A Fluid Search for Meaning: A Bit of History

Lately I’ve written quite a bit about my religious past and how it informs my spiritual life as a Unitarian Universalist. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of context and timeline of my religious past.

First Methodist Church of Warren

First Methodist Church of Warren

I was born to my pacifist parents during the last months of the 1960s in liberal Madison, Wisconsin.  At that point, my parents’ spiritual home was a Baptist church of which I have no recollection.  By the time I was two, my mother converted to Catholicism:  post-Vatican II, liberal University-associated, 1970s Catholicism.  I remember little about that either, other than being removed by my father while I screamed, “But I want to go to church!”

At age four, we moved to  Warren, MI, and, six months later, to Detroit.  We continued to attend a Methodist church in Warren, and this was where my formal religious education took place through grade six.  Only rarely were children in the sanctuary, and that was fine by me.  Pew time was dull, full of long readings and prayers and incomprehensible sermons.  Sunday School offered more chance to move and chat. Somewhere along the way, my mother found a spiritual home at the University of Detroit’s noontime faith community, where a smallish core of (liberal) Catholics who wanted a say and voice in their Sunday Mass experience gathered.  A few students joined, although most found the 10 pm student mass more to their likings.  The music recalled the folk songs of the prior decade and incorporated the newer, easier to sing music of that era of the Catholic Church.  Children were in the service, as typical of Catholic Masses.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each fall, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, discussion of praying for those in distress or need, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes and intentionally being raised in an integrated city neighborhood . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals, accessible, human clergy.  I saw women take roles in Catholic church that they hadn’t before, and I saw hope that this would spread.  I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of religion or God and with a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early.

University of Wisconsin's St. Paul's Catholic Church

I was born into a church that didn’t baptize babies and grew up in two churches that usually sprinkled newborns.  Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life.  They were simply the only points of comparison I had. It was hardly a deep study of theological similarities and differences but more of a question of likes and dislikes.  Catholic school in seventh grade likely swayed me toward that direction.  Ritual played a large role, but being surrounded by friends from Catholic families also likely encouraged me in that direction. Catholicism simply appeared to be the norm.

By thirteen, I was sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.  Aside from special occasions, my religious home was the University of Detroit’s Sunday morning congregation.  Catholic school provided my religious education.  I assiduously avoided classes in church history, sacrament, and Bible, preferring what I saw as the more practical, interesting side of religion:  prayer, morality, death and dying, and marriage classes.  This was the 80s.  Catholicism was, in many settings, a liberal religion.  That’s the only version of Catholic I knew.

Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in the church of my youth, albeit at the 10 pm version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I passed in then out of more active religious phases, but ultimately left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  The boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting building failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with it’s patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet.

Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years could fill a book.  (Being this a short history of my journey to UUism, I’ll reserve those parts for another day.)  Simply, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home.  That held us for a few years, but during that holding time, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  Those thoughts led me out of the Christian faith and, eventually, to the Unitarian Universalist church my boys and I attend now.  It’s a home where I can spiritually and intellectually wander while still being embraced by the same loving, accepting community.

My parents have made their own searches over the years.  My father attends the Presbyterian church in his small town because it is the best fit for him.  My mother converted to Reformed Judaism during the time I was in the Episcopal church. Their fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.

My faith history brings rich writing fodder not because it was painful, punitive, or damaging.  Quite the opposite.  I’m unscathed by my Baptist/Methodist/Catholic/Episcopal background.  Better than that.  That history taught me that belief and faith and far from a static constant and that religious affiliation is not assigned at birth.  It’s a fluid search for meaning, my past informing my present, and my present increasing my appreciation of my past.

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