right all along?” I framed it as ‘doubt’, read a book on doubt, talked about doubt and tried to get rid of it and fit back into the evangelical mould. And never quite managed it fully. Moving from adult mental health services, to work with young people in mental health crisis, just made me feel more disillusioned with church, as I was exposed to so many situations in which children and young people were in non-validating environments. As I began to understand more about attachment difficulties it became implausible to me that they should have to jump through theological hoops to be safe in the arms of God, when the very concept of trusting anyone would be so challenging for them. They just needed loving. I was also deeply troubled by the notion that only those who had “prayed the prayer” were destined for eternal joy, and the rest of humankind doomed, when I saw so much good in my family, colleagues and other people I met who were supposedly not in the club.
During the autumn of 2018, through connections with a couple of friends who I felt able to spiritually question things with, in a way that challenged the evangelical mindset, I was thankfully introduced to a whole world of different reading and podcast ‘material’ and online community. A blessed relief, I can tell you! Looking back on something I wrote during 2019, this experience in the clinic where I worked at the time, was a profound and significant experience that I think sums up from where things have continued to flow in a hopeful and positive way:
“I’m sat in the group room with four colleagues on a conference call to the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service. We talk about chest bindings and whether there are risks to physical health and development; factors to be considered in deciding if and when a young person should take hormone suppressors. I am struck by the sensitivity to the unique experience of each young person, as well the complexities of family life when a young person is considering transitioning to the opposite gender. The compassion in the room, and in London, is almost palpable: a deep desire to connect with these beautiful people, surely made in God’s image and wholly and unconditionally loved. I am aware that my colleagues have no notion of a Christian approach to spirituality, and in fact I have no idea what their take is on spirituality and faith in general. Certainly evangelistic judgements, from certain circles of organised religion, have condemned and alienated these beautiful young people who we are here to support and care for. And yet, at this moment, I see clearly that no one group has a monopoly on compassion. If God is good and loving, I sense He is filling the room, because the goodness and love is almost oozing out of the door. Whether they recognise it or not, He has to be found in every monumental effort of theirs to understand the experience of each young person and reach out to guide and support them, and their families, through the myriad of questions, uncertainties and anxiety. This is a manifestation of a God of diversity at its best, and I feel more at peace and at one with my environment than I have in a long time.”
So, where am I now and what have a I learned? I feel like I have almost come full circle and returned to my solid roots and what was modelled to me in terms of open-heartedness and a passion for equality, with a deep desire to connect in a real and genuine way with the uniqueness of another person, without agenda. Of course, this Jesus stuff got thrown in along the way, and in many ways over-complicated the simple call to love people. But it does mean there is a rich spiritual thread running through my life, though it is more about values and relationships these days. There has perhaps been a synthesis of the best bits of the different worlds I have inhabited, both personally and professionally. And today, through feeling more able than ever before to question everything, spot an assumption a mile off and challenge it in a curious, non-confrontational kind of way (well, I try!) I am trying to walk a path that sees people in a holistic and complete way. There is no sense of superiority: it’s important that “the least shall be first”, as we try to see the good in others, and mutually support and build each other up. In reaching a place where I am totally at peace with a values-based way of relating that puts loving, affirming relationships and connection before theological tick boxes, my marriage is also spiritually more freeing. It is no longer threatened by differences of opinion or the unique and distinct spiritual paths that my husband and I find ourselves on. There is always growth for both of us, and mutual respect.
Where I see compassion, I celebrate it – for no-one has a monopoly on that. Let us love in unity with all of society. And let me give my parents long, lingering hugs when this darn pandemic subsides. They have done me so much good!
– Nikki Vesey