On a path…destination to be determined.On a recent Friday night, I found myself weeping. And the sobs kept coming, welling up from somewhere deep inside that I had not accessed in a long time. I was sitting in the presence of trusted friends who had sincerely asked me what I really, really, really needed and were then prepared to listen to the answer. What welled up inside of me was a feeling of longing and aloneness that I've largely kept at the edge of my consciousness for several years because I didn't have the space, energy, or resources to admit the truth.
That truth is that I am spiritually homeless at the moment, and I feel like I'm letting my daughter down in one of my most valued parenting priorities. She is one of the only kids she knows who believes in God (and is keenly aware of that), my husband has been wrestling with his own philosophical questions about his faith after seeing the belly of the beast of institutionalized religion up close for the last five years in our filmmaking and advocacy work, and I don't have many people in my life on a regular basis whom I feel safe to be authentic about my spiritual self with.
Normally when people feel a need for spiritual community and a place where children can meet other children who also believe in God, they go to church. But that's a bit tricky for us. The church we grew up in--and actually go back several generations in on both sides--is the Seventh-day Adventist church. But Adventism is a complicated space for us, especially where we live.
We've spent the last five years directing, producing, and screening Seventh-Gay Adventists, a documentary about three gay and lesbian Adventists who share their deeply moving stories, challenges, and spiritual journeys. Producing a documentary that explores faith, identity, and belonging within the church community I've been a part of for my entire life--and my parents' and grandparents' and great-grandparents' lives before that--is intensely difficult. Besides the constant financial challenges of a very indie film, this was a project that put pressure on every existing relationship with family members, many of whom sincerely worried for our own salvation if we questioned long-held assumptions.
When the film was finally done and we began screening it on the film festival circuit and at churches, the incredibly positive feedback and transformational spaces we witnessed kept us going, but every screening and discussion was stressful for me. Besides the stress of the actual screenings, the logistics of traveling with a young child and figuring out childcare--or which one of us was going to find a park nearby after the introduction and then circle back in time for the Q&A, kept me in a state of frenetic energy for a good portion of 18 months. It all actually went remarkably well (besides the one time when she snagged a lot of cookies and theater popcorn from film festival volunteers and was upchucking at 2 AM all over white guest bedding in Albuquerque!). But the cumulative effect has left me tired, especially around faith and church.
But in the midst of all of those screenings and trips, we didn't have time to find a spiritual home for our family. We were actually on the road for a full year without a permanent address (I prefer the term "nomadic" to "homeless") in order to afford to travel to festivals and screenings, so church wasn't a regular option except as visitors.
And those church visits were often stressful since our reason for being there was for a film screening and discussion in that community, and I never knew how the usher handing me a bulletin and saying "welcome" was going to react when I told her what we were in town for. Sometimes it was a raised eyebrow with the comment of, "Interesting." Sometimes it was an enthusiastic, "Wait--do you mean Seventh-GAY Adventists? I've been wanting to see that film!" And then there was a memorable occasion when a pastor pointed out Stephen and Lily during the time in the service when they normally welcome visitors--but instead of a welcome, he warned his flock that there was someone here to "spread the gay agenda." The parents of the child Lily was playing with quickly moved her to the other side of the pew, and the pianist later asked to pray with Stephen to try to convince him not to screen the film at a local festival the next day. Of course when Stephen invited this pianist to come and see the film for herself before deciding, she responded, "Oh--I don't go to movie theaters! (She was someone I later had to ban on our film's Facebook page after frequent posting of "clobber" texts in a manner which helped remind me why they got that moniker.)
Our vocal advocacy for listening spaces and paying attention to the margins of our church has made us suspect in churches like those. I recently struggled mightily with whether to have my name removed from the books entirely and ultimately decided that wasn't the right decision at this time. But I still wrestle a lot with the faith of my family and the love and compassion with which I want to live my life and teach to my daughter which doesn't always seem in alignment with what's taught in church.
