I will never forget the day my theology and ideology were first challenged in a way that actually made me stop and think about the path I was on in my early twenties. I was in my church choir room getting ready for a Sunday morning service. I grew up in a small town and went back to this town after I graduated college, remaining a faithful member at my home church for several years until I accepted a paid position with another church.
I have to back up a bit and tell you the story of my home church. I started attending this small Baptist church when I was 14 years old and just starting high school. I had made some friends in my drama class elective who were a little older than me and they invited me to church. I was active in this youth group until I left for college. When I graduated college a couple of years later, I lived with my mom and began attending this church again. It was there that I parsed out my call to go to seminary and there that I first started teaching the gospel to teens, albeit not very thoroughly or with great scholarship. This church was small, and had a “blended” style of worship. For those unfamiliar with the term, it meant we were mostly casual and sang a mixture of hymns and contemporary songs. I would describe my pastor as a “moderate” theologian (though he hated being put in any kind of idealogical box); he affirmed women in ministry, but believed homosexuality to be a sin. There were a lot of aspects of the church that fell into the Southern Baptist category (they still gave money to the SBC through the Baptist General Assembly of Virginia), but mostly they were a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church (you’ll have to Google the difference, but there is a long history in which the CBF was the group formed from the fallout moderate Baptists had with the uber-conservative SBC).
My seminary calling was affirmed by the church and they supported me attending Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), a school that was founded by the Alliance of Baptists (the more “liberal” group) and supported by the CBF. When I graduated seminary, I was not ordained by this church because, I was told, they would not ordain a woman to professional ministry. I think I could have accepted it more if it was just me they wouldn’t ordain, but denouncing the call of all women to professional ministry was very painful. Even more shocking was that they did/do ordain women to be Deacons in the church (kind of like non-clergy ministers), and that was pretty progressive for Baptists in this small town. I have to say, while I was very wounded by their choice, I don’t hold it against them; I truly believe they are doing the best they can in the climate in which they operate.
While I was in seminary, this church went through a very, very painful split, of which I was at the center, along with my pastor and his wife. There were all kinds of things floating around out there in church rumor land, and I think had I not been in seminary, this kind of pain (church pain was the worst because I naively expected better) would have caused me to abandon the church forever, if not my faith altogether. I’m thankful I didn’t, but sad to say that some of my youth, who saw how I and others were treated, did abandon the church for good… and I don’t blame them. I’m thankful I didn’t because I learned that church can be different through the very healing experiences I’ve had with my current church (though it’s not perfect either) and with the love and support of a wonderful seminary community.
Venture back with me to that choir room on this normal Sunday, early in my seminary career. I was talking to a friend that I knew since I was a youth and she was a volunteer helping with my spiritual growth. We were talking about immigration and how there is this message out there from the Religious Right that churches should support the Republican party and all it stands for, including deporting undocumented workers. She said to me, and I’m paraphrasing, that it’s a complicated issue and while it seems that “Christians” have been co-opted by the Right, God tells us to welcome the stranger and love people. She said that there are a lot of issues that have been labeled “Christian” issues that don’t take on a Christ-like perspective. This particular person used to manage a Christian bookstore and had a lot of difficulty when they started offering a credit card because she didn’t want to see people trapped in cycles of debt (and she didn’t say this, but it stands to reason, that she may have been feeling conflicted about capitalism being in bed with the church- something Jesus was actually pretty mad about in the Bible). I later came to understand that immigration is not such a complicated issue; people are just doing what our ancestors did before us and coming to a place for opportunity to do the best by their own families. But at that time, “complicated” was a progressive thought for me.
I know it may seem silly, but I remember this moment as part of my journey into understanding a gospel of social and economic justice. I think it opened the door for me to understand and embrace liberation theologies. I remember this moment as the first time someone in the church actually said to me there might be another side to the debate and maybe Republicans don’t own Christianity. It was the first time that I remember thinking that there were more complex issues in politics than abortion and gay rights (though these are certainly complex political issues to our society and you only have to read a few other of my blog posts to understand where I stand- I’ll sum it up- I’m pro-choice and pro-equality). It was the first time that I thought that I didn’t have to spout the message of a particular political party to be a good Christian- and that was a big deal for me back then.
I think I’ve said this before, but I used to be a very conservative Republican. It was how I was raised and it made sense to me in my worldview at the time. As you might have guessed, whatever I defend and stand for, I have always done it ardently. Some of my favorite people in the world remember those days and can attest to this and some still find it hard to believe how much my opinions have changed! People ask me what compelled this change; what made me become a liberal Democrat. I usually tell them that it was seminary. It was seminary that taught me to encounter the gospel in a way that I never knew it existed. It was seminary that taught me to challenge what I had been taught all my life and learn for myself. It was seminarians that showed me there was more than one political party that Christians were a part of and that there are faithful people in all political spectrums (and all sexual orientations). But mostly, it was seminary that helped me see that my faith and political beliefs should align, because faith is not just something you believe abstractly, it is something you practice. I used to tell the youth I led at that small country church that “faith is an action word.” They used to make fun of me for it, but they remembered it. It was seminary where I learned what that really meant and it was seminary where I encountered a living God who has already given grace to humanity, no matter what we do, though we should strive for better no matter what we believe.
I tell people it was seminary because that’s the time when many of my ideological and theological shifts occurred due to the fantastic mentoring and teaching of professors and peers, but it was this one life-altering moment, this one conversation, that I feel like started me on my journey. I practice my Christian faith through advocacy for justice because I believe that’s what God wants, but also because it’s just the right thing to do to love, respect, honor, and cherish people. There were many conversations before it and there were many conversations after it that also had an effect on me, but I remember this one because of how unique it was (conservative church, filled with people I had assumed were conservative, choosing to live in the “gray” instead of the “black and white” of absolutes).
There were certainly other life-altering moments (Nathan Royster, I still remember our long conversations about the death penalty and I finally got it but don’t think I told you; Katie Joyce, you were right, and I credit your intellect and passion with planting seedlings of ideas in my head that I drew on later), and there will be more along the way. There was also what I think of as my “priming” years of being in college and exposed to so many different people, beliefs, ideologies, worldviews and faiths through my sorority, Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc. Though I was always drawn to diversity, Theta Nu Xi helped me learn what that really meant and helped open my mind to ideas I never heard before; they helped me be ready to open my mind to what I learned in seminary.
I think what’s most important is that I know that the journey isn’t over (thank God!). I’m still learning and growing and having conversations that will inevitably shape my worldview (like one tonight, thanks Abby Schreiner for your patience and willingness to journey with me in our differences and common ground). But I have to wonder, do other people remember their life-altering moments? And, perhaps more importantly, could that casual conversation you have with a friend, family member, or mentee be theirs? I doubt my choir friend would even remember this conversation, but she helped me. I’m sure many of you have done the same.