What a Week!

Well it’s been a big week, hasn’t it? I (Cami) sat with the rest of you on pins and needles waiting for the Supreme Court decisions yesterday. And when the news came, I rushed to my Facebook page to watch the reactions of friends and family. Like many of you, I have an online community that is about as politically divided as congress. I’ve got old friends from back in my church days and new friends (people with and without faith) of very liberal persuasions.

Mostly, I stay out of political discussions online because I find that when people hide behind their avatars, they can get nasty. But yesterday I wanted to somehow send a digital hug out to my many friends who have been waiting, in some cases for a lifetime, for their relationships to be acknowledged by their country. It’s a huge step forward when the Supreme Court says everyone deserves “dignity.” And it’s about time.

Because I used to follow the Family Research Council (a conservative organization that opposes gay marriage, among other things), I was also curious about how they responded to the rulings, so I looked up their website. This is from their press release:

“While we are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the court today did not impose the sweeping nationwide redefinition of natural marriage that was sought. Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex ‘marriage.’ As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify.”

Later in the day, I heard one of the FRC leaders add to these comments on television saying that the impact of the Supreme Court’s rulings would be that parents would lose influence over what their children are taught in schools and that the general culture will be degraded by the DOMA ruling. As excited as I was for equal rights winning the day, I was saddened by such fear of difference and attempts to invalidate others’ lived experiences.

But, unfortunately, there was a time years ago when I was very afraid. I was taught (and believed) that the way to pleasing God was narrow and that those who chose a different path were a menace to God’s will on the planet and should be feared and opposed. I was so afraid of stepping (or thinking) outside of The Lines that I spent a lot of time filled with anxiety and incongruence. I had gay friends, for example, back in those days, but I was afraid that enjoying my relationships with them and inviting them into my life made God unhappy (unless I was trying to change them). So I didn’t challenge myself to think more deeply and to push beyond my fear.

One day about ten years ago, when I was some distance away from the literalistic faith that had caused so much anxiety, a Bible verse came to mind (as will happen if you’ve spent a great deal of time memorizing Scripture, as I had). “The truth will set you free,” popped into my head. And, because I was in the process of changing my faith perspective and learning to think critically, I was willing to entertain the thought that came next: “If something doesn’t set me free, it must not be the truth!”

What a relief this thought was. If something (a belief, a dogma) hurts others, isn’t fair, and doesn’t invite me to be my best self, it’s not something I want in my life–and therefore not “true.”

This week, the Supreme Court acknowledged that denying some adults the right to marry the people they love and to receive the federal benefits other married adults receive hurts people, isn’t fair, and doesn’t invite our country to be its best.

There can be nothing to fear in rectifying a wrong. I believe it will only make our country stronger, more open-hearted, and more compassionate.

stock-photo-15313368-heart-shape-in-female-handsSo… a big digital hug to all of you who care about this week’s rulings. We would love to hear your reactions and thoughts.

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Beyond Belief Interviews Pamela Helberg

Pamela Helberg is something of an expert at living two lives:  Fundamentalist Christian/closeted lesbian; Catholic school employee/mostly out lesbian; writer/computer geek; lesbian mom in the not so gay 90s.  She received her MA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University where she studied under award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian. Pam founded and operated Fremont Place Books in Seattle and taught English composition for many years at Whatcom Community College, before succumbing to her inner geek and launching a career in IT.  She lives in Bellingham, WA with her partner Nancy where she works at making her life more congruent.  She blogs on a variety of topics at http://www.pmbgp.blogspot.com.pamhelberg

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household.  When I was four years old, my family left Bellevue, WA, a developing suburb of Seattle and relocated to Sultan, a small logging town 45 minutes from anywhere interesting.  To this day I don’t know what possessed my parents to move us there, but they did, and not long after we arrived, my parents became born again.  My childhood played out in a series of evermore conservative religious communities.  These years left an indelible mark on me.  I was so afraid of going to hell, I spent my first four years at college as a member of a conservative Christian student organization where I alternately tried to pray away my gay and seduced other bible study members.

