I was baptized when I was 26. I was looking for something, and I thought I would find it in the Church. I was in a taxi going through Harlem on the way to the airport after spending a few days with a friend, and I remember seeing an abandoned cinema. There was something in the emptiness of that building that resonated with me, and I decided then and there that religion was how I’d fill that space. I had some faith. I had always “kind of” believed in a higher power, though I admit to having said, once upon a time, that people believed in God because they didn’t believe in themselves. When my grandmother died only a few years before, I wanted to believe that her faith, strong and true, had sprinkled itself among those who loved her. I wanted to believe that a larger cluster of sprinkles fell on me. When I met the man who would later become my husband, I was inspired by his faith; he felt so secure his beliefs. I would go to mass with him and watch the people’s faces as they lined up to take communion. How lucky they were to know something so pure! What did they feel? Did they truly understand their good fortune? I watched as one after another, with absolute trust, opened his or her mouth and accepted the body of Christ. Whether they knew each other or not, every single one of them was part of a privileged community. Wherever they went, whatever they did, whoever they were – they belonged. I yearned for that.
When I met the young priest who was my husband-to-be’s dearest friend, a man from Nicaragua who was delightful, funny, and who loved to dance salsa and drink rum, I thought – yes, this is definitely a religion I can belong to! Suddenly, it all seemed so accessible to me. No longer was I a lost soul standing on the outside of the circle; I was being invited in. For weeks we worked together to prepare my baptism. Our priest taught, questioned, challenged me. Even confession was enjoyable… it felt amazing to open up and know that I would be accepted regardless of what I had thought or done. It was unconditional love. Finally, I belonged.
It was supposed to be so simple. But even faith comes with strings, and I found myself confronted by conflicts that weren’t supposed to exist in my newfound community. When, where and how to baptize the children, arguments over godparents, guilt trips for a missed mass… little things began to taint the perfect Technicolor dream that religion had been for me. I had been so desperate to belong, that I had blindly accepted things that simply didn’t make sense. But my life began to reveal a growing crevice between faith and religion that could not be reconciled. And as I moved away from religion, I also found myself pulled away from faith. When my husband and I divorced, years later, I sent a letter confessing my deepest darkest secrets to our friend, the priest. I waited for months for his words of acceptance and encouragement. They never came. My faith was gone.
“People believe in God because they don’t believe in themselves.” I was only 16 when I spoke those audacious words. I don’t know that I completely agree with the girl who said it, but I admire her bravery. She honestly believed that, at the core of everything, one has to have faith in oneself. No community, no religion, no family, no club can ever fill the void that is created by self-doubt. When I stood alone again, for the second time, feeling rejected by a club I had tried so hard to be a part of, I realized that religion had not failed me. I had failed to believe in myself. Over time, I have learned that I cannot seek acceptance from others in order to feel good about myself. I have learned that I am solely responsible for my health, my happiness, my wholeness. That doesn’t mean that I am not occasionally insecure, wishing for that armored knight on a white horse to save me, but more often than not, I find that the masked hero is actually a heroine, and the face looks a lot like mine. And though there are days when I may kick myself for a thought had or a thing done, my acceptance of myself is steadfast. This is not like the seemingly unconditional love from before – this is real, accepting, true love. And I finally know where I belong.