This is the eighth piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan.
Photo Credit - Karen Sargent
I have always loved fall and when September rolls around, it always feels optimistic to me. I like that the air gets crisper, the nights get shorter, and the leaves start to change. I love wearing comfy sweaters and boots, and drizzly, cool days. In Wicca, the time from Mabon (September 21st) to Yule (December 21st) is a time when a lot of the focus is on the Goddess and all of the spiritual themes that come with Her, such as taking deep inner spiritual journeys and getting in touch with the “darker” sides of ourselves –the parts that we do not like to look at because we might not always like what we find. The point of these inner journeys is to find reconciliation, harmony, and peace between all aspects of ourselves, light and dark.
This past fall, a few things happened that brought me on one of the aforementioned inner journeys: My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer after going to the hospital for a pain in her side, I decided it would be best to go on a break with my partner at the time, and I joined a 20s/30s Fellowship Group at my local Episcopal Church.
Joining the 20s/30s group was a decision that took me by surprise. I had met the leader of the group at a social media conference and after chatting for a bit, she told me about the group (“You don’t have to be Episcopal to join!” “We make soup together on Sunday Nights!” “We have deep discussion about different topics!”). I was intrigued, but suspicious - how did I know this wasn’t one of those Christian groups that brought young people in under the guise of acceptance but was secretly fundamental? That was something that I unfortunately had past experience with. How did I know I would be accepted there? Nevertheless, Mia and I exchanged emails and promised we would contact each other. I left the conference and promptly pushed it out of my mind.
Mia didn’t, though: she emailed me the next week, asking if we could meet up for coffee. I agreed - coffee seemed harmless enough. When we met up the following week, Mia’s open personality quickly put me at ease. I shared with her my concerns about the group related to my past experiences with fundamental Christianity and she reassured me that the group was progressive and accepting of everybody. I left coffee with a promise to Mia that I would come on Sunday and that I would bring a couple of ingredients for the making of the soup.
That Sunday, I quietly opened the door of the Episcopal Church in my town and realized that I had come in right at the end of a service. I felt awkward and I was concerned that I had interrupted but I was quickly welcomed and brought into the kitchen to join in the dinner preparations. I don’t remember what the discussion was that night, but I remember we ended with a group selfie. When I hesitated and lingered around the side because I wasn’t sure if I should be in the picture as a new member of the group, everyone insisted that I come into the picture. I left that the church hall that night feeling happy, excited, nervous, and content all at once: I wanted to see what my time with the group would turn into. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the group itself or the people in it, but I was cautiously optimistic.
I continued to go to the 20s/30s group each Sunday evening and I began to look forward to it every week. On Sunday nights, I would be able to get out of the house, have a homemade hot meal, and share in some wonderful conversation with people I was getting to know better and better each week. I still considered myself Wiccan and I never felt any pressure from the group to change. In fact, the Fellowship made it a point to welcome everyone just as they were. There was no pressure to be happy or emotionally well – I could show up exactly as I was, with the good things that happened to me or the bad, and I was beginning to trust that I would be accepted for it no matter what.
In the beginning of December, Yule was fast approaching and I decided that I wanted to involve the group in my celebrations, if they wanted. I proposed that we do a Yule celebration and one of the group members graciously offered his house as the setting, so the week before Yule we carpooled there and had dinner together before the ritual. Since Yule is about light coming into the world with the birth of the God (very similar in symbolism to the birth of Jesus), we all wrote down what parts of our life we wanted to bring light into the coming year and then we made a bonfire and burned our papers to release the intention. As I looked at everyone’s faces as we stood outside after burning our papers, I felt proud of myself: I had shared something deeply personal with a group that I was still getting to know and I had begun to truly trust that I was accepted.
Also around this time, my partner and I broke up. I shared it with the group that Sunday and I knew that there, I could be sad without expectations. No one would try to fix me, but everyone would sit quietly with me in their individual way that was somehow more meaningful than any words of reassurance.
In December, I still hadn’t gone to a church service. In fact, I was purposefully not going because I had no intentions of becoming a churchgoer ever again. I was Wiccan, and that was that. Except…I was a little curious about what went on at the services. Curiosity got the better of me and I went to a 5pm service a shorter and quieter service right before the 20s/30s group. During the service, I was immediately floored that everyone and anyone could receive Communion. As soon as I ate the wafer that was placed into my outstretched palm I experienced a feeling of satisfaction that touched me in a way unexpectedly. I had never felt any particular connection to Communion as a Catholic, and so I was deeply shocked that the Communion at this particular Episcopal Church had any significance to me at all. I was also surprised at how similar it was to a Catholic service, but I felt like it was “softer” somehow - the language was more inclusive and I appreciated that God was talked about as God, not as a He. I felt like this left me able to define God on my own terms, something that I hadn’t been able to do previously.
