Easter SundayApril 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.