My dad and my brothers were members of the Episcopal church when I was growing up. Dad brought his three boys downtown every Sunday to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where he was a member of the vestry, and my brothers and I served as acolytes (altar servers). This was our main community activity when I was a kid, going to youth group, going to church on Sundays, going to coffee hour afterward, and sometimes meeting with people outside of church.
There were several episcopal churches much closer to where we lived than Trinity, but my dad loved classical music, ceremony, and gothic churches with a lot of wood and stone in them. He had been an aspirant to the ministry at one time; he decided to pursue pastoral counseling instead of preaching, and that led him to Educational Psychology and Clinical Psychology, and he got a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh before he started practicing.
So, at Trinity, the homeless came to every church service, every coffee hour. Many of them were mentally ill; my dad would give rides to them sometimes if they needed it. We served food at coffee hour, and would volunteer at the soup kitchen on Wednesdays.
I went to Central Catholic High School, an all boys prep school. The religion teachers taught us about the duty of the Christian to the poor, to help the needy and oppressed. We watched the movie Romero in my sophomore year. We had a requirement for volunteer hours, and I worked with a food pantry, and tutoring kids at a boy’s and girl’s club downtown. My senior year, we learned about different ethical systems and the basis of Catholic ethics. We learned about other religions, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam.
All this said, I went to college with the idea that Christianity was rooted in helping the poor and the sick, and that would be the basis of our ultimate worth.
This altruism, of course, synched with my own self concept as outsider and underdog, and as a comic book reader, I thought you should sacrifice yourself whenever possible and wherever possible. The Christ archetype is huge among comics writers; every storyline seems to end with someone sacrificing themselves to save the world. Ironically, Tony Stark was supposed to be the Ayn Randian figure in the movies, and he died to save everyone in Endgame.
When I got to college, Christianity was . . .different than that. The liturgical churches represented on campus weren’t really that interested in me. Also, and this is terrible to say, the students who were involved weren’t as good looking or fun to hang out with as the kids in the conservative group. They seemed like they were already in their 30’s, frumpy, and dull. The kids in the conservative group, Spring, had a lot of energy, and that’s also where the cute girls were. The guys were cheerful and easy to get along with, too.
But as I got to know the conservative Christians, their ideas on the faith hit on a few points of conflict. Kaylynn was a tiny Asian student who lived across the hall from me, and I really liked her. She was very involved with Christian activities, and I hung out with her a lot. She was a few years older than me, didn’t drink, and was soft spoken. We were talking about religions, and she said, “you know the devil controls the world, right? He said that to Jesus. All those other religions, their gods are demons.”
I was like, “what? You can’t say that. That’s not true.” But that is what she believed. I had been taught more of a universalist message, where all religions are right in their own ways, and we should be respectful of differences. Christ was unique and of the highest value, but it was ultimately God’s choice about heaven vs. not heaven. Also, our own knowledge was so limited.
This surprised me, and I started to pick up on other differences. One of the conservative Christian girls picked up one of my rap albums in my room and told me it was trash. I said, “what?” She said, “this is trash.” My parents didn’t believe in censorship, and I liked rap music. It was 2000-2001; some of the best music was in circulation (in my opinion).
Also, the gay issue. Going to Trinity Downtown, there were gay couples and gay men, including the organist and several choir members, the man who did the flowers for the altar. My piano teacher and my brothers’ violin teacher were gay men who lived with their partners. So to go to the campus service and start to hear the murmurings, of the lists of sins for which we should be repentant, “anger, lust, homosexuality …” I thought, “what?”
I had a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. They were rooted in maintaining a homogenous, heteronormative faith based on individual obedience, and I was expecting a group with political motivations, universalist orientation, and ultimately left-leaning goals.
Social justice and the conservative church did not meet for me. But, as I talked about in an earlier post, I never really clicked with the left-wing on campus either. I tried to get together with the frumpier liturgical church students later on, and that fell apart for entirely different reasons, which I’ll explain in a further post.