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Easter Sunday

April 8, 2013

Some things have been hard at home lately, but the good things have been really, really good. We got through some very tough anniversaries for all four of us and have come out the other side more tightly bonded and with girls who are growing up so fast and with so much grace and wisdom (and silliness and defiance and all that good stuff too, granted). I am the one having a hard time at the moment, in way over my head with a few things I know I can tackle if I just buckle down and put in the effort and stop beating myself up, but ugh.

With that out of the way, though, I want to talk about going to church. Again. I know I’ve done this a lot of the years, but trust me that it takes a lot of mental energy to know where I stand on church as a white atheist going into this church that is almost entirely black, with a worship experience very different from the Catholicism I grew up with and a theology that (of course, since I’m an atheist) I don’t accept. There are tough parts like how Lee thinks I’m going to hell and won’t talk to me about it because it’s too upsetting for her. There are tough parts like how Mara, who’s doing much better since starting her occupational therapy, would spend too much of the music time with her hands over her ears trying to protect herself from the noise, and how she and Nia get jealous if the other is getting more of my attention (since I’m almost always the only parent there) and so I spend an hour or two with two 50-plus-lb. children on my lap.

I don’t know when I became an atheist, though the first moment of doubt I remember comes from when I was 4 or so and realized that if God was watching people all the time, then that meant watching them while they were on the toilet, which was gross and disrespectful and I was not cool with that. As an adult, I’m totally comfortable with what I believe, and remember during my teens dropping my recitation of bits of the Apostolic creed as I stopped believing in various parts until there was nothing left to say. (When I thought about this to write it up, I had to admit that I do believe in “the forgiveness of sins” except that I don’t believe in sins in the Christian way and so it probably doesn’t count anyhow.) At any rate, I’m an atheist and Lee has made it very clear that she doesn’t want me telling the kids, at least at this point, that I think religions are stories that are created by people to help people structure their lives and give meaning to a big, scary universe. For that reason, though, it makes me laugh that Mara insists on saying “The end!” after the “Amen” at the end of prayers at my parents’ house and that when Nia asked for a soothing prayer the other night Mara suggested she “pray for ‘happily ever after.’”

But regardless of my beliefs, Nia as a child in foster care has the right to be supported in her own religious beliefs and practice. As a 6-year-old, she doesn’t have much of either, but it’s clear that she and her family are (Protestant) Christian and I want to encourage and preserve that for her. This means I’ve bought her Bible stories with ambiguously brown characters and take her not just to a church but to a black church and pray with her every night as part of her bedtime routine. (Mara’s family is also Christian, though her mom has become a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t think there’s an easy way for us to incorporate being part of any local JW community as a lesbian couple, but I can teach the girls about some of their beliefs, especially the ones that involve not saluting the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance or joining the military and so on.)

As I was driving home from church a few weeks ago, I said something to the girls about, “And you know why we go to church…” and Mara immediately peeped up, “Because at church everybody got brown skin!” So we ended up talking about how, yes, that’s a big factor. I would not take them to a majority-white church. It’s important for me to be the minority, typically one of two white people in the room. If I’m going to take them to church as a non-believer, I want them to get the “black church experience” so that when they grow up they’ll be able to draw on shared idioms with their friends, though that may be less of a factor in their generation than it is among my friends and peers. This way, they won’t have the experience I did of never see anyone speak in tongues until I was 30 and so on. They’ll also have some shared experiences and language with their families, though none of them attend our same church.

Even more important than that, they’re seeing other black lesbian-headed families. They get to talk to other kids who haven’t always been thrilled about having two moms. They hear people give testimony about having a mom who was absent because of drug addiction, about being a mom who was absent because of drug addiction, about growing up in foster care or being a foster parent, about the people who played parental roles for them and the ways they’ve created family within and beyond their biological families. The head pastor spoke recently about how hurt she was by the parents who didn’t care for her and how even the love of the grandparents who raised her didn’t heal that hurt, she had to learn how to be loved by a parent to make her peace with being loved by God. All of this resonates with the girls and means a lot to them, and I see part of keeping them in touch with their culture (distinct but overlapping with keeping them in touch with their families) is making sure they’re getting a nuanced view of people living in poverty like their families are, that race and class and gender and everything everything everything get mixed up together for us.

So for the first time, all four of us went to church together for Easter. Mara wore the same dress as last year and Nia had a new one, both of them with coordinating sweaters and flower clips in their hair. They brought new dolls (mini American Girls, Celine for Nia and Addy, and don’t get after me for going in for Easter basket presents because both girls have some sad Easter memories and I don’t regret giving them something extra special at all) and were able to play some and pay attention some and make it the whole three hours of the service, though Lee bailed after two to get home to watch basketball. They got so many compliments on how sweet they looked and how much they are growing, and I think it really matters to hear that from other people with dark skin, other people with locs, other people who are affirming that we are a family and they are part of it all.

