During a period of my life, I was away from church for two years. A full year of this time belonged to deep reflection and atheism. I came to grips with the fact that the god I thought I worshiped was not the one I wanted to be ruling over me. I had spent the better part of my youth believing in a god of damnation instead of inclusion. I went into college believing that war was holy and that bearing your nation’s flag above all else was honorable.
I had spent the better part of my youth believing in a god of damnation instead of inclusion. I went into college believing that war was holy and that bearing your nation’s flag above all else was honorable.
My atheism was entrenched in a humanism that saw the beauty in cultures, religions and the diversity of ways people connect with the Divine. My time away gave me a chance to leave my past behind and find love and connection with those around me, regardless of who they were and where they were from.
I departed because I did not see people taking seriously the message that was claimed to be preached. I saw churches buy the latest technology while members of their congregation went without basic utilities. I witnessed people from the church raise over $15,000 to send families to Latin America to help the poor who now refuse to speak out for those seeking asylum. Suburban churches raise money for building expansions in the midst of a housing crisis. T-shirts worn by teens saying “Jesus Saves” did not do much for those who were forced to sew, print and package them in sweat shops.
My reasons were numerous, and I was nothing more than an annoyance to those who wanted things to move forward “business as usual.” I grew tired of hearing that holiness was about being exclusively about sexual purity and sickened by the amount of suffering taking place around a church catering ministry to themselves.
I did want to go to church. I wanted to be a part of the church that gathered. I was told my views were too radical, an apple that had fallen too far from the tree. My father once told me that the white straight men on the credentials board asking one another the probing question of “What are we going to do about Thomas Fletcher?”
Instead of staying to find out what they would say, I took their email train denying me future credentials as my pink slip. Leaving angry helped me target my frustrations and it opened me up to broader conversations with Atheists, Muslims, Buddhist and progressive Christians. I didn’t know where I stood, but I knew that the god I grew up believing in did not align with the ministry of Jesus I came to understand.
During this time I struggled with my identity, turning to consumerism to bandage my wounds and the pursuit of the non-profit cooperate ladder to deal with my pain. Eventually my wife and I bought our first house and we started basic renovations.
While building a fence I had made the mistake of not measuring 3 inches from the ground to prevent rotting. I posted on Facebook asking for a skill-saw to cut off the bottom portion, and one of my friends offered me his tool. I went by his home the next day to pick it up.
This good friend began to ask me questions to why I left the church and probed to why I was no longer on track to be ordained in my faith tradition. For the first time, tears began to well up in my eyes as I shared my story. He told me about a little Episcopal Church just down the street from me with a conservative priest who was openly gay. My spirit welled up with warmth as not felt in several years.
I went home and told Rebecca about the church. She was skeptical, having experienced hurt of her own in the church, but she also wanted to be part of something again.
The next Sunday morning we nervously got dressed and drove to the church. The priest greeted us with an open door before we even walked in with a smile on his face (probably just excited to see 20 somethings going to church). “Welcome to St. Andrew’s.”
The liturgy was beautiful, but it was the sermon by the Seminarian that sealed the deal: “We need to stop being worried about the future of the church and start being the church of the future.”
Those words stuck with me. For too long I was worried about whether or not the church was relevant and able to withstand the changing tides, and I know I could not remain in a place where my voice was squelched when so many were experiencing pain, suffering and the forsakenness of God because the church refused to go to and welcome them.
I was no longer going to worry about the future of the church, but I was going to be part of the church of the future. Leaving the past and looking forward where God has always been, and this is made evident in the Jesus who taught us to challenge the systems that oppress and to go to those who have been abandoned.