Religion is one of those things that you aren’t supposed to mention in small talk. You don’t ask someone about their religious affiliation after you’ve introduced yourself because it is a hot topic. In the last few years the gap between myself and religious affiliation has widened significantly. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at an international conference the focused on cultic organizations. Very interesting stuff. As one of the few people of color in attendance, I shared a bit of my personal experience with a branch of a religion that had a leader who dictated what to wear, what to eat, and where to go and expected to be obeyed. While the peacefulness of country living was present, it was overshadowed by oppressive rules that kept the leader in charge. During the duration of the conference I had the chance to attend seminars and meet other attendees who had once been in cults but left at some point. Many were born into various organizations that their parents had joined years ago. After the conference I wanted to read more about the experiences of individuals who had become caught up in cults and religiously abusive organizations. After meeting a few of the contributor’s at the conference, I read a book called Whispering in the Daylight and the author wrote about the cult led by Tony Alamo. It was fascinating and bone numbingly sad at the same time. One thing that was particularly sad was the fact that parents surrendered their children to be beat mercilessly and starved. They also allowed their girls as young as age 9 to be the “brides” of the leader. All in the name of religion and doing what they felt to be right. The question that always seems to be asked is how do people end up in these type of situations? The truth is that people tend to want a sense of purpose. Having a charismatic leader who seems to have found the meaning of life or claims to have some exclusive relationship to a deity can appear to be a good thing. It’s fairly easy to forsake all when one believes that not doing so would lead to eternal condemnation. By the same token, believing that your actions can earn you eternal bliss is an attractive idea. I think that it’s even different for children who grow up in that type of environment and have never known anything different. Reading the book about some of their experiences and how hard it has been and continues to be to adjust to “regular” life was eye opening. One thing that I believe is important to remember is that wanting to believe in something or someone isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But it can become problematic when one consciously decides to yield their free will without reservation to another individual. It’s a strange dynamic that I find intriguing.
I rarely binge watch shows on Netflix anymore due to having better things to do with my time. But this week I made an exception for a show caught my attention. Greenleaf. I had heard good things about it, but due to never having cable (or time to research how to watch it online), I never watched it. While the show is fictional, I think that it gives an accurate portrayal of what has played out in a lot of big church settings. One of the leading characters, “Grace” spends the entire season fighting for the truth. While her methods are unorthodox and her family is largely unsupportive, she remains on a mission to expose the truth. Her tenacity is driven by the death of her sister who completed suicide–and was abused. As the season unfolds, one sees the numerous challenges that other members of the family are experiencing but trying to get through. Greenleaf is a shining example of the attempt to “keep things in the family” and ignore signs that something is amiss. The show is definitely emotional but it shows how religion can be used as a coverup for people to do what they want without being held accountable under the guise of being a spiritual leader who doesn’t answer to man. The show held my attention and I’m definitely interested in watching Season 2 to see what unfolds.
I had what one might call a pretty rigorous religious upbringing. The mandatory family worships every morning and evening and attending church services weekly. My family was at church even when other people weren’t and we did hundreds of hours of volunteer services for the good of the church. Church was never a suggestion, it was a requirement. My parents (bless their hearts) kinda sabotaged my spiritual life, I wasn’t allowed to choose what day I could be baptized on and what my religious beliefs would be. It was already chosen for me. My beliefs followed me through high school and college due to the extensive foundation. After graduation from college, I moved 1000 miles away from home and continued to attend church regularly as I had been taught. I found a church and I was very involved. However, as I was going to my graduate school classes and working I realized that I really hadn’t taken the time to develop my own set of beliefs. I learned so much from all my classes and realized that my religious background was ill-equipped to address the questions that arose. I became a bit of a religious wanderer and joined a huge church with 7,000 members and immediately became very involved. I was there at least 4 days out of the week assisting various ministries. But I eventually decided that it wasn’t for me. Needless to say, my upbringing has made me think about how I would like to raise my future children and I have to say it will be much different.
