A Series on the 3 Things I Got Right as a Parent
Part 2: A Community
Providing my children with precious time in nature is one thing I got right as a parent. (Read Part 1: A Wood) I’m also proud of raising them in an incredible church. I say this even though I’m married to an atheist, and even though I resist being called a “Christian” because of the negative connotations that go with it.
I’m not conservative, judgmental, nor righteous and I don’t like the way the mantel of “Christian” creates “Other.” I have a personal God that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember and my faith could move mountains—I have even experienced miracles—but my beliefs are personal and I don’t wear them on my sleeve.
Still, I always knew I wanted to raise my children in a church.
I hear many people say, “We’re going to let them choose when they grow up.” I never understood this argument. How does one choose in a vacuum? I chose instead to give my kids something to rebel against: Here is something you can embrace, walk away from, hate, or love. It was a very conscious decision for me, because I believe that we can only truly choose things we have experienced. It’s ok to push back, but if we know nothing, then we have nothing upon which to form an opinion.
Intelligence is making connections, and how can one make connections out of thin air?
So I started with the equivalent of my mother tongue, the Catholic Church. I tried to convince my neighborhood church to adopt an incredible Montessori-based Sunday School program, Catechises of the Good Shepherd (CGS); I even got myself on the textbook committee. But it never took and I ended up taking my kids to another church. Unfortunately, it was a poorly-run program. The classroom was dirty and it even smelled bad.
I knew of an Episcopal church up the street with a well-known CGS program. Catholics and Episcopalians offer a nearly identical curriculum, so I started taking my kids there while still going to early mass at our regular Catholic church. That’s when I discovered something—all Christian churches read the same Bible verses EVERY WEEK! I would be waiting for my kids and hear the exact reading I had just heard in my church. I thought, “Who’s scheduling this meeting, where they all decide what the weekly reading is?!”
I loved the program and the incredible teachers at the Episcopalian church, but I still considered myself a Catholic. Then, when my kids were 5 and 7, we were visiting family in St. Louis and went to mass at the New Cathedral, where my parents were married. The Bishop was visiting that day and there was an unruly crowd of priest-abuse victims protesting with signs and banners outside.
“What’s going on, Mom?” my kids asked.
I believe in answering children truthfully but, if the topic is sensitive, divulging just enough to satisfy their curiosity. “Oh, these people are mad about something that happened to them,” I said.
“What, Mom? What happened?”
“Someone harmed them when they were little. Someone they trusted hurt them.”
“Who was it? Who hurt them? What did they do?”
It was awkward, even painful.They wouldn’t let up and I knew I was going to have to shatter their illusions of a good world. I thought, “How do I explain to my kids that the place they go every week, has for decades, if not centuries, been an institution involved with harming children?”
I decided I didn’t want to be part of that institution anymore.
At the same time, my experience at the Episcopalian church felt fresh and modern and relevant. Our gay rector often spoke casually from the pulpit about his long-term partner, and I was seeing women on the altar in important roles.
I was becoming an Episcopalian. The deal was sealed when my Mom came from Florida for my daughter’s first communion. As we drove up to the church, she asked, “Where are we?” and didn’t bat an eye when I said her granddaughter was an Episcopalian.
By middle school my daughter declared herself an atheist. I don’t force her to go to church with me anymore but, funnily enough, both my kids remain very active in the youth group and participate in the annual mission trip to Appalachia. Hallelujah! They love their amazing teacher and her young hip assistant, the social hour, the good food, and the entire vibe. They have something to push back against or something to embrace if they want it. They have had a background in Bible study (cultural literacy!), morality, and, most importantly, they have a community of people who have known them since they were young and to whom they belong.
Every child needs to belong to something bigger than themselves. Do you agree? I’d love to hear where you’ve found community for your family and in what way your children benefit.