“…Was Lost But Now Am Found”: How I Lost My Religion and Found My Faith (PART 1)

This essay is the first installment of our religion series on GirlSense & NonSense. We're interested in reading your own stories of faith and considering them for publication. Please send all writing to submissions@girlsenseandnonsense.org.  

By Sarah Johnson

Besides politics or Idk the Kardashians, one would be hard-pressed to find a topic as instantly polarizing as religion. Love it or hate it, religion has been and continues to be an incredibly influential institution from all the way back in the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ to the 21st century. Just try turning on the T.V. or surfing the internet without a news story popping up involving religion. Good luck. (Today, it was the Pope’s visit to Syrian refugees in Greece, which, incidentally, involves at least three different religions and sects). So yes, either way religion is a pretty big freakin’ deal. And, that’s why for me, a former Independent, KJV Bible-Believing, Fundamentalist Baptist, sharing my story of how I lost my religion has been, to say the least, a challenge (read: crisis). But, it has also been an incredibly renewing process ten years in the making. So yes, parts of my story delve into some negative topics and ugly realities, but I promise there’s a good ending, well at least to this chapter in my life. So here it goes…

Some of my earliest memories are of church. As is often said in Baptist circles, I was a church-goer even while still in the womb. Church is where I first learned of Jesus and God and the Virgin Mary and the Apostle Paul; it’s where I met my first best friend, my first crush, my first set of adoptive grandparents; it’s where I witnessed my first wedding, my first funeral. How could I ever forget about the summer camps in McCall, the annual Carnival and the New Years Eve Super Service?! Needless to say, my life orbited around the church and my religion. In short, my world was perfect, like almost rainbows and unicorns perfect. For the greater part of my childhood and into adolescence I enjoyed absolute confidence in my beliefs, in my friends, in my community, in the world. So what changed? Well nothing…and everything, namely me.

It all started with a little something called education. Like any good Baptist kid, I was home-schooled until the 8th grade by a father who, fortunately for me, cultivated a love of learning and travel in all of his children and especially us girls. By the time I graduated from middle school, my parents and I decided that public high school would give me the best shot in terms of learning opportunities and preparation for college. So I became a Lady Kaveman (yep, really) at Kuna High School. Of course, my decision was not popular among some of my friends and many families at church, and I took in all of the usual horror stories of good girls gone bad, drugs, Satanists, Charles Darwin etc. etc. with a grain of salt. I knew that my faith was strong, and I knew that I wanted to attend college, so this was how I was going to do it. So far so good.

It turns out, I had no idea what was coming for me. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with different worldviews, moral dilemmas, ideologies, and individuals, without the shelter of my religion and church family. So how did I handle it? Back then, I would have been proud of myself. Let’s see…I prayed over my lunch in the cafeteria, wrote a 5-paragraph essay entitled “George Bush’s Courage” (still have it), rebuked some scallywags for their foul language, and best of all informed the first girl to befriend me that I couldn’t be friends with her after I found out that she was bi-sexual. All in a day’s work.

I can still remember the look of confusion and hurt on her face, and to this day feel intensely disgusted and ashamed with myself for being so hateful to someone whose only crime was being a decent individual. It wasn’t until after I myself started being judged and accused of being “too worldly” and “not innocent anymore” that I began to realize a disturbing pattern: I was doing the exact same thing to others that was happening to me, and all because we thought we were doing the right thing, the “Christian” thing! After all, it’s what was peppered in sermons from the pulpit every Sunday from 9:15-12:00 p.m. and every Wednesday from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

As I learned more about the world and the people around me, I began to see for the first time a perplexing disconnect between the “love” being taught from the pulpit and the hate perpetuated by the congregation, myself included. Inconsistencies started piling up like DUIs on a former-Disney Channel starlet’s driving record, and my eyes were opened to just how exclusive my religion was, especially towards marginalized populations. The LGBTQ community, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, liberals, the poor, and even other Christian sub-sects were seen as detriments to society and were routinely the butt of jokes and discriminatory language. I felt a strong “Us against the World” mentality, and began to seriously wonder if this was really how Christians were really supposed to view the world. The first cracks started to appear in my perfect world.

