“Religion is to do right.
It is to love, it is to serve,
it is to think, it is to be humble.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Faith. Religion. How do we teach, instill and guide our children toward their own idea of faith? The generations before mine were of the mindset that you followed the faith of your parents; you did not question, you did not doubt. You just followed. But like most Gen-X parents, we questioned. We rebelled. We wanted to know what else was out there.
I grew up with a rule when adults came to the house: Don’t speak unless you are spoken to. Then the adults would create rules between them, like “No talking politics, money, or religion.” Those are hard and sensitive topics for many. I struggled with the reality of this post for months, claiming “I’m not ready to offend that many people.” I hate having to make a disclaimer for my blog posts, but the truth is, this post will offend people in my past, present, and possible future religious paths. Please note this post is not meant to DEFINE your own beliefs, but rather defines what faith is to me and how they relate to my job as a parent. In all fairness, I will do my best to offend everyone equally.
Ryan and I were both raised with strict religious practices in place; he was Baptist and I was Catholic. The only difference between the two that I ever found memorable was Baptists drink juice as the “blood of Christ,” and Catholics got real wine. For some reason, I found that fascinating. In addition to the booze, there was confession. I was baptized, first communion, catechized, confirmed, and with that – came confession. It is still the most vivid memory I have from my years as a child in the church.
We learned in catechism that you confess your sins on Saturday so you can take communion the next day at Sunday service. As an 11-year old, I just wanted one of those wafers and a sip of wine, to be honest. So I sat and thought, WHAT could I confess? What sin had I committed that week? I was a fierce young Capricorn who thought of every avenue before making a decision in my daily life. To my knowledge, I hadn’t ever sinned. From my perspective, no one sinned, they just made choices. I’d heard my neighbor friends were “going to Hell” because they were Muslim. Our friends down the road were Jehovah Witnesses, and they were also going to hell, according to those around me. What about the Atheists in my stepdad’s family? No comment from the peanut gallery, but I rightly assumed: HELL. So one day, after months of hearing everyone on our block was moving to Satan’s neighborhood, I finally voiced what was in my head. “How can Hell be big enough for everyone but us? Maybe everyone is right? Or maybe, just maybe, we were wrong.”
I was informed that if I was looking for a sin to confess, I had found it — but again, it was not a sin in my book. And technically, my first confession was a lie. I made up a story about throwing a fit with my parents and breaking dishes on purpose. Mostly so I could have a sin to share and have snacks at communion the next day. The next Saturday went like this:
Father: Welcome, Mariangela, what have you come to confess?
Me: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was seven days ago, and these are my sins (which I had written on my hand because I didn’t have it memorized yet).
SOOOOO you know the story I told you last week? About how I yelled at my mom and told her to shut up and threw a dish at her? Well, that never happened ‘cause in real life she would KILL me if I did that and I made it up so I could have the little wafer and wine on Sunday with everyone else. So I lied.That is this week’s sin! Feels so much better telling you about it!
Father: Mariangela, that is not how this works…
Me: Can’t you just give me 3 Hail Marys and 1 Our Father or something? Please don’t tell my mom.
Father: I am going to tell Sister Anne instead, she teaches your catechism class, and clearly you aren’t getting it.
Me: (Pause) Sorry.
Father: It’s fine, you are excused.
Me: Father, quick question…
Father: Yes, my child.
Me: Sooooo can I still take communion tomorrow?
Father: (Pause) No.
And that sums up my personal relationship with Catholicism. Ryan has his own stories, which are not mine to tell. I can tell you, however, that early on in our marriage, his mother shared A TAPE of him and his sister singing in church. He couldn’t have been older than seven or eight. It was mesmerizing to me. In my church we had HYMNS. There were no faith-based songs that were secular and modernized; that wasn’t acceptable. But here on this tape, Baby Ryan was signing a song called “Jesus, I Heard You Had A Big House.” Incredible, on so many levels.
Throughout my late teens and early 20’s, I had no faith. I wasn’t spiritual, I wasn’t searching. I was just being. Some would say I was lost. I felt like I was trying to be found.
When I met Ryan, he was loosely affiliated with the Baha’i Faith, which up to then I had never heard of. The main principles that were shared with me were exactly what my 11-year old self had been speaking of: Unity, Diversity, One Good, Love All, Prophets, etc. I jumped headfirst – we did – into this new Faith. I am KNOWN for being a bit impulsive in my choices during my 20’s and even my 30’s, but this just had such a great message and the people were so amazing. I had to be part of it. So Ryan and I decided to be Bahais and raise Madison that way.
There were strict rules about no drinking, no gossip, sexuality, gender in office, politics, sex outside of marriage, and looking back now, it was incredibly extreme for me. I was very swept away by the Unity in Diversity mantra, and admit to not doing enough research into the tenets that meant a lot to me. I want to make it very clear that I don’t regret any of my years as a member of the Baha’i Faith. In fact, the Faith served a loving and great purpose for Madison’s formative years. Taught her discipline and unity and gave her a great moral foundation on things like race, other religions, and service to humanity.
