Listen, I know some of you read the headline, rolled your eyes, and said, "Oh gosh, here we go," but this ain't your typical church-girl fairy-tale.
As a child, I was raised in a strict, Christian household, and for the most part, I actually enjoyed it. I found church to be a safe haven and a place of peace. I loved waking up to the sound of Mahalia Jackson, the Clark Sisters, and the Rev. James Cleveland mixed with the smell of pancakes before going to school.
And who doesn't like the obligatory after-church feast of collard greens, mac-and-cheese, fried chicken, yams, homemade rolls and sweet tea?
At age 7, I had a spiritual, out-of-body experience at Vacation Bible School that truly connected me to God and the love of Christ, and it's something that has always stuck with me.
Things took a turn for the worse when, at 12, I experienced trauma in church due to a leadership scandal I did not understand at the time. It divided the congregation, brought shameful drama, and changed my life forever. A couple years later, my mother divorced my stepfather---a major figure in our church and a gifted gospel musician in his own right---and things changed even more drastically. Anything that reminded me of those times turned me all the way off, and I could not even listen to choirs sing or anybody mention "the Lord" without cringing.
I began to see church and Christianity as something false---a place where facades superseded faith, where you couldn't trust anyone or anything.
l felt my place of peace was taken away from me and that people in authority---who I revered and thought were perfect due to their position in the church---had failed me. I went from going to church just for holidays to not going at all.
By the time I got to college, I'd attend chapel only because it was expected, not because I was into it. I even became an atheist for a short sting during my junior year. I just couldn't deal with the doubt and withdrew from anything spiritual.
I did end up being led back to Christ---but not after a journey I had to walk on my own. This story may be a re-run for a lot of us---I get it, sis---but I just find it interesting that many people don't approach spirituality---or their spiritual health---like they approach career advancement, money management, or physical health and wellness.
When you have a job that's toxic or not a good fit, what do you do? Send out resumes, research other positions, quit, and get another one, right? When a diet or workout regime isn't working, what do you do? You stop, alter it, or find something else, correct?
I think more people would benefit from thinking about spirituality in a different way---one that is a personal process to connect deeply with God and why you're here on Earth. I hope the steps I took will inspire someone else to find peace and really honor their spirit by taking accountability and reconnecting with their own journey:
Don't Be Afraid To Ask Questions
Some of us were raised to believe that God is this big, bad dictator who just wants to punish us and ask us to do things we don't want to do. We cannot be ourselves---curious human beings---without practically being damned to hell. I believed this at one point. Many churches focus more on robotic condemnation than empowering redemption.
My mom, in her own Christian journey post-divorce, told me, "I am praying for you. Ask God the questions you have. Go to Him." The rebel in me said, "OK. I'll try this. God, can you show me you're real and not a total manipulative faker?"
A month after asking God that question, I got a chance opportunity to intern for a major magazine in New York. I didn't take that as a sign, and I was still angry and confused. I ended up connecting with a brilliant young lady who was interning at another publication. We just instantly clicked. She was upbeat, a bit radical, had a fly Afro (among a sea of mostly white interns), and she was a great editor. I learned so much from her over several weeks and we became thick as thieves.
One day, she said, "I know you're questioning God. He has not left you." She then asked if she could pray with me. I was taken aback because I did not know she was religious, let alone a Christian. We'd never really had these conversations and, at that point, I'd never told her about my childhood experience. At first, I wanted to totally cut her off. Then something said, "Just let her do it. It won't hurt. You don't believe anyway."
She didn't beat me down with Bible verses, preach at me, or come at me aggressively at all. She actually waited until I was genuinely comfortable with her, as a friend, to even ask to pray with me. I respected that, and it softened my spirit. I began to feel a bit different. The questions came back but with less anger and more childlike curiosity. I felt free.
Do Your Research And Explore
The Capricorn in me likes to be armed with information so that I am not making choices based on ignorance. (And yes, I referenced a zodiac sign. I'm a Christian who referenced a zodiac sign. Yes.) True, our childhood experiences can affect our adult decisions, but I decided that the past and whatever I'd been shown didn't have to dictate my future. I challenged myself by following a Bible-reading schedule---which the friend from that internship experience introduced me to. It was a yearlong schedule that would get me through the entire Bible, and I actually finished half before that summer was over.
