Going to church, for me, is like dating again after a long, bad break-up. It is something I want to do, really. It even gets me excited thinking about it. But when Sunday rolls around, I panic. Sorry, I don’t have any serious trauma to report. I’m just a reformed child-evangelist-Jesus-freak who reached her faith crisis quota a few years back and is still on a spiritual hiatus.
So when I got a chance to tag along with A Journey through NYC religions, I jumped at the opportunity to get another perspective on religion. I thought going from church to church and pastor to pastor in Jamaica, Queens would be like dipping my toes in the pool to decide if it was worth jumping back in. Talking with pastors about their impact on their communities was just far-removed enough from my church-going childhood for me to be comfortable.
I was the golden child among my five siblings, a Minister's kid growing up in Flushing, Queens during the 1990s. I grew up with a strict religious code, one that I set for myself and one that I hoped would give me a life full of happiness. I also had a stomach full of butterflies whenever I thought about Jesus and what a cool cat he is. Which was often.
But when my folks split in my young adulthood, my world turned on its head. Having your parents divorce is not much fun. When your father is in the ministry, it borders on unbearable.
At the same time that my heart was crumbling for my family, I was spending a few months in East Africa chasing a romance I had for the vast and mysterious continent. Then, a week in Rwanda during the twelfth anniversary of the 1994 genocide was what finally did me in. I knew people were capable of evil, but this was too much. I wept for Rwanda in front of a mass grave. I wept so hard and so deeply that my eyes could barely open.
That day, I stopped believing in God.
God didn’t make much sense to me anymore. I just couldn't reconcile what I perceived God to be and what humanity is capable of - the deaths, the neglect, and the invincible sadness. Why would a just and merciful God let this happen? I could not rationalize God's existence, at least not the God I knew. But when faith is the foundation of your life for all the years you've been alive, you can’t quite turn it off like a light switch. I sought to feel the butterflies I used to get as a kid, even though I couldn’t wrap my mind around God as a real being anymore. I could not bring myself to pray either.
But every now and again, I would get these bouts of desperation for God’s love. It never came back, which to me meant one of two things: either I conjured up those feelings and they were never real to begin with; or God abandoned me in my darkest hour. I don’t know what’s worse, so I try not to think about it.
But over time, I came to the point that even though my thoughts on God had changed, my longing for community hadn't.
While I was not in a place where I can commit to going back to church, I thought surrounding myself with people who are kind of nutty for God was a good start.
After scouting churches with A Journey, people of faith became pretty predicable. They became predictable in the simple commonality that hurt people find comfort in their faith. They felt about God a lot like how I felt about Häagen-Daz rocky road ice-cream – which was pretty excited. Not only are they excited, but they want you to be excited too. It seemed like they want everyone to know just how to feel like they feel, and to know, understand and trust in God like they did.
While evangelism still puts me on edge, I enjoy listening to people tell their stories. I've been working with A Journey to do just that - listen. But I was not about to get involved. I was not there to glean some wisdom from these men and women, God forbid.
One day, I was in and out of a conversation with Pastor William Armstead of First Church of God in Christ on Baisley Avenue in St. Albans, Queens. As another reporter took notes, I snapped pictures of
bananas from the food pantry and nodded as he threw in one mantra after the other.
“When the heart and head connect- now that’s heaven.”
“We live full and die empty.”
“If the place that you’re in doesn’t challenge you, you’ll never change.”
A quirky fellow that marched to the beat of his own drum, he had more proverbs about life than the Bible. But he gave us an honest account of his journey as a man of God, and the ups and downs of ministering in a community on Baisley Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens.
As we were wrapping up he left us with another gold nugget. “Life is tough. Dying is easy, living is hard, but Jesus will never leave us comfortless.” Again I nodded. I jotted it down, even though it rubbed me the wrong way on a very deep level.
“That’s funny, didn’t we talk about something like that this morning?,” the other reporter said, spurring me on to step out of my quietude (where I felt very comfortable–thank you).
“Well”, I said, careful not to disagree. And then I blurted out my disagreement. “What about when he does leave us…comfortless?”
I think this may have been my most talkative moment during the interview up to that point. I looked up at the guy, and realized that this man - who had been having a very lighthearted conversation for about half an hour, and not with me - suddenly had all his attention and energy directed right at me.
My tactic to stay objective and out of the story failed, and now it was obvious that he wanted to know more. It made me nervous because I don’t wear my spiritual journey on my sleeve. But for some reason I continued.
“What happens when God is there one day, and he is real as these walls, or anything in life that you can feel, and then he is gone? What happens when you do all the right things, all the things you are supposed to do, and suddenly you don’t feel God anymore? And no matter how much you pray, there just isn’t anything there anymore.”
“You mean when God moves and doesn’t leave a forwarding address?” he said.
Ok, this was unpredictable. After telling me all the beautiful things he had done in his community, all the trials and triumphs, the whole bit, he now told me that he had gone through a long dry spell that lasted for months – a void of God’s presence. He told me it was hard to go to church, to pray, to worship and to love God when it very much felt like he was talking to a black hole. Then one day, God came back into his life. He was there, and then he was gone, and, oh!, there he was again.
“He’ll come back,” Pastor Armstead said. But I think as a man of God, Pastor Armstead had to tell me, promise me, and assure me that God would, in fact, come back.
The conversation went on a bit after that, about closing remarks on his ministry. We said our thanks. I believed the moment--which changed my life. But in our interview it slid in as a side-note of the morning until we stepped out his church. Then, he tenderly brought me to disbelief in my own sense of abandonment when he said that he and his congregation would be praying for me.
My faith is still important to me, but pursuing it is completely emotionally exhausting. I’m in limbo between being critical of religion and the possibility that there is something bigger than myself going on in the universe. Whether I am able to reconnect with the guy upstairs, with the Supreme Being, whoever that is or whatever that is, I was given permission to feel void of God’s presence for the first time. This was the gift Pastor Armstead gave. At last, someone told me that my wavering faith was not my fault.
Sometimes, when no matter how hard you try you can’t bring yourself to do something as simple as pray, it’s nice to have a man of God doing it for you.
Originally published 2011.