In our last few years as Bahais, I started to have real doubts. I was seeing strange behavior that was exclusive, judgemental, and biased. They welcomed the seekers but shunned the people who changed their minds about the Faith or had found other paths. I had questions on the writings in regards to women not being allowed to serve on the Faiths international governing body, and then discovered the religious writings against homosexuality. It clearly stated that homosexuality was a disease, that is was not natural and you were free to be gay, but you could not ACT on it. When I asked about both of these topics, I was referred to vague writings that basically said it would all be “As clear as the noonday sun someday.”
“Faith is a house with many rooms.
But no room for doubt?
Oh plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” – Life of Pi
I could not continue to raise my daughter in a faith that had tenets that I disagreed with so strongly. Ryan had his own doubts and disagreements, as well as shared my own concerns. We had to be the example for Maddi. We wanted her to make her own choice in her faith or religion, when she felt old enough to do so. I came to terms with the idea that if she came to me and wanted to be Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, whatever – I would be not only okay with it, but loving and supportive. Whatever speaks to her soul, her faith – and inspires her life – that is good enough for me.
We wrote our letters. Made our announcements where needed, and officially left the Baha’i faith in 2011. Because Ryan and I were married in the Faith, we also felt the need to renew our vows. We wanted to show ourselves, our daughter and our family that we were on a new path, a path that properly reflected our hearts. We wanted her to know that Faith isn’t about adjusting your morals and feelings to commit to a doctrine, but rather living a life as a person that is faithful to your own internal doctrine, and prove it through your actions.
A story I think is important and that shows the moment I realized we had created a specific path for ourselves and our daughter – is when Madison and I took a SHORT turn in a local church after leaving the Baha’i faith. Don’t be shocked. I didn’t “find Jesus” and I was not “saved,” much to many of my family’s dismay. I did, however, have a fond place in my heart for the feel of a community church. Secular music that made you FEEL something. Heartwarming stories of real people. Pastors that wore t-shirts and drank coffee with you after. We both decided it was fun, and still believed that God is God, no matter where you worship, right?
All was good. We would go once or twice a month. Ryan thought we were crazy and still calls it “that weird rock and roll church phase,” but we really liked the band more than anything, but I digress. It was 2012, and the Sunday right before Referendum 74 was voted on here in Seattle. The service started as normal, then I noticed the air got heavy. The pastor announced that today’s topic was going to be “sensitive,” and that if there were small children present, they should be taken out to the kids area. He then started a discussion about the next day’s vote on Referendum 74. He stated that if we wanted to consider ourselves a member of the church, and part of the family of God, we needed to vote a firm NO on the referendum at hand. That the bill supported everything unGodlike in humanity. That marriage was sacred and that if we support the bill we may as well support beastiality.
I need to take a moment to breathe as I type this, as I feel the anger rising in my throat. In the moment it was happening, right when he warned of the “sensitive topic,” I knew what was coming. I started to shake my head, and whisper frustrations and curse words. I was LIVID and thinking, HOW could I bring my daughter here. HOW could I expose her to this?
More importantly, HOW was I going to get her out of here? I was red-faced with steam coming out of my ears. I gathered my purse and jacket to make a quiet but quick exit. I looked over and Madison was clearly just as angry as me, if not more so. This was also the day I realized she’d inherited our tendency to pop off when we are passionate about injustice. Like us, she is sometimes impulsive and mouthy and not thinking, just saying what she feels, something that had gotten us in trouble over the years.
While I tried getting us out of there in what felt like slow-motion, Madison shot out of her seat like a bolt of lightning. Every inch of her 5’2” frame stood there and said, “THIS IS BULLSHIT. WE ARE OUT OF HERE.” And then she STORMED out. Stuck in slow motion mode, I went after her. In the car, she was rattling off things she was going to do. “I need to write the pastor a letter. Explaining why this is so wrong. Do you think I should do this? Mom? I think I need to do it when we get home…Mom?” I was just sitting behind the wheel of the car, staring at her in amazement and with a SHIT TON of pride.
Hilary Faye: Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.
Mary: You don’t know the first thing about love.
Hilary Faye: [throws a Bible at Mary] I am FILLED with Christ’s love! You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.
Mary: [Mary holds up the Bible] This is not a weapon! You idiot.
In one moment, she threw caution to the wind and stood up for everything we as a family believed in. She immediately added ACTIVIST to her Faith priority list. She stood up for friends and family whose right to love and be married were in question. It was impulsive, a bit expletive and angry, but it was passionate and from her heart. Before Same Love and before it was COOL in the media to support what was right, this 15-year old had the COURAGE to stand up to a congregation of 1000+ people and display her disappointment with their bigotry and hate. It was definitely near the top of my “Parenting Wins” list.
“The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big question is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.” – Bill Maher
It was then I realized it has nothing to do with your path in the outside world, and everything to do with your path inside yourself. My family is full of all types of religious people. I can say in all honestly that there is a small group of people in my life – one is Christian, one is Jewish, one is Buddhist, and one is Muslim – who have LIVED the life of Faith rather than preached it to commandeer new members. They show their faith in how they speak to people, in how they serve others, and the decisions they make in their lives. That is a “faithful” person to me. THAT is what RELIGION means to me. As parents, we are examples for our child, but we can also teach them that religion isn’t a list of doctrines and rules you must follow to become a good person. Rather, faith is a path we all take to finding the good in ourselves and others.