The War Room

I (Cami) am late posting this week. I’m off to Japan this coming week for some research on another book and feeling stretched to get my house clean and my clothes packed. So you can imagine my mixed feelings when Susan and I got an invitation to appear on Current TV’s The War Room this week. On the one hand, I was thrilled we would have the chance to share our work and the stories of our writers with such a large audience (about 1 million viewers), but on the other hand, I was feeling pressed for time and really wanted to hunker down to get things done.

Boy am I glad we said yes. The War Room isn’t filmed local to us, of course, so the producers arranged for Susan and me to go to a television studio in Seattle. We thought we had the right address and ended up on the wrong side of town (after paying a ridiculous amount of money for parking). When we finally found the studio (after paying another ridiculous amount of money for parking), we were whisked into to “hair and make-up” and placed in front of a camera for a four-minute interview.

I’m glad, though, that we drove the two hours and paid the million dollars for parking for that four minutes. Each time we do a quick interview, we are reminded that Beyond Belief touches on something our country needs to talk about–at length. The questions that almost always comes up are ones that informed our vision for the project in the first place: Why would a modern day woman join a restrictive faith? Why would she stay?

In four minutes, those questions simply can’t be answered. Incomplete, quick responses reflect the manipulation of religious communities that women become involved in. But I always feel a little defensive of women. Women aren’t stupid. Those of us who weren’t born into a faith but joined willfully (or stayed willfully) did so because there WAS something offered that we needed. Support for mothering, clear answers, promises for safety, rescue from painful situations, and so on. Surely, there are women who contributed to the anthology who were born into their faiths and rejected them hands down at some point. But others, those who chose their paths as teenagers or adults, did so because they were looking for something.

Since leaving my doctrine (and therefore, my religious community) behind, I’ve worked hard to build a life that has the sustainable elements I need: community, spirituality, safety, purpose. It’s very alluring that all of these things might be offered in one place in the form of religion. The long discussion we might have after the TV interview is over is about how and where women’s need are met in the secular world. Where do you find community, safety, connection, meaning, and support? What can our culture do to press on toward becoming more friendly for women as we evolve in our roles?

Ultimately, I hope our brief appearances for interviews urge people not only to complain about religion, but to ask themselves how we can all contribute to showing up for one another in ways that release us from the restrictions we’ve lived with.

As always, we’d love to hear your responses, contributions, and ideas.

Beyond Belief Interviews Yolande Brener

Yolande Brener is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Holy Candy, the story of her fifteen years as a member of the Unification Church.  Her essays have been published in New York Press, Nerve, and Strange Angels, and her film scripts have been funded by the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Yolande believes that all religions contain wisdom.yolande

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? When Susan and Cami invited me to write a short piece for their anthology I was delighted to be part of a project that explored so many different women’s experiences with extreme religion.  Because they had their own personal experiences, I trusted that they would present an honest and open-minded collection of stories.  I’m not interested in bashing the Unification Church or anyone in it.  I am interested in exploring why people make these choices, and whether there are better ways to accomplish the sense of community and integrity women are seeking.

 What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In some ways, I would prefer never to speak about it again.  It saddens me that I was so convinced I was contributing to making the world a better place, and yet there was no evidence that this was the case.  It took me fifteen years to move away from the Unification Church.

I share the story because people want to understand why someone like me—who is an artist and an individualist, and externally very calm—would make the choice to submit to the will of a religious leader.  All of us are malleable, we are influenced by those around us, our emotional experiences and our desire to belong to a “family”.  Part of joining an extreme religion like the Unification Church involves giving up one’s individuality for the sake of the greater good, and that is what I did at the time.

The greatest miracles that came out of the experience for me are the two most important people in my life: my two children.  My son and daughter are amazing and yet they came from an arranged marriage between two people who never would have met outside the church.

I have no ill feeling toward anyone in the church, although it breaks my heart that I believed the promises they made to me if I followed their religion. My desire to connect to a higher power was so great that I left behind my identity, my friends, my family and my country.  I no longer believe that any organization can be a mouthpiece for what we call “God.”  I believe we all have a channel to higher intelligence, and I strive to be open to it.