Now that I’ve written all this, I’m not sure what I’m saying exactly. I don’t regret what we’re doing even though it’s sometimes a stretch for me and even though in some respects it’s made me less open to Christianity as a belief system I’d consider than I might be with less contact with Christianity, more secure and sometimes more frustrated in my atheism. And yet every night I pray with the girls, “extra love and blessings for all the people you love and all the people who love you, and may you sleep well with the sweetest dreams and go right to sleep” and I mean all that. It isn’t what I grew up with (the “God bless all good people everywhere” that led to one of my first rejections and revisions, since it seemed like the good people were the ones who needed blessings the least) but it isn’t too different either and it helps Nia get the transition she needs to going to sleep. It’s not how things worked when she lived with her mom, but I don’t think it’s incompatible with how her family would want things to work. In all of this stuff where I’m/we’re trying to connect with the girls’ cultures and histories and so on, that’s the balancing act we have to go through. And I think it’s good that it’s hard on me sometimes (or is that my Catholic youth talking?) to get through this element of what we do for them because so much of what they do with us is hard on them and I’m trying to make church as painless and meaningful as possible, though admittedly they still sometimes think it’s too loud and too long. It’s normal to them and that’s what I want and what I think they should get, and where they go with their understandings of divinity and the universe from here will be up to them at some point. I am just trying to teach them to listen, to learn, to love, and I think both Jesus and I can be cool with that.

10 comments

  1. I think this is SUCH good parenting and also, you are far from the only atheist/skeptic/nonbeliever who takes their kids to church. A lot of people do that for a whole lotta different reasons. I grew up with a science-y atheist father and a mother who went to divinity school. I’m religious; my brother never paid it any attention. As you say, when kids are older, no matter what they are raised in, they find their own path. I think being raised with some religious background gives them easier access to a wider variety of paths, and that is probably only a positive thing that will allow them to relate to more people. Also, believing what you said about the stories being made up, etc., is not at all incompatible with being religious – after all, gender is a social construct but I still embrace mine – and when your daughters do hear your beliefs from you, I don’t think Lee should worry that it will destroy their faith.


  2. I think it’s really, truly wonderful that you keep this tradition for them, even if it doesn’t completely line up with your own beliefs. I think for a lot of people, there can be a very special feeling in knowing that you are doing something the same way your ancestors did it (like saying a certain prayer once a week, etc) and I think it’s so good that you are giving the girls the option to choose that when they are older. I imagine it could be even more meaningful to them as adoptees (should that be the case with Nia too). My boyfriend and I both have degrees in religious studies and philosophy, and with that comes a lot of complexity around religion. I know though, that we both share a happiness in honouring some of the family traditions we were raised with, and our parents were raised with, even if we aren’t 110% behind the theology.


  3. I think it’s wonderful that you are doing this for the girls. I’m a little confused why Lee doesn’t instead of you, or as well as you if she has more of a connection with religion , but perhaps you have written about it and I missed it?
    Regardless, I think it’s an important thing for the girls to experience, considering that it’s been part of their family life and will help then have a greater connection to their black culture.
    My wife is black and was brought up in the Caribbean as a Catholic. She lost her faith in that particular religion at about age 10, but has a strong religious side and faith. Whereas I was brought up in an almost atheist family, with a strong mistrust for organised religion. I’m spiritual but not religious. So I guess we’ll both share our stories and perspectives with our children when we eventually get them!


    • I’ve probably talked in bits and pieces about why Lee hasn’t taken the lead, but there isn’t always a good answer. She’s not entirely happy with our church home, but it’s not as if there are going to be a whole lot of other black-majority queer-friendly churches in our small city! She doesn’t like some of the disorganization there and is unhappy with the length of the service, though we often just leave early and I’m fine with doing that. But I think the biggest problem for her is that she wants to get a certain spiritual experience out of being at church and she can’t do that with distractions, so because she considers some of the other adults at church too distracting and everyone knows how distracting kids at church are (but Lee also doesn’t want them going to a nursery during service, so there’s no winning!) she can’t get what she wants out of church and gets frustrated by that.

      It works well when she’s willing to take the girls to church and give me some time off, but that usually means they’re only gone for an hour and that’s not enough time for me to relax or get anything done. And actually I think this has only happened twice in the 2.5 years we’ve been parents! So it’s something she knows she can do to help me but she keeps pushing off, just like she’s claimed the whole time that she’s looking for another church but I think has only actually attended one. I figure that her spiritual journey is hers to figure out, but that means I can’t step back and let things slide for the girls while she’s doing that.


  4. PS- I’m pepibebe but I have unintentionally signed in with my foodie blog name instead.


  5. I love these glimpses into your life and how you incorporate so many different aspects in the best interests of everyone.


  6. Your mothering inspires me as a mother. Thank you for these posts.


  7. Hi Thorn,

    This is a lovely post, and I am full of admiration for you and what you’re doing.

    I’ve never commented here before, but when I read this post I thought you might be interested in Dale McGowan’s books/blog (http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/). He’s an atheist who writes about parenting, though not just for atheist families. Things like talking with kids about your and others’ beliefs, navigating religion in “mixed” households, encouraging both freedom of inquiry and respect for others’ traditions, etc. His thoughtful parenting style reminds me of yours, and if I recall correctly his wife was a Christian when his children were young. Anyway, it sounds to me like you’re doing everything right here, I just thought you might find McGowan’s stuff interesting.

    (Btw, I really love this insight: “it seemed like the good people were the ones who needed blessings the least.”)


    • Thanks, E! I’d read his book several years ago but didn’t know about the blog. I’ll definitely pay attention to it!

      I know one piece of advice I gave a friend when talking about this was how great the local museums (history, natural history, especially art) are for giving us a chance to talk about world religions and what different people hold sacred and so on. The girls really enjoy that and I’m able to get them used to the way all my answers begin, “Well, some people believe that…” and so it doesn’t feel out of place when I’m talking about their Christianity that way.


  8. [...] A white atheist on adopting and foster parenting in a black church. (Do not read if you are opposed to inter-racial relationships or adoptions, lesbian marriages, or lesbian couples adopting / parenting.) [...]



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