I have a lot to say about the role religion played in my life, and how it continues to be such a dominant and distracting force in our culture, sucking energy that could be channeled into more productive pursuits.  These are themes I am interested in exploring more deeply.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? I always experience some PTSD whenever I write about the time I was devoted to fundamentalist Christianity. I get angry that I wasted so much time and energy, so much of my youth, in this culture of fear, a community that essentially devalued the very essence of my being. I am relieved I was able to extricate myself when I did. The experience has provided me with rich material for writing.  Still, I’m sad and slightly angry.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Alienating my parents and the fear of their rejection was painful, as I write in “Body Language”—though that all worked out happily in the long run. The most difficult part of deciding that I could no longer be a Christian was the realization that none of my friends were going to make that transition with me—the loss of those relationships and the fact that I was rejected for being true to myself.

I remember a letter I got from a woman who had been a mentor, she was a youth group minister when I was in high school. I wrote to tell her that my partner and I had adopted our first daughter and she wrote back to tell me how horrible I was, that I was making a huge mistake, that the child deserved two heterosexual parents, and that God would punish us. That hurt.  Being alone between two worlds for a time was very challenging. I had to trust my choice, and it has proven to be the right one.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I have no idea—in fact, I can’t imagine a modern day woman needing religion especially if one is educated and independent. That said, I think we are attracted to what is familiar and safe, so there’s that; if a woman was raised in a religious household she might be afraid to leave her family and friends behind.  None of us likes change. On the other hand, if a woman comes from a place of chaos and instability, perhaps the order of religion attracts her, the clear rules and boundaries.

One doesn’t have to look very far to see how much of a scam religion is, how full of hypocrites, how the “man behind the curtain” is not so great and powerful as he seems (and it’s always a he). And then there’s the community—religion offers a ready-made group of friends and activities. I spent eight years working in a Catholic school and if I could forget about the religious aspects, it was a generally lovely and generous community.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Many irrational fears: fear of being struck by lightning (seriously), fear of being left behind by the rapture—if I come home and my partner isn’t there but her keys, the car, and her wallet are all still in the house, I immediately think that Christ has returned and I am not among the chosen (which isn’t a surprise, really). I still harbor a slightly violent distrust of all things labeled spiritual, no matter how benign.

The only positive remnant I can think of is my biblical literacy—I know my bible, can recite bible verses, and I can find the religious symbols in literature. These are small skills in comparison to the trauma I still carry, though I am in therapy to work on modulating these negative feelings.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Trust yourself—if you think you are being used, abused, belittled, ignored, subjugated, you probably are.  If you are being asked to do something that doesn’t make sense, don’t do it. If someone wants your money for the glory of some god, don’t give it to them.  You don’t have to be a believer to be a good and moral person—religion does not have the corner on decency.

Put your faith in yourself, not in the unseen or inscrutable.

What are your current writing projects? I am currently working on my memoir which chronicles the creation and ultimate dissolution of my Perfect Lesbian Family—how two lesbians created a family (insemination, adoption) and then how I navigated uncharted territories as a divorced lesbian mother seeking child custody.

Beyond Belief Interviews Carolyn Briggs

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Carolyn S. Briggs. Her 2002 memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost  was reissued in 2011 as Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. She wrote the screenplay adaptation of her book for the film, Higher Ground, released that same year. Carolyn is an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa.01-carolyn-briggs[1]

