Agnostic Mommy Gets Some Religion
by Jennifer Martin Minnelli, M.S., CCC-SLP
When I was six, I accepted the Lord Jesus as my personal savior. Since then, I’ve left the church many times, as a teenager, as a young adult, as a parent with two children. Not for lack of trying. In the end, my recovering-catholic husband and I have raised our children religion-less. My oldest went to a Jewish preschool for a short stint. Our kids get Santa and the Easter Bunny, but those characters fit in more with the other Hallmark holidays than with any form of religion. They get churched by their Christian Nana and their Evangelical Catholic Grandma. They go to vacation bible school, and they get DVD’s with little insect characters who talk to a God. This God helps the little insects learn “character education.” I can’t really do any more than this right now. Hopefully, if things work the way they’re supposed to, it will all be forgiven.
When I was pregnant with my oldest, I joined an established church in our historic neighborhood. It boasted a beautiful building, and an active and large membership. We could walk there, and sometimes we did. I joined the choir as a way of meeting people. The preacher’s sermons were mini-M.A.S.H. episodes. You would laugh enough and cry enough for him to bring you a few steps closer to some kind of truth, with his very human and often self-deprecating stories. This charisma seemed to draw large crowds every week.
It was disappointing to me that, when I finally gave birth to my child, very few church-goers arrived on my doorstep with hot-covered meals, or came to spell me from my colicky infant. Again, as before in my life, I walked alone through the valley of the shadow of death. That is what my first experience with post-partum depression felt like. Church-people and God did not rescue me from that. My only rescue came from a nurse midwife who prescribed me some Zoloft.
When our oldest was nine months of age, we had her baptised there. She wouldn’t let the preacher hold her. In fact, as soon as I placed her in his hands, her face looked wounded, like someone had jabbed her in the leg with a sharp needle, and she tuned up for a howl. The preacher handed her back to me. Even his charisma had not worked on her. I walked her through the crowds of people, trying to keep her calm, and knowing there was something wrong with my child, knowing that I had somehow already ruined her.
Volunteering at the church, giving of my time was not a problem. I have many talents to offer any organization. However, attending the sermons became the challenge, as my oldest developed stranger anxiety. The stranger anxiety is not what you may be thinking. The kind of stranger anxiety I am talking about is the kind where I leave her in the church nursery, she turns bright red, and spends the next hour screaming at the top of her lungs, inconsolable. Now add another child to the mix, an infant with the same level of anxiety about being separated. You can maybe imagine that I did not get a peaceful easy feeling about going to church, leaving my kids behind, so that I could soak in the wisdom of the preacher. This is also the point where my husband, not much of a believer, decided that he would rather worship at the altar of Over-30-Pick-up-Soccer on Sunday mornings.
Still, I am trying to make things work with my Lord and Savior, and with the other people in my life, too.
I start to feel like I’m not fitting in here. I haven’t lost all of my baby weight from 2 pregnancies that were very close together. And I don’t have much in the way of church clothes. I recycle through the same rotation of black skirts, old suits, and when I can’t get to the laundry in time, jeans dressed up with boots. I don’t have a shiny mini-van or a Kate Spade diaper bag. We can’t afford to “tithe” the way others can. And, now I am single-momming it on Sunday morning with my fussy children who can’t seem to get with the program.
Still, I send my oldest to the church preschool, when she is four years old. The day after I send her, the preschool director, also my child’s classroom teacher, starts talking about my child’s strange and quirky behaviors. The repeated questions. The social awkwardness. The relational aggression, of which she was often the victim, at the hands of 4 and 5 year old future prom-queens. I try to use my expertise to explain how the director could make changes to the classroom to accommodate my child and help the other children too. I try to share professional materials.
The director tells me that she wants to make a referral to the Special Education Department. I tell her no thank you. The director tells me that it’s too late. One of the specialists from Exceptional Children has already had a look at her, without our consent, and he wants them to refer her. Thus began a long and difficult journey with a Special Education Department that is 10 years behind the rest of the country.