 What was the hardest part of leaving for you? The hardest part of leaving was the immense sense of failure.  I promised “God” that I would dedicate my life to Him in order to help cure the world and my family and that I would follow Reverend Moon’s instructions to the best of my ability.  These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they are indicative of the strong faith I had.

The hardest part wasn’t so much leaving the church as becoming a single parent.  The Unification Church promised that our marriages were blessed by God and would last eternally. This was very important to me.  I wanted my children to experience the security of seeing their parents loving each other, supporting each other, and being united in service to the community. When my children’s father left and I no longer had the support of the Unification Church community what I feared more than anything else; becoming a single parent like my mother, became a reality.

 Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion?  When women today are attracted to extreme religion it’s for the same reasons I joined the Unification Church: desire to contribute to the greater good of humanity and desire to create a good, wholesome family with integrity, purity and good values.  Most people want to do something to help others in their lives, and it’s not always easy to find a way to do this.  When a group comes along saying they are The Way, people who are searching just might believe them.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  Two maxims I carry with me are to make everyone I encounter feel loved or appreciated by me, and to see everything as holy.  If I can succeed at this occasionally, I feel I have accomplished something.

Having lived side by side with people from numerous nations I learned to be more empathetic to others and appreciate the differences between people. The idea of the unification of nations and religions is a good one. I feel great compassion for the people I shared my journey with.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now?

I am a strong believer in our inner guidance system.

We have feelings for a reason, and the most important things in life do not always happen according to logic.  I believe that our feelings are more connected to our divine nature than to our intelligence. As humans—we often think our ideas are solid or statistically proven, but the more instinctive part of us may reflect a broader ranging viewpoint.  We are part of a planet and a larger community. We haven’t always done what is best for that planet or community.  Perhaps there is a more connected part of us that knows what would be better for the larger organism if we would learn to listen to it?

And if all that sounds esoteric and far out, what did you expect from an ex-Moonie?

What are your current writing projects?  I hope to publish my memoir, Holy Candy, later this year.  Holy Candy tells the story of my religious experience and my arranged marriage in more depth: why I made that choice, why I left and what I gained from that part of my life.

I write about local interest issues for Harlem World and post on my Holy Blog.  The main themes I focus on are love and spirituality. I write about what moves me, this can range from the Law of Attraction and channeling to chance meetings with extraordinary people.

What We Don’t Have to Answer

Tonight I (Cami) am sitting in my friend’s apartment. She’s away on a trip; I’m hanging out with her cats. This pal of mine (let’s call her Sherri) is visiting her family in another state—a family that has been much grieved by Sherri’s leaving the Christian faith. Every summer and almost every Christmas Sherri goes back to see the people who love her, but who are terrified for her soul now that she’s rejected the doctrine. And on each visit, both Sherri and her loved ones spend a lot of time trying to be understood by one another. She’s spent many hours over the years listening to how worried they are about her and fielding the emotional fallout of making the decision of not believing something anymore.

Susan has talked a lot about how, as an Orthodox Jew, the rules were primary for her. In many versions of the Christian faith, however, one’s thoughts and beliefs are the crucial focus, and following moral guidelines is meant to be an act of obedience, evidence that a person’s faith is real and deep. If you watched Sherri visiting her family, you wouldn’t see that she was any different from her mom, dad, and siblings. And this is because you can’t see inside of someone’s head. Sherri doesn’t smoke; she’s not a nudist or a drug dealer. She is a lesbian, but since she’s single, her parents aren’t confronted with what to do in a practical way with Sherri’s sexual orientation. Nonetheless, every time Sherri visits, she senses the terrible disappointment of her family—because of what she no longer thinks.

In my experience, one of the highest psychological tasks one can master is to healthily live with the disappointment of others. The women of Beyond Belief live with knowing that those who used to love them (and those who still do, in many cases) are disappointed, afraid, and angry about their choices to leave communities/faiths/religions. And many of them live with this very gracefully.

