Safe as Churches

Final Fortnight, Day 6

All my life, I have felt safe in churches. From a young age, burrowing my face into my mother’s fur-collared winter coat during cold winter Mass; to early childhood, tights-wearing, sitting on the itchy upholstery on the pews in the choir loft; walking to First Friday Mass with my class on hot September mornings; to the refuge of the modern, charismatic Catholic church I attended as a teen, eager to prove my worth to the invisible love who filled the sunlight and glass vaulted ceiling piercing the sky. The quiet, the dark cushioned air, the faint waft of incense and polyester, stale coffee and aftershave all felt holy to me, sacred.

My first wounding betrayal in the church came early, when I found out that I would not be allowed to follow my three older brothers in the hallowed path to become an altar boy. It was my bad luck to have been born in the last generation of girls who were barred from serving as an assistant in Holy Communion. I so longed to become a priest, with their miraculous transubstantiation powers and ability to cast out demons, that hearing that I was not allowed to be a priest-in-training–which is how I saw altar boys — ripped a hole in my heart.

Quick on the heels of that disappointment came the news that I would also never be allowed to be a priest. I had one uncle who was a priest and one great-uncle who was a priest, and knew in my bones that being a priest was the best possible thing I could be.

These lessons clustered around the same time I discovered that professional baseball was not in my future, and that I could no longer wear my brothers’ hand-me-down jeans because I was developing hips and thighs, and the boys’ jeans wouldn’t fit me anymore.

I folded these lessons into what I already knew about the futility of being a girl, and moved along with thus-reduced expectations for myself.

Look! One lone little girl. Dressed in pure white. Because if a girl isn’t pure, what good is she?

Since those early discouraging days, I still retreated to the church — big C and small — for comfort and reassurance well into adulthood. As a timid young college student, I regularly walked across town to attend the real Church — the one with bells that pealed on Sunday mornings. My few Catholic friends attended Mass at the St. John Newman Center on campus, but I needed the stone building, the cool floors and uncomfortable wooden pews. I needed the priest to wear real vestments, the altar boys to be in robes, a choir of warbling elderly voices to guide my faith into adulthood.

The farther I got into adulthood, though, and the more expansive my understanding grew of the world and how individuals fit together in society, the more betrayed I felt by C/church. I saw how people in other churches functioned as a community, which was never my experience in Catholic church, even as a child, and even as a child who went to Catholic school. It was a loosely formed grouping of people with similar family backgrounds of strict Catholic beliefs, but community wasn’t the point.

I envied other people’s church families even as I disagreed with the tenets of their faith. It was the same thinking that kept me from considering pursuing priesthood in another faith; if it’s not Catholic, it’s not a real religion. They may have some nice things, like female ministers and church families that support each other with love and compassion, but it’s not the real deal.

But the discouraging reality of Church and church has spread its roots throughout my foundational understanding of the world. The last four years has been my undoing, an unraveling of my belief in people of faith altogether. The pervasiveness of climate change denial, science denial, anti-vaccines and anti-birth control; the echoing silence on the sexual abuse of women, on the children torn from their parents, on the debasing immorality of our “leader” and his faction of greed-fueled impresarios; the vacuum of silence on our government killing Black people; the deafening cruelty of the inaction and persistent ignorance of reality is crushing.

Let me make one thing clear before I go farther; I see Black church communities fulfilling what I long to believe about Christians as a whole; standing up for their community, helping each other through difficulty, marching and praying for justice. My experience has been in suburban white churches, and it has been dismal.

And here’s a lovely piece of irony: my mother’s childhood parish is now a thriving Black Catholic church, where they fill the pews every Sunday, lead marches and protests for justice, and have Black leadership. Where the other Catholic churches are suffering, this parish is thriving.

As a people and as an institution, the C/church has failed all of my hopes about humanity. Where it should be expansive and welcoming it is insular and exclusive; where it should be forgiving and kind, it is punitive and judgmental; where it should be hard-working and spiritually challenging, it has become lazy and rote, ritualistic without meaning, clannish, I’ve-got-mine-fuck-the-rest.

Four years have revealed the degradation of humanity. In four years, we’ve discovered how rotten and corroded the infrastructure is under our society. From policing to the justice system to corporate culture to the work place to housing, every functioning gear of society is crumbling through with decay, apathy ceding to power and greed.

And I really wanted C/churches to be the backstop for this societal erosion. I wanted Christians to be the loudest voice decrying the slide into evil. The Church that had held me fast as a child with its velvet seats and dark closets for private baring of souls–I wanted it to be safe. I wanted to feel that safety again, in this world of rapidly declining morality and public stripping of character and integrity.

But it’s not true. As so many people before me have figured out, the C/church isn’t safe. It isn’t the voice of truth or right. Christians now stand on the tiniest pin-head of a single issue and disavow their promise to hold each other up, to protect each other. Those who made it onto the ark of science denial and “be in this world and not of it” and their belief that Christians are the “chosen” have left behind their fellow man.

I don’t know if I will ever get over the heartbreak of losing faith in my fellow man.

Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news.

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