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So I’ve got this new thing in my life. I’m going to church on Sundays. For a couple of months now. And I gotta say, I’m into it.
I know, I know, this is where things start to feel weird for some of you. Church is passé. Half the Christian mommy bloggers don’t even talk about church anymore, so why on earth would I? Well, I am a big believer in going where the juice is, regardless of what container it comes in. I’ll engage in nearly any kind of experience into which I am invited, inside which I feel called to participate, and around which I feel authentic intention. This is one of the reasons (I think) that my friend Stephen gave me the moniker “omnivore of the human experience.” Stephen, feel free to correct me on this if I’ve got it wrong!
Growing up in Memphis as the first-generation child of Indian immigrants, our Hindu tradition was first and foremost an anchor to culture and history; faith exploration, my parents left up to me. Like most first-gen kids, I alternated between taking my home culture for granted and reveling in it: resenting what felt like obligation, delighting in how beautiful it was (is). A deeply personal and true thing, though, is that I have always felt a strong pull to the Divine. That sense of connection to what many people call God has been there for as long as I can remember, and worship—whether it be in my family’s prayer room or flopping in a pile of leaves in my backyard—came as naturally as writing did, and from as early an age. I was moved by the beauty of the world, and I saw fit to express thanks for the exquisite experience of being alive inside of it. Sometimes my chest would be full to bursting with…I didn’t know what, and God seemed like the only possible name I could assign to the infinity I felt inside of myself.
I am forever grateful that my parents sent me to an Episcopal school; though the institution itself was flawed, as all are, the religious context of my education was a truly beautiful landscape for me to explore, one inside of which I felt, for the most part, welcomed. My parents’ Hinduism included no prohibition against finding the Divine in other houses of worship, so I came to feel comfortable in daily Chapel, singing hymns and kneeling for prayer. I felt safe to share my tradition and existential wonderings with teachers and classmates, and eventually took a World Religions class in high school that sparked an interest that led to my undergraduate major in Religious Studies. The rest, as they say, is history. Along the way, I’ve grieved the loss of my father (grief, as you know if you’ve experienced it, is a deeply spiritual reckoning), answered God’s call to move through the world as a writer and a teacher, become a parent through the tenuous, sacred process of adoption, and spent eleven years teaching in a Jewish school environment, where I learned to say Kabbalat Shabbat and came to feel at home inside of the gentle alignment of the lunar calendar rhythm that Hinduism and Judaism share.
Then I moved to Phoenix, where I began teaching at my first non-religiously-affiliated school. I didn’t anticipate that being an issue at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how much I had taken for granted the difference it made for me to have some kind of larger framework built into the day, the week, the year: these are the words we say when something bad happens, this is how we gather to celebrate, this is how we comfort each other, this is how we respond when someone is sick, when someone has a baby, when our hearts are weary.
Believe me, I know that it’s not as if religion has a monopoly on these kinds of things, nor does it necessarily always do them, or do them well. There are plenty of secular contexts where beautiful care-taking and meaning-making takes place; unfortunately, the school where I formerly taught was not one of them, at least not when I was there. Teaching during the pandemic years without a genuine framework for community and communication? Oof. As tempting as it is, though, I can’t blame the school wholesale for the ways that I neglected my spiritual self during those years in Phoenix. I let fruit wither on the vine, and I paid the price.
So imagine my delight when my friend Carissa, whom I knew when I lived in Houston the last time, said, “Some cool things are happening at our little church in Northside. Come check us out.” Well, that little church in Northside is less than ten minutes from my house, wedged in a storefront between a boxing gym and a pharmacy. Services are fully bilingual, moving between English and Spanish, which I adore; I grew up surrounded by Sanskrit, and I know what Carissa means when she says that the Spirit speaks to us and tells us what we need to know.
There’s lots of good church-y things about my church, from the work we’re trying to do in the community we’re situated in, to the fact that our communion table is open to all, to the mix of humans who show up on any given Sunday, to the very fine music, to the garden we’re both literally & figuratively growing. But I think the best way to tell you about why I now go to church is to recount what happened a few weeks ago when Carissa asked us, during a participatory homily, to think of what it is that we get or find at church that we don’t necessarily get or find in the rest of our life, during the week. “What is it, she asked, that we are agreeing is precious or sacred or real or true when we step into this space?”
Then – and I love this about Carissa, this is why she’s my priest – she had us physically get up and pantomime placing what we value about church very carefully into the hands of another person in the room, and, addressing them by name, ask them to keep it safe. Our responses brought tears to my eyes:
“Shawn, this is holy mystery, keep it safe, it is precious.”
“Carissa, this is salvation, offered for all of us.”
“Nishta, this is the knowledge that even when you feel alone, you’re not alone.”
“Nancy, this is holy innocence.”
“Carol, this is regard for the sanctity of all life.”
“Chris, this is hope, hold onto it tight.”
That, for me, is worth showing up on Sunday morning, which is why I am now, hilariously and awesomely, a church lady.
Amen & Alleluia & Om Shanti Shanti Shanti,