What I want Lily to learn--in life and in church.In all honestly, I am choosing not to go to an official Adventist church right now. Where I live, the churches near enough for us to have real friendships with families we might meet, are almost all incredibly conservative, several bordering on fundamentalist. One of the churches treated gay and lesbian members of their congregation so poorly that those stories were part of what motivated us to make our film. If I had more energy, maybe I'd see the opportunity to help change those congregations from the inside, but I don't have that energy right now. I've put out so much energy in the past several years with our film--and particularly in the screenings and large group discussions phase--that I feel like my soul needs rest. I'm looking to fill my own well for a while, or I'm worried it may dry up. And there is a little part of me that is relieved that local Adventism isn't an option for filling my well. (Exploring why I feel a little relief about that is something I don't have the energy to do right now but hope to in the future!)
The hardest part about all of this is my worry that I'll hurt the feelings of people I hold very dear. When we weren't on the road, we have been part of a small church that actually formed while we were filming (near the very end). It's led by an incredible man featured in our film who was the pastor of the largest Adventist church in South America before he was fired for being gay. One of my greatest sobs on Friday night came when I admitted that I needed something different than this wonderful community for our family. While I love the people in that community and enjoy the discussions myself, Lily and sometimes one or two other kids are the only children. She has often just entertained herself on an iPad for the service. I find myself feeling this incredible guilt about wanting something more. I know if we aren't there regularly, the likelihood of other families with young kids joining gets diminished, and I feel that sense of responsibility keenly. I think we'll always be loyal to that community because of what that group has seen and born witness to along with us these past several years, but in my core I know I want Lily somewhere on most Sabbaths (or Sundays) with a vibrant community of other kids and families. Maybe I'm greedy, but I have visions of a children's choir and family camping trips with pancake breakfasts.
I've hesitated to admit this loneliness and desire for a spiritual community because we have wonderful friends with kids already, people that I respect, admire, and enjoy greatly. And I love that Lily is realizing already that people believe different things, and some of her good friends don't believe in God--and that's okay. People believe different things. There are different paths in this world, and what matters most is how we treat each other, even if we have differences.
That's not how I grew up. I grew up in something akin to a missionary compound at an Adventist boarding school way out in the country where my dad was on the faculty, and everyone I knew was also Adventist. And vegetarian. And on the same school schedule! Diversity of belief was whether you were a family that went swiming or just wading on Sabbath (our family swam...the heretical seed starts early!). In many ways it was an absolutely idylic childhood, but it took me a lot longer to understand that there are different and equally valid ways to be in this world. I was probably in college before I became friends with non-Adventists.
But Lily has the opposite challenge. For example, a few weeks before Christmas, one of her friends was over for a share-care swap. Lily had a nativity scene in her bedroom. I heard her and her friend talking.
Friend: "What's that?"
Lily: "That's baby Jesus."
Friend: "Who's that?"
Lily: "You know, from the Bible?"
Friend: "What's the Bible?"
A bit later, her classmates buried a butterfly at school. It was a simple and heartfelt act. But later, Lily told me she had wanted to say a prayer for the butterfly, and another classmate told her that was silly and started asking other kids who was an atheist and who wasn't. Lily was deeply upset, feeling like the odd kid out.
During the same time frame, we went to a Christmas program at a local seminary that we've always loved. It's a program with lots of singing and candlelight. For several years, it was our ritual to get into the spirit of Christmas, but we hadn't been able to go for the last two years. I was looking forward to it, but this time I found myself unable to relax into the familiar words and hymns because the theology behind the liturgy was much more conservative and patriarchal than I can sit still with right now (and Lily became rather uncooperative when she realized it wasn't a sing-along!). I felt empty and without a home.
In one of my communities we are the Jesus freaks, the ones who pray over dead butterflies. In the other community, we are the heretics, too liberal to fit in anymore. I don't know what to do.
I still don't know what to do, but I think owning my truth is a start. One of my best friends likes to say that when we do something that's truly loving for ourselves, it can't not be the loving thing for others as well. I'm tearing up just writing that. I'm really not good with letting others down--or letting down my own sense of obligation. The loving thing for myself is to admit that my current situation isn't filling my needs or my daughter's. I feel lost and spiritually homeless. I feel like I'm failing my daughter by not making sure she knows other kids and families where it's okay to pray over dead butterflies.
I feel like I'm floundering.
And admitting that I'm lost is--I sincerely hope--the beginning of finding the path home.