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Today’s conversion story is from Christy, who due to the nature of her experience and family situation (keep reading) has requested that I not use her last name.
Christy transitioned from a fundamentalist Christian childhood to a socially active, progressive evangelical faith during the college years…and then to a current category she describes as “spiritual but not religious.” In an email, she told me that, in terms of personal theology, she now “could fall quite nicely into the Unitarian Universalist or unprogrammed Quakers camp.”
I live in Los Angeles with my dog Lulu. I’m a freelance grant-writing and fund-development consultant for small and start-up non-profits, with aspirations of writing things that don’t involve asking someone for money.
Please describe your conversion experience or process:
The overview version is that I was raised Christian, of the right-wing fundamentalist variety, in the Bible Belt in a family that went to church three times a week. I became a highly committed, move to the inner city, save-the-world evangelical in college and throughout my twenties. I was an intern for an urban ministry in college, was a youth pastor intern for about three years in a predominantly Mexican immigrant community, worked in a variety of non-profits (faith-based and not), and went to grad school and studied community organizations and urban poverty.
I started moving away from Christianity in my thirties, and for lack of a better term, I’d put myself in the “spiritual but not religious” category now. I feel weird referring to myself as a “non-Christian” because I don’t want to be defined by what I’m not, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I wasn’t formed by three decades of being a Christian, and much of the fourth one engaged in the world’s slowest de-conversion.
However, at this point, I’ve jettisoned original sin, hell, and two members of the Trinity (God the Father and Jesus in case you want to know which two). I don’t even go to church on Christmas and Easter anymore. I still find the Bible alternately fascinating, horrifying and wise, but I don’t think it’s inerrant, infallible or inspired any more than any other sacred text. I don’t even exactly pray — I meditate and “hold things in the Light” because it felt right when the Quakers said it. As far as dogma goes, I’m down to meditation and yoga and trying to be grateful and live with compassion and believing in the Divine — but my conception of that is very different from the Christian idea of a personal God.
The questions I’m interested in right now are these: Do I care about other people and at least try to treat them with respect? Am I making some sort of effort to do some good in the world? Am I trying to live my life with integrity and compassion? Am I connecting with the Divine the best way I know how? Everything else feels peripheral.
What events led to your conversion?
My conversion was more like coming out of the closet than changing my mind. I didn’t “lose my faith” or “fall away” or any of those other terms — it was very slow and intentional and a lot of hard work. I know it will seem like I’m burying the lead here, but I was sexually abused for nine years as a child and adolescent by my father and a youth pastor, and beginning to deal with that was the cataIyst for a new kind of spiritual journey for me.
It wasn’t the sexual abuse itself that made me convert. Actually, the self-hatred that resulted from it was what kept me in the fold for so long. I always felt like I was morally defective and God hated me, and I didn’t have the right to explore other options.
The truth is, evangelical Christianity never worked for me. Even though I’m a lifer, it always felt like there was some secret handshake to get in the club that I didn’t know about. I had an absolutely tortured relationship with church even when I worked at one. I could never find myself in the “Sinner meets Jesus, Hallelujah!” narrative. In Bible studies, I was always the freak who disagreed. I felt awkward praying aloud, and felt guilty that I could never seem to generate the warm and fuzzy love for Jesus that so many worship songs talked about. Mostly, it felt like that path was the only way to connect with God, and I had to keep trying, so my primary spiritual experience was one of feeling alienated from God. (This is why I was always good with the angry kids in youth ministry.)
I was also highly emotionally dysfunctional, miserable and depressed, and expended a tremendous amount of energy trying to hide it, and pretend I was okay. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend anymore and all that stuff I’d locked in my basement started pounding on the door and saying, “Hi, we’re here, and we will not be ignored.”
I started therapy (which I should have done MUCH sooner than I did), and when I had started to do some healing, I realized that it was okay to say, “This is not working. It has never worked, and it’s okay for me to leave and find my path elsewhere.” Everything that helped — yoga, mindfulness, feminist theology, embracing my body and my sexuality, and a lesbian therapist — took me farther away from evangelicalism and Christianity. It was a slow, messy, and excruciating process, but at the end of it, I found myself here — and here is a good place to be.
What kind of impact did your conversion have on your friends and family?
I was working at a Christian college at the time this process really started in earnest, which is one of your more awkward locations to come out of the closet about your heretical tendencies. At one point, near the end, I flunked their statement of faith, and decided to quit my job, which felt very much like officially handing in my evangelical membership card.
Family is a long story with no happy ending, and I have had some awkward reconnections with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. However, every single one of my evangelical friends who was in my life when I started going through this process is still my friend. Every. Single. One. And they support me. They really like my entirely non-religious boyfriend, and they don’t try to get me to go back to church or see the light or anything. If they are praying for my soul, they aren’t telling me about it. Some of that is because my friends are good people. Some of them have been through their own internal revolutions. Mostly, though, it’s hard to argue with the dramatic transformation in my life over the past 6 or 7 years. I am SO much healthier, happier, and at peace.
I try to respect their spiritual path as well. That’s challenging for me sometimes, because my experience in the church was a very painful one, but it would be poor repayment of their friendship if I didn’t at least try to support them the way they have supported me.
I turn 40 in a few weeks, and I’ve been struck by how radically different 40 is than 30. I’m excited about this next phase of my journey, and so, so grateful to be in this spot. I have bad days and some scars, of course — we all do — but I don’t hate myself anymore. I don’t struggle just to hold it together. All of my close friendships are better than they were. The Divine is there and She doesn’t hate me. To borrow a phrase from the tradition of my youth, I feel born again.
What advice would you give someone going through the same experience or contemplating a similar conversion?
My process was so closely tied to working through the sexual abuse and family dynamics, that I’m not sure what to say to someone else — other than that I sincerely hope your experience is a whole lot less painful than mine.
Particularly if you’re a lifer like me, it can be scary to leave a sub-culture, and maybe even a job that is familiar — not to mention the relationship fallout from family and friends — but you will never go wrong being honest with yourself and others about what you believe — and what you don’t.
However, be selective about who you share your process with. Major internal changes can be disorienting and painful, and you want to make sure that you have safe people to walk with you through the deconstruction and rebuilding process, who will support you rather than judge you. (This is when you find out who your friends really are.)
Once you have a sense of where you’re headed and you feel more solid, you will be better able to handle friends and family’s potential negative reactions. (Although they may surprise you and be more accepting and non-judgmental than you think.)
What are three things you have learned in the process?
1. The deepest truth about me is not that I am broken — it’s that I’m good.
2. Compassion, both for yourself and others, is always a good idea.
3. I was at a conference once where Naomi Wolf spoke, and she said this: “The next time you are tempted to swallow your truth, try speaking it instead. Everything you are afraid of will happen, but eventually you will fall in love with the sound of your own integrity.” I have found that statement to be completely true.
Thank you, Christy. For similar reasons of anonymity, I won’t list any social media links. But I do appreciate her willingness to share her spiritual journey in this forum.
Previous conversion interviews:
• Ryan Hadley: Christian to Atheist
• David Johndrow: Congregational Church to Charismatic Episcopalian
• Jeremy Myers: From Senior Pastor to Church Dropout
• Mike Wise: Christian to Agnostic to Christian
• Jessica Gavin: Universalist to Seventh-Day Adventist
• Torie Brown Hunt: From Southern Baptist to Mormon