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief?   It’s impossible to truly understand the experience of being immersed in a religious community unless you have experienced it yourself. However, language is the great facilitator of empathy.  In telling our stories, we invite readers to come alongside of us, to imagine themselves in our shoes (sensible, low heeled flats or Birkenstocks, as the case may be).  The stories in Beyond Belief will serve as a bridge for those on the outside to enter in and gain insight.  For those of us who have experienced an insular existence, we have the opportunity to enter into others’ stories with compassion and understanding and extend that mercy to ourselves, if we still need that kind of tending. And sometimes I do.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing a memoir right after I left the church was probably a mistake.  I should have allowed myself more time to process that loss.  Writing the screenplay for my memoir gave me the great gift of perspective.  It was like going home as I immersed myself in that world again.  In production, we chose hymns and worship songs for the soundtrack, and I would find myself singing them word-for-word, verse after verse.  It was all there.  I was smiling, laughing and crying listening to those beautiful songs.  I was still fluent in Born-Again and that was a lovely discovery.  In fact, I was more comfortable speaking to Fuller Theological Seminary students in California than I was addressing a film festival audience in Nantucket.   I am bi-lingual, I suppose, but neither language expresses me any longer.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I lost the approval of many I cared deeply about.  I was an Elder’s wife. I was the director of the drama ministry.  I taught Bible study.  And then I just walked away from all my overachieving holiness.  One of my counselors told me that God would kill me for doing this. My mother was humiliated. My father was disappointed.  My children were confused and depressed.  My then husband, one of the finest human beings on this planet, was stunned with my betrayal.  I didn’t have any way of understanding the world or interpreting it. My lens for viewing the world was shattered and I couldn’t see a future without God.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? We are fundamentally wired to want answers.  Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, and we are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable living in a random universe.  Faith is the only possible way to reconcile the events in our lives and in our world.   Science doesn’t do it.  Education is helpful, but not transcendent.  Rilke advises learning to love the questions themselves, but for most of us, that is uncomfortable. “I’m not sure if my significant other loves me, but I’m going to find pleasure in just wondering if he does.” Does that really work for anyone?

We’re also social creatures, and we seek a community of believers.  These groups usually reflect what we already fundamentally believe about the world.   When I was eighteen, the Jesus people were pious hippies—it was a perfect match for a pregnant eighteen-year-old whose boyfriend was a rock musician.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  I love European cathedrals. I’m rarely in an American church of any sort, but in Europe, I can hardly keep myself out of every church I encounter.  I light candles though I don’t know why. I stand before the altar. I walk from one stained glass window to the next to the next. My heart is always pounding.   Once in Istria, Croatia, I entered the vestibule of a church already observing mass.  A woman saw me standing in the doorway, and she walked toward me.  She’s going to invite me in, I thought. Instead, she closed the door in my face.  I suppose she saw me as an outsider, a curious tourist making the holy somehow profane.  And maybe I was.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Many women have written to me and told me that they are the woman in my film, the woman who has lost her faith and lost herself and only has a glimmer of hope that she can make a life apart from God.  I tell those women that God is big enough to contain their doubt.  Don’t let other people and their neuroses dictate to you how to live your life.  Religious people are threatened by people who leave their faith.  I’ve lost many friends who don’t know what to do with me, where to categorize me, what column to place me in. Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Am I chaff or wheat?  What the hell am I, anyway?  This is the kind of uncertainty that many people of faith just can’t deal with, so they close the door in our faces.  They wash their hands of us.

It’s okay if you are judged by others.  Just don’t judge yourself. You’re loved.  Keep taking a step and another one.  Remember when your parents told you there was nothing to be afraid of?  There’s really not.

Keep going.

What are your current writing projects? Most writers I know are also teaching writers, and this is a double-edged sword.  We are privileged to read about writing and talk about writing, and sometimes we read interesting student writing—all good.  Yet all of that work is time-consuming and keeps us from our own art.  I teach Composition class year round, but every spring, I teach a class dedicated to creative writing.  My students write poetry that inspires me to write poetry again.  What a pleasure!  I wrote a screenplay this winter, Geshe, which is in early stages of production.  This summer, I’m retreating to the Catskills to complete my second memoir. And in the meantime, I am writing essays exposing and exploring the oppressive elements of faith, family, and relationships.