Experiences of a refugee from church

After my last column a reader emailed and said, "Write about why you are a refugee from church. That would be interesting." I chuckled because with no other context, I don't know if he meant "interesting" as opposed to the other stuff I write about that is not interesting, or interesting also. Like what I write about Arkansas, school, parenting, country life, politics, being human, or what I had for breakfast.

I have written about my estrangement from church in earlier columns, but it has been a minute. I am grateful to the reader for the nudge to think about it and check in with myself about where I am on that journey. Because that's what writing is in large part: getting something on the page so I can examine it and figure out what it means in my life, and then, if it seems possibly interesting or helpful, share it with others.

Hemingway said to write hard and clear about what hurts. And the rawest, truest thing I feel when I start to write about this is hurt. It makes my palms sweat. There's a churning in my gut. It feels like there's a baseball stuck in my throat.

The term "refugee" seems fitting because there is no physical place of refuge that church once was in my life; I have no church home. But I want to offer a disclaimer about the term as well, because I know real refugees. My aunt is a refugee from Vietnam. I work with Karen students who are refugees from Myanmar. They know what the word really means, and tell me stories of pain I cannot fully fathom. That is not this. My church refugee experience is comparatively nothing.

But still it is something.

To answer my reader's prompt--why I am a refugee from church--I am trying to think of where it started, this feeling of not being safe there. I don't know if this would be my answer every day, but for some reason a memory stands out from many years ago when I served on a pulpit committee. It was a difficult job; we were a small church, couldn't pay a big salary, and the resumes we received were few.

I don't remember the particulars. I just remember the women on the committee were not comfortable with one of the candidates after hearing him speak and interacting with him a bit. When we tried to explain this to the rest of the committee, one of the older men who I considered a friend yelled at me. We dissolved the committee after that.

There are probably all kinds of cracks like this if I could recall them--places the light got in that I subsequently puttied over with good stuff. Which makes it sound like I was in denial, and maybe I was. But there was so much good for so long, it made it easy to become handy at filling in cracks. After all, there are cracks in everything, as Leonard Cohen sings; that's how the light gets in. But cracks also let in wind, water, weeds, bugs, all kinds of stuff you don't necessarily want. I guess the idea in human relations is to fill in cracks enough to guard against the bad, but not so much we block the light.

The fracture came in 2016. I will never forget sitting in my living room and hearing Donald Trump brag about grabbing women by the genitals (that's not the word he used). We don't talk that way in our home. But suddenly, with my four children sitting there, it invaded--sexual perversion, demeaning language, criminal behavior--all in the form of a man who aspired to be our president.

My immediate reaction was that there was no way he could, no way Christians would support him. But in the next few years, how mistaken I was, how little I understood my own culture, revealed itself to me like the slow lifting of a veil.

Even though it troubled me that some friends and family supported him, usually qualifying that it mainly was because of the abortion issue, the evangelical embrace of Trump felt more national than local when he was first elected. I wonder now if that was more denial. If not, it certainly was naivete. Because in 2020 I ran for office as a centrist rural Arkansas Democrat, fighting for public schools and believing local people would elect me even in a district that favored Trump's re-election. He got 80 percent of the vote. My opponent got 70 percent.

Southern Baptists who had known me my whole life told me I had taken on the banner of Satan, that they loved me, but could not vote for a Democrat because Democrats support killing babies.

Mercifully--in this way at least--the pandemic set in and allowed space for reflection. Disentanglement with church would have been otherwise much more arduous, as we were very involved. But with services shut down we were able to step back inconspicuously, and by the time covid receded, our family's faith had moved on--out of the Southern Baptist denomination. Into nowhere else, yet.

We visit the Methodists quite a bit. The local pastor is the only one I know who prays for our schools, all the children and those who work with them. He also prays for the other churches in town. And he says, at the end of every prayer, "help us to remember that Jesus is with us, and because He is with us, that changes everything."

Even though I don't know whether it is possible for me to feel I belong in any church again, believing Jesus is with us does change everything. It changed everything the hour I first believed it as a little girl in the Southern Baptist church, and is still changing me. That core belief is the meaning of my life; Jesus' love my place of refuge. It gives me hope. And for now, that is enough.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher. Email her at [email protected].