I then noticed how this “Christian mentality” began to affect me personally as a woman. The youth pastor never called on any of us girls to contribute during Sunday School lessons unless of course, it had to do with a domestic example or wifely duty. Women in my church weren’t allowed to hold any leadership positions and were only recognized for their “labors” in the nursery and church kitchen. When the weather got warmer, we had our annual modesty dress code chat from the preacher. Apparently it was our responsibility to protect the delicate moral sensitivities of our righteous men should they be inclined to evil thoughts because of our bodies. (Can anybody say perpetuation of victim blaming and rape culture?) Perhaps the most infuriating instances of blatant sexism occurred during instances when women, some of them pregnant teens and young mothers, were brought to the front of the congregation to confess their “sins of immorality” in order to be reinstated in the church. It was all almost surreal, like a reenactment from the pages of Hawthorne.

By this point, the questions in my mind began to turn to doubt. I mean, what was the purpose of an institution that seemed more preoccupied with condemning the whole world and amassing a congregation of like-minded individuals than with sharing God’s love with EVERYONE? Was this what Jesus intended of His church? Wasn’t hate, intolerance, and judgment why the world was such a big freakin’ mess? So why was it happening at church? And why did I start to hate the person I was when I was at my “holiest”? I felt less and less connected to the religion that had once sustained me. My perfect world began to crumble in earnest.

My response – unfortunately – was to retreat into myself instead of seeking help or talking to someone about it. To make matters worse, I received incredulity and accusations of “worldliness” from the people who were once my closest friends and even on occasion, from my family. I felt alone and ostracized. For a teenager faced with an identity crisis, this was almost more than I could handle. That’s when I felt my whole world completely disintegrate.

I think my brain and body was trying telling me something too with the onset of extreme anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes I would feel a panic attack coming on while singing a hymn or simply listening to a sermon. I recall begging God to take it away and would come home completely drained and exhausted. Soon I couldn’t focus at school. I became painfully self-conscious about it, and my attendance dropped. Things I used to love like debating in tournaments, playing the piano, Korean dance, hanging out with my friends ceased to be important anymore. I went as far as enrolling in online classes to avoid episodes in class. I’ve never said this publicly, but after finally seeking medical help for some of the symptoms caused by anxiety, I was also diagnosed with depression. This ended up being a relief because I now knew that I wasn’t going crazy or dying. More importantly, it was also a clear indictment of the influence of Fundamentalist Baptist religion in my life.

After my diagnosis, I was done feeling confused, hurt, betrayed, angry. I would love to say that I immediately left the church, denounced all connections with Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity, and moved on right then and there. But, no, it was a SLOW process that involved countless arguments with family members who still needed time to digest this change. It also involved radical oscillations between agnosticism and extreme religious devotion and relapses back into the religion and church. It was hard, it was painful, but I continued questioning and I did my best to focus on rebuilding myself mentally, physically, and spiritually. I finally did leave the church and took a prolonged break from it all, including God. I studied abroad in South Korea two different times, fell in love with traveling, made new friends, reconnected with old friends from high school, and helped one of those old friends start an organization for emerging young female artists. What helped me most was finally talking to others about what I was going through. Eventually I felt life and love returning to a heart that was torn with mental illness, bitterness, and confusion.

As I began to reconnect with myself from the inside out, I began to forgive, forget, and heal. From a spiritual standpoint, I took steps towards renewing my relationship with God by attending some uplifting Bible studies on the beautiful topic of grace, by taking courses on religion, and by reading a book entitled Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr (Thanks, Pam). I think a pivotal point for me in this whole journey was also seeing my family begin to see the same inconsistencies that I had and take journeys of their own. After they left as well, I was able to fully relate to them, and their support, understanding, and love has really made all the difference.

So, today I go to church here, there, or not at all. Sometimes it’s enough for me to head outside on a summer evening and marvel at His Creation. Other times I put on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday or sit in on a Bible study with friends and family. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m connecting with my soul, my God, and my faith. Faith is no longer bound to a single religion, a single building, a single preacher, a single interpretation. It lives in me and in the world around me. As Richard Rohr, writes in his book, Immortal Diamond, “Your experience of your deepest and truest self and your deepest experiences of God will prove one another right – and prove one another good” (93). Preach it!

So that’s it. This is my story. See, good ending, right? It’s nothing near as dramatic as others and it’s nothing new, but it’s mine, and it’s true. With this essay, I hope to close this chapter of my life. I also hope that other individuals going through similar circumstances will read this and know that they are not alone and that what they’re feeling is valid. It’ll be long, it’ll be hard. But, it can also be incredibly freeing and empowering. So my parting words to those folks are stay true, stay open, let hate go, let love in, live life, question, question, question, reach out, forgive and last of all, onward!

Sarah Johnson is a Co-Editor for GirlSense & NonSense. Connect with Sarah about your own stories of faith by leaving a comment, or by submitting writing for potential publication to submissions@girlsenseandnonsense.org.