I ran across an interesting blog post that has also been making the rounds on various social media outlets. If you want to read it, you can find it here. Just the comments alone are off the chain. The author tells her story of being a pregnant unmarried woman who is also a pastor and is not stepping down from her leadership position in the church. Oh the outcry! People are shocked that she would “dare” not publicly be repentant and spend months hiding away in shame due to an unplanned pregnancy. But she is clear in her article that she made her peace with herself and God and is moving on and enjoying the moments. It’s always been interesting how women are treated versus how quickly some people are to sweep a man’s indiscretions under the rug. There’s some type of righteous indignation that seems to follow pointing the finger at someone’s supposed “sin.” She’s not a young pre-teen. She’s a grown woman with a career and a stable home and yet people are riding her about her personal choices in her own life because she’s in a leadership position in her church. I understand the expectation that those in leadership uphold a certain standard of “acceptable” behavior. However, why is being sexually active and getting pregnant on the same level as adultery, stealing, or exploitation? There are plenty of men who have committed actual criminal offenses in leadership positions and have been allowed to get off scot-free with the “we all fall short” excuse. Life is short and can end without warning or reason so why exactly is abstinence before marriage still considered a sign of a “real” Christian? Don’t get me wrong, there are people who have chosen that life of abstinence for themselves and are happy and content with their choice. But there are others who it doesn’t work for. Of all the things to do in the world that are bad, why are the bedroom activities of two consenting unmarried adults judged so harshly? There’s literally so many other legitimate things to be up in arms about in this world we live in. A pregnant unmarried pastor is a non-issue (or at least should be). Next.
Religion is one of those things that qualify as a touchy subject. It’s off limits if you’re talking to a group of strangers at a dinner party and not the best first-date conversation material. I remember hearing quotes about religion being the opiate of the people and how it’s a psychological crutch, etc. All the arguments, pros and cons aside, there’s always some inherent danger in allowing someone else to think for you. There are people out there that live and die by the words of their faith leader. There’s a dangerous dynamic that happens when an entire group of people trust one person to guide their lives. It almost sounds like the makings of a cult. While blind faith may be admirable to some, to others it’s an opportunity to take advantage of people in a vulnerable situation. Hope isn’t a hard thing to sell when it’s exactly what people need. Everyone wants to hear that they’ll rise to the next level and become healthier and happier. There’s value in genuinely believing that your life will turn around and that the next breakthrough is around the corner. But there’s also something to be said when these promises of a better life, financial stability, a spouse, and a nice car are tied to how much money you donate to the cause. When you’re inundated with promises of prosperity if you’ll give your last dime and demonstrate your loyalty, it’s time to consider the role religion is playing in your decisions.
I recently found a show on Netflix that I found especially intriguing called “It Takes a Church.” I haven’t watched the entire season yet but I’m about 5 episodes in. It’s light-hearted inspirational reality TV. In each episode a single woman is identified by church members and the pastor as a great wife candidate. Church members band together and bring in bachelors who they think would be a good fit for said single woman. She is surprised in a church service by the show’s host and proceeds to tell the congregation about her dating life and why she is single after being prompted by the show’s host. The church votes and picks 4 bachelors for her to get to know better and at the end of the episode she picks one bachelor to (hopefully) pursue a relationship with. The show is interesting from a social psychology point of view as you witness the bachelors vie for the attention of the woman but very conservatively since it’s also in a church setting. I have to admit that so far in the episodes I’ve watched, there have been plenty of cringe-worthy moments as I’ve watched the guys try to veggie-flirt without crossing an invisible line. But let’s be honest, in many churches women outnumber the men so I can see the logic behind the show. But it just seems to awkward to have (practically) strangers give their input on your personal life and make a recommendation for a life partner. While there’s no question as to whether or not these people have good intentions, it reminds me of a quote that advises that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While it hasn’t been my reality in a while, I can honestly say that being single in church settings sucks the majority of the time. It’s awkward to express interest in someone else and mixed messages are common. You are promised a significant other if you can “keep the faith,” make multiple donations to the church and volunteer your time at church related functions and activities. It’s not always the best environment to find a significant other. I can understand the need for an alternative to online dating but I’m not quite convinced that having church members pick your mate is it.
This!!! Not everything, but mostly. I can relate to a lot.
I haven’t been to church in over a year now, and I’ve been pondering how I should address what I’ve discovered along the way. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, y…