That was when the door of my heart closed to the church and to the possibility of a compassionate savior. Crying children notwithstanding, I gave the adult Sunday school a last-ditch try. At least, I thought, there would be intellectual conversation. My attendance was poorly timed with the Virginia Tech shootings. The discussion, filled with platitudes and stereotypes about “lost souls” and “hopeless cases”, angered me. People stopped listening to me rant when I said that I sympathized with the shooter and with the opression that he must have felt. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Shortly after that, we left the church, and we have not looked back.
Today, my parents, ever the Christians, brought us to their church. I felt the familiar sense of shame. My kids, going for years now unchurched, acted like heathens. My son was not wearing churchy clothes, just some elastic waistband shorts and a polo shirt with his favorite shoes, his hair sticking up in the back. My tween daugther, now diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, announced herself very loudly, with heavy mascara (courtesy of the Easter Bunny), copious jewelry, and her training bra strap refusing to be hidden under her bright flowery sundress. Midway through the sermon, the preacher, a woman, asked rhetorically, “Should we believe that Jesus died for us?” My daughter answered loudly, “NO!” This was met with chuckles and smiles, instead of rolling eyes and sighs. She also whistled under her breath through most of the sermon, despite my stern looks. My son moved around, banging his feet intentionally on the pew. But I am past worrying about appearances in church. And, it was a small enough community that it could really tolerate the least of us, which is all we have to offer on any given day.
Unlike any other church my parents have attended, this church was tiny. It was beautiful in its tiny little way. Only 25-30 people, children included, were in attendance.
Individual people were lifted up in prayer. Their concerns and joys were heard and felt. Among these was my father’s newly diagnosed cancer. I could see my mom tearing up. Always the doer, all she had to do today was to show up, and receive care and love.
The preacher preached the gospel from the perspective of Mary. She talked about the incomprehensible love that Mary had for Jesus. Now, that’s what I’m talking about. Mary knows something about oppression, and so do women. And parents like me understand incomprehensible love. She talked about the responsibility that comes with HOPE. And I can’t help but choke up. I have boundless hopes and dreams for both of my children, but if I want them to live up to my hopes for them, I have to walk always in honesty and always responsibly. When you’re in the thick of it, this burden can take the hope right out of a mom. And maybe that’s why we need a little Easter, a little Hallmark, a little forgiveness from the Savior. Finally, she talked about how Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener when she first saw the Risen Lord, how there is no accident in that. Whoever wrote this passage wanted us to realize that this new and improvcd JC was here to plant things, plant hope, plant love, plant forgiveness. I think, if Jesus could see this little church in action, he might actually want to attend. This message from this kind woman in this tiny, beautful place was what I needed.
The preacher, a friend of my mother’s, asked me if my daughter would like to serve as acolyte. I said she would want to, with some adult assistance. (Hate to burn the tiny place down). And she did it, with grace and purpose, and a serious expression. My son got to put out the candles at the end, and he rose to the occasion with dignity.
The only Jesus I can believe in is a Jesus that can handle my complicated life. This Jesus feels compassion when I try to check out at the grocery store and have to stand to the side and have the bill voided because of insufficient funds in our family checking account. This Jesus wants autistic children to come to church services and disrupt the sermon so that His Chosen People can get hands-on training in compassion, grace, and forgiveness. This is the same Jesus who held the hand of the Korean boy, in the face of those Virginia Tech atrocities, because he has incomprehensible love for everyone, especially those with mental health disabilities. This fantasy Jesus will be sitting next to me this week when I meet with the school district to educate them on all of the ways that they have violated my child’s civil rights, and to demand an apology, compensation. Better yet, he’ll send Mary Magdalene, wearing a halo. This Jesus wants to empower women to preach the gospel from a female perspective, so that mothers like me will have a true spiritual connection.
The closest I can get to believing in any kind of compassionate, all-knowing God or Goddess is to believe that, every once in a while, my quirky child will receive grace from total strangers. Too, maybe I will get a pass as a mom, who, regardless of her agnostic and anarchistic beliefs, and her unruly children, still needs a little shelter from the world. And that’s the kind of shelter I think Jesus came to provide and died to protect, if he came at all.
Was this Jesus or Mary Magdalene in our midst today? I’ll never know. All I know is that this tiny beautiful place is a place that I could bring my kids, and feel welcome, loved and accepted.