The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back

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My parents, who are two loving and supportive people, both grew up in Christian homes Dad was Lutheran and Mom was Catholic but both stopped going to church very quickly after they grew up. For reasons I still don't exactly know why except that it was "the thing to do" my sister and I were baptized as Catholics, and we went to the Catholic school down the street from the house where I grew up, out of convenience.

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This Catholic school was next to a Catholic church, and that Catholic church had a youth minister who would come next door to the school with his guitar, come into class, and play cheesy Christian songs like "Shine Jesus Shine" and it was awesome because we didn't have to do math class anymore! But also, when I was a kid and this should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me I was totally that awkward kid, with the bad haircut and glasses and my nose in a book all the time.

I saw this individual and this youth group he had as a welcome invitation, to make friends and meet people who were welcoming and would accept me unconditionally for who I was, books and all.

And I was exactly right. I started going out to this church youth group and felt very welcomed, and loved, and developed a very positive friend community that had a great effect on my self-esteem. My teenage years were very happy, and I do want to stress that. As far as Catholic churches go, this particular church had more of an "evangelical" edge to it, and was pretty strongly influenced by a revival movement, very similar to Pentecostal revival movements, that had hit the Catholic church in North America in the '80s.

What I mean by this, is that there was an altar call kind of moment, there was a "movement of the Holy Spirit," so to speak, and a moment where I "accepted Jesus into my heart" -- looking back, I'm not sure if this was a true moment or not, or that I was swept up by the emotions of the event involved: the music, the charismatic speaker, and whatnot. I also wonder if I "accepted Jesus" because all my friends at that time had already done so and there was a bit of peer pressure involved. Either way, I really did love Jesus.

I kept my bible in my backpack, I went to church every week it was also convenient because I played piano for various church choirs so I had a commitment to go, and playing was so easy and fun for me I even prayed the rosary. Every single night. There was none more zealous than I, and I'm sure this caused me to be alienated even more from my peers, but at the time, I didn't care, because to me, I had a god who loved me, so who gave a shit about what other people thought?

At the end of my high school career, I applied and got accepted into a year-long missions program where you travel across North America going to churches and go to Ghana. This is where my seemingly unshakable faith, started to crumble. I know, because I've been to them and spent time there. Churches where there were pastors literally screaming at each other behind closed doors, we were at one church over the Easter weekend, and minutes before the service had started for Easter Sunday, found out that the two pastors had been screaming at each other and threatening to quit And yes, they already had a completely functional parking lot, but they wanted a nicer parking lot.

I was furious at the thought, especially when we had just gotten back from Ghana and had encountered some of the most blatant and unfair forms of poverty I had ever seen in my life. When you see enough of the nasty underbelly of churches, you're left with a really bad taste for the hypocrisy, politics, and gossip that seemed to be a trend with most churches we went to.

The one thing I seemed to continually come across, was the fact that I was Catholic, and the majority of churches we were visiting were very Protestant. I have heard it all.

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And the thing is, Catholics feel the same about Protestants -- they have "some of the truth, but not all of the truth. So I was suddenly finding myself in a constant year-long debate against what felt like everybody I came into contact with, because the form of Christianity I subscribed to, was different than their form of Christianity.

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  • So who was right? They think they are right, and I think I am right. And I grew to learn, that people don't like the idea of being wrong, and I had to become comfortable with the fact that I could be wrong, and that it's OK. I could grow, I could learn, being wrong wasn't bad, it was good because then I could correct what is wrong and learn from it. But further than that, this thought caused me to realize, how arrogant I was, to think that my form of small-town Southern-Ontario Catholic Christianity was the only way that people could come to know God properly, when there are billions of people all over the world who reach out to all kinds of higher powers and forms of spiritual enlightenment all the time?

    And those people feel the same kind of assurance, peace, and goodness that I do? I can't have the nerve to say that these people were wrong because how they relate to their god is different than mine, when all I have to justify my belief is a book.

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    • Which is exactly what I was doing. And exactly what those people who thought being Catholic was wrong were doing to me. After the year was over I went to university, and after my first year of university, I had a very difficult summer.

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      I couldn't find a job, so I tried to make a go of it and started my own business, which is incredibly stressful as it is. I was also very lonely, which made me very vulnerable. A person whom I thought was a friend paid to have me fly out to visit him in Vancouver. I was also incredibly naive at the time and didn't think getting sexually assaulted could possibly happen to me on this trip to Vancouver And I was in a terrifying place, having no money, being thousands of miles away from home and friends and familiar faces, and having no means to escape and run away.

      I can't explain how horrible it feels to not be able to run away when you're in danger. In the Christian faith, especially conservative Christian faith, there are a couple of very large no-no's, and sex before marriage is one of the biggest ones. I've heard and been to talks where people equate pre-marital sex to losing your value, or being like a piece of tape that gets stuck and re-stuck until it can't stick anymore, or a bank account where you're cashing out money until you have none.

