Now I don’t talk about religion and my personal beliefs in depth very much. I don’t like to mainly because I think what a person feels regarding religion and God is extremely personal and more often than not points to our differences as people rather than the much larger number of things we share in common that bind us together.
However, because Bethel is one of what feels like the few colleges that is active in the religion it is associated with, lists discipleship as one of its four central values, and has played a big role in my faith life the last few years, I’m going to broach a subject I often avoid.
Before I came to Bethel, I quickly and with little thought identified as Quaker whenever someone asked me what religion I was. Throughout my childhood I regularly attended the Friends meeting in San Antonio, Texas where I’m from, but as I got older and entered high school, my attendance dwindled. By the end of high school, I was going to meeting maybe once a month and other than the yearly Quaker retreat, wasn’t really interact with Quakers my own age. So when I started Bethel, I felt like a fish out of water to be surrounded by and have so many friends with a strong faith in God, Jesus, and Christianity.
Growing up in a post-9/11 U.S., I saw people use the Bible and Christianity time and time again to discriminate and hate people that did not fit their definition of acceptable. It hurt to see something that I had been taught to see as good, both the lessons of Christianity and diversity, take such a beating. The more ugliness I saw in the news driven by the minority of extreme Christians spewed their hate (which they claimed to be love, a sentiment I found even more insulting), the more I hated Christianity and religion in general. I rejected it and the many good things that can come from it.
So when I had to take Intro. to Biblical Studies my first semester freshman year, I thought I wasn’t going to make it through the course, both because my knowledge of the Bible was weak compared to my fellow Threshers and I had internalized such a contempt for it and Christianity. I ended up making it through the class and was glad when it was over; everyday I felt out of the loop, like I was learning a new language. However, it helped open the door to allow me to start mending the ties I chose to break in high school. I attended hymn sings every week that year; I listened actively to the sermons I heard when Women’s Chorus went to churches to sing on Sunday mornings; I went to Lighting of the Green; I even occasionally went to chapel, though that was rare. I didn’t agree with everything, but I was at least listening.
My sophomore year was very different. There were a number of deaths in my life leading up to the start of school, so by the time the fall semester started, I was grieving and angry with God for causing so much pain to me, but more importantly my friends and communities. I was a sad, angry person, though I chose to hide it more often than not. It was also my first year singing in Concert Choir in which we sang the song When David Heard by Eric Whitacre. (It’s a beautiful song and you should look it up if you don’t know it.) Although I was not familiar with the story behind it, there was a hard won healing that it facilitated throughout the year for me. I eventually came to see the beauty in the piece, past the sadness, and was in awe of the amazing things religious stories can inspire people to create.
As the year went on, I became less angry and less sad and eventually wounds from the start of the year simply became sore spots. I began singing at the First Presbyterian Church in Newton and regularly listening to sermons, as the chancel choir sang nearly every week. My understanding of Christianity, though I still didn’t always agree with it, grew and not only was I willing to listen, but to also discuss.
It is only since I got here to Greece that I have realized how much those experiences meant to me and how much I miss them. I gained a support in those places I didn’t know I had. In my travels thus far, I have had the chance to visit the stunning monasteries of Meteora, which spurred these realizations. The holiest places in Greece are on mountains because they believe that the mountains allow you to be closer to God and clear your head of all the business that gathers below. The Greek mainland is also largely mountains, so most of my time traveling has been spent in a bus on the mountain roads thinking. And I think the Greeks are onto something. Everything seems clear in the mountains. Even though I still have my qualms with Christianity, I’ve realized there is a beauty to gathering in church, in community to learn of the life of a man who loved his fellow humans so much he gave his life for them. Despite all the controversies surrounding that, the symbolism of such an act is breathtaking. How many people do you know now who would do that? We may all say we would, but if the time ever came to do it, I don’t think we would.
Religion is about vulnerability. Putting yourself out there, to accept the love of someone we can’t prove exists and the community in which we worship, as well as learning to love ourselves for who we are, shortcomings and all. I realize now that rejecting even the possibility of exploring that vulnerability is one of the dumbest things I’ve done. Whether you agree with any of what I said or not, there is a grain of truth in it and a beauty that’s hard to explain within. Although everyone’s experience is different, Bethel has helped me find my way to this point and I am so grateful, mainly because I don’t think it would have happened otherwise.