This week in the news, we’re watching a public woman leave a very secretive religion. Actress Leah Remini (from the sitcom King of Queens) has walked away from Scientology and is facing grave disappointment from her former friends, no doubt. We don’t get to know how she’s handling it (though we would dearly love to hear from her if she’s out there looking for a supportive community who “gets it”), but if she’s anything like my friend Sherri (and like me and many of you), bearing the disappointment of others is sad. And hard. And irritating. And… and… and….

One thing I’ve done when I encounter old friends who want to bring me back into the fold of fundamentalism, is to breathe into my not-knowing—the glorious freedom not to have answers, for myself or for others. None of us—Sherri, Leah, me, you—has to answer the question, “Why did you go.” We don’t have to know or articulate the anything we’re not inclined to.

What do you do when you encounter family and friends who are invested in convincing you of something? What do you breathe into? What keeps you grounded?

To quote a common mindfulness meditation: May all beings be at peace. May all be freed from their suffering. And to Sherri and Leah: You are not alone.

The Spirit Knows No Rules

The Spirit Knows No Rules

Earlier this week I (Susan) had the pleasure of joining a wonderful local book group to talk about Beyond Belief. Over a lovely meal served on the deck of our hostess, Tiana Melquist, the group discussed the anthology. All six of the members attending generously shared their thoughts about the stories that had touched them and passionately talked about the mix of emotions that they had experienced while reading the book.

It was gratifying for me to hear that Beyond Belief had resonated with these readers. For each of them there were a few stories that felt especially relevant, and for all, the anthology had elicited a variety of strong emotions ranging from anger, to sadness to empathy. The conversation about the stories was a natural segue for each woman to talk about her own experience with religion. Through the course of the evening it became apparent that everyone in the group had either had a brush with an extreme religion at some point in her life or knew a close friend or family member who had been or still was involved.

For the working mothers in the group Stephanie Durden Edwards’ A Mother in Israel hit a particularly sensitive chord. Stephanie’s story tells of her struggle accepting the Mormon teaching that it is immoral for a woman to work outside of the home and send her children to daycare. In her piece Stephanie beautifully depicts her love of her faith and her devotion to staying within the safety of her community while at the same time struggling against rules that seem irrational and possibly even harmful. This is the quandary many women face when their religious community asks them to follow rules that force them to choose between being faithful and taking care of themselves and their families.

Other readers commented on Swan Sister by Yolande Brener and expressed a deep pathos for Yolande’s need to find a deeper meaning in her life and help her older brother. Alongside this empathy the group expressed anger and frustration that her spiritual quest had been coopted by the Unification Church. “What does shaving your head and begging for money have to do with becoming a better person and finding a spiritual path?” one of the book club members asked.

Like many of the stories in the anthology Stephanie and Yolande’s experiences cannot help but make a reader wonder how the rules of extreme religion help a woman in her spiritual quest. A woman’s impetus for seeking meaning in her life is genuine and vulnerable and often the religious structure she chooses appears to do little to respect her need or honor her choice. How do religious rules, all the dos and don’ts, which seem harmful or tedious really help a woman attain well being or spirituality?

In my own experience as an Orthodox Jew the rules were paramount. In fact I spent way more time concerned with following rules, often about the most mundane of tasks, then I ever did thinking about spiritual matters. In Jewish practice the laws or mitzvahs that command us to act in certain ways are the paths by which we attain spirituality.  Though we may not understand how eating or dressing in a particular way is helping us to become more spiritual we are asked to accept this truth without question.

For me the rules were, at first, a huge help. They gave me relief from the overwhelm of choice and confusion, they helped me uphold the dignity of my role as a wife and mother, and they gave me guidance to grow into an adult with the ability to take the needs of the greater good into consideration in my thoughts and deeds.

Many of the rules of Orthodox Judaism felt arbitrary and outdated. Ultimately though, like in Stephanie’s story, it was the downright harm to me and to my family that blindly following any and all rules beyond common sense, intuition and rationality that led me to leave the practice behind.

When a religious practice keeps women so busy with rules that it actually prevents them from becoming good, independent and educated people it is time to step back and ask some hard questions. Following rules, religious or otherwise, is not meant to be the end all of our actions or a deterrent from living a spiritual life that feels honest and well meaning. Rules, when served in moderation, are supposed to free us and provide the security and structure we need as human beings to reach our fullest potential.