      At the time, I very heavily blamed myself for what happened to me and was terrified to let on in even the remotest sense that anything bad that I didn't consent to had happened. A large portion of my reasoning was those analogies about what happens when you have sex before marriage kept playing over and over again in my head.

      The conservative soul : how we lost it, how to get it back

      I also had this stupid thought, that since I was regarded as a leader, I can't let anything bad happen to me, or show any kind of indiscretion. It's horrible how deeply I blamed myself for the whole thing, which is so wrong, and so harmful to do. I felt tremendously ashamed, as though I had done something wrong, and this was a tremendous lie that took a long time to get over.

      Oddly enough, I only ever had one friend who directly cut through my bullshit story and asked me what really happened. Only one, out of all the friends who knew I was going. And I was too afraid to tell him, and when I finally did, he reacted in a way that made me feel even more wretched about myself. He and I have talked about this and apologies have been made.

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      But still, I wished somebody had warned me, or said something, or kindly reminded me to be careful. I had one friend email and caution me against going Two weeks too late. And when I finally started to tell people what really happened, a lot of people reacted inappropriately, saying that I should forgive the guy, or that God was going to heal me, or that good things will come out of it.

      Just for future reference -- don't EVER say those things to someone who has been sexually assaulted. It's ignorant, rude, and dismissive, and caused me to feel further alienated. The question, "where was God? God is supposed to love me, and protect me, and keep me from harm. This is what I had been taught, yet here I was, feeling like my church had failed me by keeping me sheltered and naive, and feeling like I was continually let down by Christians in their dismissive, harmful reactions when I had finally got the courage to stop thinking about those "sex before marriage ruins you" analogies and talk about what happened.

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      I reasoned two things to answer my question about where was God, when I was in Vancouver: God either was present and there, and did nothing about it, or God was not there, and does not exist. It is easier for me to think that God does not exist, than to think that God was present and did nothing.

      A God who is present and does nothing is not all-powerful, and is not all-loving, and I simply cannot forgive a god who stands by and watches while people get hurt after he promised to protect people. If I had the power to stop something bad happening to someone I loved, I would do everything I could to stop it. Of all of the times in my life that I needed God, God was not there.

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      This is where I stopped believing in God -- I would rather think that God simply does not exist, then think that God abandoned me. Further than that, I began to think of how randomly senseless the world could be. I grew up in a safe and loving environment in a stable country with a good economy. The majority of the world cannot say the same.

      Where is God then? I had people ask me to pray for them in a village we were visiting in Ghana because they have no clean drinking water. I met a homeless person in Toronto who asked me to pray for him so he could overcome his drug addictions and find a safe place to sleep that night. Is God protecting him? Where is God in the face of natural disasters that destroy countries and leave countless numbers of people devastated? How can an all-powerful, completely loving, benevolent God allow that kind of random injustice and suffering? I started to think of the many times where I have heard other people, and have also found myself, thanking God for being present in the little things -- God helped me ace that test, or God helped me get to work on time, or God led me to my true love.

      How incredibly selfish is it for me to reason that God is always present and doing little magical things to make my life easier when there are people who live in this world who don't have the basic necessities for living? And then, maybe those people in that village in Ghana do get clean drinking water one day, and they are thankful that God provided for them.

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      What kind of God denies people basic necessities for living and then demands their thankfulness if he does choose to provide? I would rather that God does not exist, than choose to follow that kind of god. Living with this secret, this "sin" made me realize that I didn't feel welcome in the churches I went to anymore, and the times when I felt most welcome, were the times before anything bad had happened to me The more I started doubting my faith, the more the bible made perfect sense to me, and the easier it became to read: Jesus loved the poorest of the poor.

      He spent time with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the people with the worst reputations, and loved them unconditionally, contrary to the culture they were a part of. God wasn't a god of the rich and powerful, but a god of the outcast and enslaved, who freed oppressed people and stood for the rights of the downtrodden. So naturally it would feel like this kind of unconditional love, and this unity and welcomeness should be extended to all people, regardless of gender, race, and class, just as Jesus embodied in his life.

      Yet I fail to see that in so many churches. I've encountered too many Christians who for example would rather argue about the theology of whether a homosexual person is an inherently disordered individual living in sin according to the book of Genesis I know I speak broadly, and am at risk of generalizing, but too often I feel like in so many parts of the North American church, there is far too little emphasis on an ongoing option for appropriately caring for the poor, and that such care manifests itself in ways that do not "inconvenience us" or involve colonialism like short-term missions trips, for instance.

      Where is the challenge if I begin to feel like the view towards salvation is that it is assured simply because I fill up a space in a church pew? There is too much brokenness in this weary world, and too great a responsibility, and by the way Don't give me a church with good music and good public speaking. Give me Jesus.