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.

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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.

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.

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.