Let me start by saying my honesty will likely make some readers uncomfortable. It is certainly making me uncomfortable. My fingers are shaky on the keys and I keep toying with the idea of tossing this whole piece and writing some surface level niceties instead, and I know they’d be well-received. But I think that my experiences and thoughts are ones that others can relate to. I think there are people who are just as uncomfortable with the idea of being critical of The Church as I am, but who have good reason to be. One of my professors in graduate school said, “you can’t have revolution without skepticism”, so I’m going to be the skeptic. You may ask what the solutions are to the issues I bring up, and honestly, I don’t have all the answers. But the work needs to be done and we cannot begin unless we are honest.
I know sincere, and good Christians who are genuine in their faith and in their efforts to show love to others. I know Christians who think critically and deeply about what they believe. I know Christians with whom I can discuss my doubt, my hurt, and my anger. This is why I will refer to “The Church” as a vague body of Christians rather than specific people. I know that the members are only human and that they are imperfect, something I don’t think The Church always understands. The Church has brought me some of the most beautiful gifts I will receive in this lifetime, and it has wounded me deeply. The Church is in one moment beautiful, warm, and miraculous, and in another maddening, cold, and hurtful.
The Church taught me that there are right and wrong ways to show your faith. That if you’re not attending every worship and publicly participating in the ministries, you must not really be that faithful. I know many people who went to church because they felt they had to, not because they wanted to. Not because they felt welcomed. I learned that if you close your eyes while you’re singing, lead bible studies, and volunteer for special music, you’re doing it right. I learned to play a part, and then feel guilty for faking.
I was told that everyone was welcome but saw that wasn’t the case. I was lectured about the length of my skirt. I saw judgmental stares at visitors who didn’t seem to “belong.” I heard debates about whether it was okay to allow teachers who weren’t Adventist to teach subjects that to me, didn’t seem to have much relevance to religion. I heard discussions about whether certain types of music or praise should be allowed in the sanctuary. I saw classmates of different faiths or backgrounds leave because they weren’t accepted.
I learned not to question too much, or too strongly. I learned that “this is the way things are.” As someone who wants to analyze everything, I found myself having to ignore things that didn’t quite make sense to me. I was timid about voicing my opinion if it differed from the group, but I watched people who did. I saw that they were not heard or understood. I watched them get lectured into silence. So, I stayed silent too.
I learned that some sins are more acceptable than others. I saw that some were easily forgiven, while others were grounds for damnation. I saw inconsistency in the rules and applications of social consequences. I watched boys skate by while girls transferred to public schools to avoid expulsion. I saw cheaters forgiven without repercussions, abuses ignored. I watched friends hide their truths, just so they could get by without being rejected.
The Church taught me that mental health is a faith issue. I saw assumptions made about people who committed suicide, who harmed themselves, who had addictions. The Church taught me that anxiety came from not trusting God, that depression came from distance from God, that mental struggles were a result of a failure to pursue Him fully. That praying more would solve the issue.
The Church taught me that if I left the church community I would find myself in “The World”; a hostile place full of angry nonbelievers who would attack me for my beliefs and try to drag me down a path of sin. That people would try to change me and that I would have to hold fast to what I was taught. That bad company corrupts. That you should only hang out with nonbelievers if you’re trying to save them. That one day I may be faced with the decision to renounce my faith or die. Stories of the end times translated into bad dreams. I was taught to fear and avoid differences. To mistrust and misunderstand.
I learned that The Church doesn’t talk about the ugly, hurt, or doubt. That it isn’t polite to bring up uncomfortable topics or questions. I was instructed to question The World and “man’s laws.” I was told to think critically of my non-Christian friends and what their choices said about each of them as individuals. Yet I couldn’t do the same of Christianity without it being categorized as an “attack.” The Church behaved as if Christianity in and of itself was beyond reproach and, by proxy, so were Christians.
Thankfully, I unlearned all these terrible lessons. But my experience left me with anger that has yet to be resolved. I want to see these things change, and for future members to be taught different lessons. For that to happen, we have to be willing to say the hard things. We have to stop mistrusting those who are different. We have to talk about the ugly and the hurtful. We have to discuss the mistakes. I’m lucky to have friends who I was able to speak with about my experiences, but I’m saddened by the fact that it happened in private, in whispers, sometimes in the dark on late nights away from adults and leaders. These conversations need to happen in the light.
It is up to the younger generation to change things. It is well within our power to start a revolution! Talk about what hurts and what you want to see change. Ask questions even if people might not like them. Cross the boundaries of religion and meet people who are different. Learn from those outside the faith. Read books that criticize religion. Understand the reasons people believe and why they don’t. Learn why people leave. Create a community where better lessons are learned.
Catherine Jessel is a board certified behavior analyst providing services in school and at home for children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Behavior Disorders on Long Island, and an adjunct lecturer at Queens College in Queens, NY.