It must have been these things, along with the Sermons that followed the Bible readings that made me want to keep coming to services. Eventually I started going to the 10am services which are the most lively, populated, and family-friendly - there was the choir, the organ, and what seemed like an endless amount of people to meet. Somehow (and I’m still not sure how), almost every sermon I heard during the service was not only engaging and taught me to re-frame particular Bible passages, but it usually also covered a topic that had been on my mind that week. I was never a person who remembered or even cared about sermons, until I came to my town’s Episcopal Church. Suddenly, sermons mattered. I cared about them and I felt like in a way the sermons were taking care of me, too.
In January, the Church started planning an event to benefit Syrian refugees through the World Food Programme. Mia knew the Refugee crisis was a topic that I feel passionately about, so she invited me along to a planning session.
That was it. I was hooked, and I knew I was in some serious trouble. Not only had I found a place where I cared about the people, the ritual, and the sermons, but I also saw firsthand that the people cared. Not in a superficial, words-only kind of way, but in a deep and meaningful way that actually led to substantial and lasting change.
In early February, Ash Wednesday rolled around, marking the start of the 40 days of Lent. I wasn’t exactly sure how I should approach Lent or how involved I should even be, because I didn’t really know what it was all about. I mean, I knew – I was raised Catholic, after all – but I had never internalized it in a way that was meaningful for me. In the 20s/30s group, Mia proposed that we read through the book A Season for the Spirit by Martin L. Smith as a group, and people could participate as they wished. I had no intention of reading it, but she promised that the discussions each week would be broad enough that anyone could join in, so I felt comfortable with that. When doing the count for the books, Mia counted me even though I wasn’t planning on reading. I didn’t want to correct her (and I also didn’t want to be rude), so I received a copy of the book and I figured that since I now possessed it, I might as well start reading with the rest of the group.
A Season for the Spirit is broken up into daily readings throughout Lent. There is the main text, a reflection, and prayer. I started reading the book with suspicion and a little bit of hostility, but I was soon touched by the gentle way author Martin Smith approached deep and difficult issues and re-framed them in a Christian context that I felt like I could relate to even as I called myself Wiccan. In one chapter, Smith talks about how we can put ourselves under a spiritual/emotional anesthetic to prevent ourselves from feeling pain but in doing so we also stop ourselves from feeling joy. The theme of feeling joy had come up during the four weeks of Advent and when the question “what makes you feel joy?” was posed, and at the time I had no idea how to answer. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt joy, and finally this chapter found the words for how I was feeling.
Lent passed and Holy Week approached and I wasn’t sure how to spiritually frame it, since I still didn’t feel like a Christian. Should I even participate? The Reverend at the Church framed it for me as walking with Jesus into the dark places within me and knowing that there is Light at the end of the tunnel. Symbolism – I love it. And more importantly, I could internalize the themes of Holy Week and Easter in a way that made sense to me, something I hadn’t been able to do before. I came out of Lent and Holy Week changed. I felt like a wall around my heart had finally been broken into and the world was a bit of a brighter place. I knew I could deeply feel joy and pain and that one doesn’t have to cancel out the other. I knew that I was enough, just as I was.
And here we are, almost one year later. The Church and the people in it, especially the 20s/30s group, have become an integral part of my life. If someone had told me a year ago that this is where I would be spiritually and emotionally, I would never have believed it. Until I joined this Church, I didn’t know I had something missing from my life and that I would be in a better place almost a year later because of it.
I’m still not sure what I am. Am I Christian? Am I Pagan? To me, it doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that being involved in this Church has helped me heal from old wounds. I can feel joy, and hope, and I know that I will be accepted just as I am: my good days, my bad days, when I am joyful or when I am in pain. When I feel like company, and when I feel like being by myself, my church and the people in it will be there when I am ready for them.
Every time I pass by my little church with the bright red door, I see the prominent banner outside that reads: “Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Change the World.” And here, in my little church with the bright red door, I know that is true.
Karen Sargent is an anthropologist, intersectional feminist, interfaith activist, and part-time Episcopalian from Boston, Massachusetts. In her spare time, she loves to read, crochet, and critically analyze pop culture (she is super fun to have around at parties). You can probably find her on Twitter (@SLHTblog), Instagram (@thecozywitch), at the local library, or petting the nearest dog or cat.
Karen previously wrote Looking for Peace in the Grey Areas for Interfaith Ramadan 2015.
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