I also began to research different churches and denominations, their missions, and their leaders' backgrounds. I'd try to attend a different church at least once a month, just to expose myself and find out where I could connect. When I couldn't go into a church, I'd watch YouTube videos or live-stream services online. I didn't fully invest in going back, but this helped me get over some of my negative thoughts about pastors, church folk, and preachers.
I learned that not all are alike, not all are a fit, and there are many who are genuine and have ministries that speak to the intellect and explorer in me. I also learned that there are common traits and practices of some churches that turn me off and how to create boundaries for myself without feeling guilty about it.
I also ventured into Buddhism, and I would attend meditations and events with a friend who believed in a mixture of religions and spiritual practices. She was a person who just wouldn't commit to one, and that worked for her. I dabbled into Islam as well, and I enjoyed certain aspects of it including the discipline and the cultural diversity. Rastafarianism was attractive as well because I loved the idea of just being free of certain vanities, committing to Ital eating, and living a country life in Negril or Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Though I loved the teachings, meditations, and literature and was intrigued, I just did not connect with my spirit and the way I saw the world like the Biblical teachings of Christ.
Find A Balanced Support System
With this one, I want to put an emphasis on balance. (So, if sis is wearing skirts to the floor, never curses, and goes to church 7 days a week, and that triggers negative thoughts about your spiritual journey, that may not be the one you want to consult for balance. On the other hand, if you feel something is strongly drawing you to a way of life that includes those elements, explore it.)
I'd only been exposed to a glimpse of Christianity, and the people associated with it were a monolith. I had a totally one-sided, warped view of what being a Christian meant. I prayed and sought to widen my understanding by seeking support from balanced sources and individuals.
My sister, my mom, my mother's now-husband, and my uncle (a pastor who has diverse life experiences, can authentically change from a three-piece suit and Italian shoes into Air Force Ones and a white tee, and has helped people overcome addiction, incarceration, depression, and other life issues) became a huge support system. They were Christians who knew the Bible but didn't slam people with it, and they had been transparent about their own issues with God and church. They were also avid readers, invested in conferences and speakers, and could approach religious debates with compassion, humor, and intelligence.
With the help of a support system that included people with their own stories of spiritual transitions and growth, I was able to find new truths and widen my perspective.
Face Your Fears And Release The Shame
During my exploration---and after a bit of therapy---I found that I'd held church leaders and other Christians to a high, unrealistic standard, almost as if they were gods. I had to come to terms with their humanity, and I had to reconnect with the concept that God is greater than man. I had to offer grace to them and to myself.
As humans, none of us are perfect, and shame is not something that nurtures the spirit, nor does it help us in connection with God---at least not for me. The more shame I felt for not being perfect---and for the childhood memories from church---the less I wanted to even fool with God or anything spiritual. In the same vein, I still hold Christian leaders to a certain standard, and when I see red flags, I pray about it, watch, and then act accordingly. This is a constant work-in-progress, but I'm grateful I have an open heart and the opportunity to even do this. Some of us are so hardened from trauma that we cannot see ourselves through to salvation or freedom, and I think God lives in that space where we forgive ourselves and others for hurt of the past.
I also had to say, "Well, Janell, are you really mad at the 'church' or at yourself? What has God asked you to do that you are not doing? How can you be an asset?" I still struggle with this because again, trauma is trauma, but I find that if I put things into a self-accountability perspective, I can look at my journey more optimistically instead of just saying forget about it. For example, I can say, "Oh, the pastor has asked for two offerings in the past 45 minutes. I'm out," or I can say, "Hmmm, I wonder what the Bible says about tithing? How does this play into my role in being here? Where is the money going? Do I see tangible results of what this church is invested in? What is God moving me to do at this moment?" and make a decision from there.
This is my thought process for continuing to move forward and give the journey a chance.
For anyone who is questioning spiritual connections they've made with God, whether it was due to childhood or adult trauma, I challenge you to continue through the process, ask questions in the journey, seek God in prayer and meditation, get therapy---do all you can to connect with where your heart and spirit find a home. Your spirit is directly linked to all other aspects of your life, so it's important to invest attention to that part of yourself.
I'm not ignoring nor disregarding the issues in religion---especially within Christian churches---but I choose to focus on what God has for me to do and my role in shifting the narrative. I've found peace in the redemptive and servant aspects of Christ, and I've been able to survive other traumatic experiences through my faith in God and belief in Christ. It suits me. It is what I believe in. It anchors me. My spiritual health means a lot to me, and I plan to nurture it just like any other aspect of my life.
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