Until the pandemic hit, early on Sunday mornings I would wake swearing at my alarm. But weak sunlight would be angling around the curtain and into my room, so yes, morning had arrived. Running my hands through my pink hair, smoothing the spikes into the semblance of curls, I would gobble a peanut butter sandwich on my way out the door. The cool morning air would clear my mental spiderwebs, and I was off to church. Around me the city would lie silent, empty except for annoyingly perky joggers in reflective vests and toddlers being chased by sleepy parents. My friends would not wake for hours, and even then, brunch would be their first priority, not getting to Sunday morning worship service.
Is it possible that the most countercultural thing about me is that I go to church? Sure, I have pink hair, and sure, I love to dance all night to a raucous feminist punk band, but my participation in a faith community is what sets me apart from my peers. Why did I press myself out of bed at an ungodly hour (pun intended) to sit in a room with a bunch of other people and sing songs, light candles, and meditate?
I live in one of the most secular parts of the United States, and I’m a part of that small movement of young people who go to church not because it would be socially weird not to, but because we are looking for greater depth in our lives. This isn’t the Deep South—nearly all of the people going to church in Seattle are fundamentalists. When I tell people at concerts or parties that I am a minister, they back away slowly, and when I explain my liberal faith, they think it’s cute in a twee, old-timey way, as if I were a blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg. It’s ministry as historical reenactment. They see spiritual community as a dinosaur that peaked before their parents were our age. How could it possibly be relevant to their lives? But when I talk about living a life centered on mindfulness, activism, and spiritual connection, they are intrigued.
If anyone told you that you didn’t fit into God’s kingdom, they were full of shit.
I grew up in an American Baptist church where my dad was the music director and my mom was a deacon. I left in my late teens, after surviving major depression and a handful of suicide attempts, and became an activist and a rabble-rouser. I was so angry at religion for requiring conformity of belief—why couldn’t I go to church and question the doctrine? But I missed the all-ages community of congregational life. I really missed being reminded that I wasn’t the center of the universe. Gaining perspective, asking hard questions. Where did adults go to wonder why humans exist? To talk about what happens when we die? Without a congregation, life just seemed like small talk. Alone, I couldn’t fill the hole that abandoning spirituality left behind.
Through activism, I found a spiritual community with justice at its core. Now I get to be a minister in this tradition I love that makes my life sing. I’m young, but I have experienced a lot of life: divorce, depression, abortion, friends dying, falling in and out of love. Through all of it, my spiritual communities have held me up, and so I know that church is more relevant than blacksmithing at Colonial Williamsburg. I know spiritual communities have what people are hungering for: a place to ask big questions, be accepted just as they are, and be reminded of wonder and awe.
All around me, people are busy being spiritual but not religious. I tried that for a few years myself, drawn in by the lack of required early morning activity. I read Buddhist books and practiced yoga on cold linoleum floors, joined circle dances and equinox rituals. It was interesting, but I didn’t grow. I wanted transformation, and what I got was more like a spiritual practices grab bag. But I had so many more questions. I wasn’t after a prepackaged set of theology. I wanted a mystical journey, not another book to read.
Off on my mystical journey I went, on backpacking trips and in silent meditation, watching the sun rise and set. I tried to listen to that still, small voice of holiness. But I was more like Bilbo Baggins than Jesus, thinking about lunch instead of divine union, while at the same time my ego obsessed over how much weight I could lose if I skipped meditation and kept hiking. All that alone time was less about finding spiritual meaning than about me creating God in my own image.
I needed to be pushed out of my comfort zone, needed my cockiness challenged, needed people of different beliefs and backgrounds to chafe me like sand chafes a pearl. I needed a group to search alongside who would remind me that while I was a part of the universe, I wasn’t the universe. I needed a spiritual community.
I spent five years pawing through the grab bag of spiritual practices before I fell in love with Unitarian Universalism. No easy answers, plenty of mystical journeying, but in partnership with other seekers. People who push me to grow while loving me just as I am. Plenty of reminders that I am not the center of the universe, plenty of time out of my comfort zone, and more pure joy than anyone expects to find on a Sunday morning. I am a part of a historic faith that is constantly changing, always adapting to fit this time and this place. I can’t seem to convince anyone that worship should be in the afternoon, but otherwise I am so grateful to be spiritual and religious with my church community.
Plenty of people are mad at God because of toxic spiritual experiences from their younger days. They learned that their same-gender attraction was wrong, that Jesus cried if they masturbated, or that women need to keep their lips zipped in church. Christianity has really done a hatchet job on the psyche of many people who were dragged to church as kids. I’m really sorry if that happened to you—it sucks, and it wasn’t your fault, and you deserved better. If anyone told you that you didn’t fit into God’s kingdom, they were full of shit. The spirit of love adores every inch of you, whether you are rocking the suburban working-mom life or going to amateur drag shows every night, hoping for your big break. If your minister said you weren’t saved, I am sorry—they are the one who was lost. They made up a God who coincidentally shared all their bigotries. Maybe it was self-hate or maybe they just didn’t have a mind big enough to take in the reality of an all-loving presence. But whatever the reason, it was their baggage. There is nothing about you that God doesn’t love.
When I was 8 or 9, I learned at church camp that to get an all-access pass to heaven, I needed to be saved. Being saved meant accepting Jesus, and while I thought Jesus was pretty great, I wasn’t ready for an exclusive relationship with any personal Lord and savior (it’s not you, Jesus, it’s me). Because the version of Jesus they were selling meant no more questions. These well-meaning teenagers, charged with saving souls over summer break for minimum wage, believed that “God works in mysterious ways, so trust and be saved.” And I am more the “God works in mysterious ways, so let’s poke at the mystery until we get the information we’re looking for” type.
The weird thing is, my religious beliefs keep saving me even though they continue to change. Jesus still saves me on a regular basis, like when I remember him saying that “the meek will inherit the earth” right before I say something snide to an authority figure. I check in with Jesus pretty often, and so far he doesn’t seem to mind that I also talk to the Buddha and Mary and my dead grandmothers. The summer camp version of Jesus was too small for me. I can’t believe that our holy ones are jealous and petty. Humans have the market cornered on those traits.
My faith keeps showing up for me. It’s salvific but not set. I am saved again and again without walking in lockstep with any one religious tradition. I have bumbled through life making mistakes, hurting people, messing up. And yet salvation follows me, loyal and unconditionally loving. God still shows up for me, even though I am far from a faithful servant, even though I constantly have questions. I screw up, and God says, “You’ll get ’em next time.” I wrote Stubborn Grace in order to be rich and famous—Ha, kidding! No one gets rich off writing books about spirituality. Well, except Elizabeth Gilbert, but Eat, Pray, Love had hot sex scenes, and Stubborn Grace does not. Sorry about that. But I wrote Stubborn Grace because spirituality is the thing I think you have been longing for, that sense of greater meaning. Wonder and awe. A sense of your place in the world that is bigger than what you do for work or what you buy or the exotic places you have traveled. You are a part of an interdependent web of all existence. You are holy and good down to your very marrow. Your resilience and kindness and patience and intellect are blowing God’s mind. Did you know that? Is it time to explore it?
I don’t believe in Hell, so I can’t coerce you into checking out spirituality with threats of eternal damnation. But my life is roughly a trillion times better because I have faith that there is more to this life than what I can see and understand. I bet your life will be too.
This essay is adapted with permission from Stubborn Grace: Faith, Mental Illness, and Demanding a Blessing : A Memoir, by Kate Landis (Skinner House Books, 2020).