Unlearning Religion to Relearn Faith




The New York City skyline twinkled behind my husband, Terrell, and I as we spent an evening down at The Landing Cafe at Long Island City. We frequent this place often, not only because the skyline has a weird way of activating our dreams, but also because we believe the more we sit and act like Long Island City residents, the faster the Universe will respond to grant us our wish.


It was a cool late summer night, the chilled breeze gave way to Fall right around the corner. We shared two cups of beer and talked about our hopes for the next 12 months -- namely the end of a global pandemic that hijacked our first year of marriage. Glancing over at the Empire State Building together and feeling so close to it helped us feel closer to our dreams. For a moment, it was almost as if there were no pandemic, just me, Terrell, the NYC skyline, our beers, and our dreams. We got lost in the feelings of what our future could while I gazed at the stars, almost asking them if we were out of our minds.


Out of nowhere the sound of what I thought was the start of fireworks interrupted the evening bustle of LIC. A rock flew in the sky and burst into a bright fiery orange light, traveling a few seconds before turning blue and completely disappearing from the sky. I looked over at my husband to make sure I wasn’t seeing things and quietly yelled, “Oh my God, tell me you saw that!” He paused, probably as shocked as I was, and replied, “I caught the end of it.”



I’d never felt so directly spoken to from God than that night. If I could put it into words, it’s almost as if God asked me to have faith in my dreams, and to expect surprises -- like that fireball. However, this moment is years in the making. It’s taken me 6 years to reconstruct my relation with God and redefine what faith means to me. It’s taken 6 years to believe and understand the language of the Universe in a way that makes sense to my curious spirit.


***


For two decades I connected “faith” with the image of a white bearded guy sitting on top of a cloud who loved me, until I sinned, of course. My foundation of faith comes to me from my maternal grandmother, a devout Seventh Day Adventists who was determined that I announce Jesus Christ as my savior before The Book of Revelations came to fruition. She worked overtime to make this happen, mostly because her grandchild was and still is stubborn, unwilling to accept “truth” as absolute truth. As a child I had a hard time believing things I could not see, and my curiosity was too much for my grandmother - who every summer reminded me that Jesus Christ was coming to save his children very soon, instilling the fear of being left behind when the alleged fated day would com



Her biblical lessons took place in the tropical backyard of her cement home in the Dominican Republic. In nature, under the palm fronds of her coconut trees, I learned the word of God, the humility of Jesus, and the subservience of women according to the bible. I remember on Friday’s before sunset we hurried outside to welcome the Sabbath not daring to lift a finger for the next 24 hours because “If God rested on this day after creating the world, heavens, and earth, so should we.” Abuelita was and still is dedicated to her religion. When she visits me these days and sees my altar she reminds me that she would rather die than serve a life that was not in service of Christ.


I learned a lot under the palm fronds of her coconut trees,

I learned that God created the world,

I learned that we all suffer because of Eve’s mistake,

I learned the sins I would be punished for,

I learned what my role was as a woman in this world,

I learned that angels left my side when I sinned,

I learned that God was a man,

I learned that women were born out of man and thus were to respect them,

I learned that brujeria was of the devil, condemned by the Bible, only practiced by Haitians,

I learned that I needed to give my life to Jesus or I would be left behind,

I learned that I was nothing but a sinner who needed to repent and be saved -- I was helpless without Jesus.


However, my spirit thankfully never stopped poking holes in my grandmother’s teachings. Curiosity overwhelmed my respect one afternoon and I asked her, with genuine concern, “If God made Jesus, then who made God?” I might as well have purchased a one-way ticket to hell because my grandmother was appalled. Her reaction taught me that my faith in God and my curiosity could not live in the same house. It taught me that I could only have one over the other -- and for a curious bookworm like me, that simply wasn’t enough.




Two years ago, when Facebook was still my jam, someone I respect replied to a comment I made to tell me the thing they admired about me most was my faith. Two weeks ago, a college student I currently advise nonchalantly ended our conversation by saying, “You know, you’re very spiritual.” Both comments left me with the same reaction; confused, suspicious, and doubtful.


I’ve never considered myself a spiritual person, because my definition of spirituality involved White Man God, the church, consistent prayer, singing, devotion, and skirts -- all things that at one point or another I was thoroughly against. However, spirituality as defined by Dr. Maya Spencer of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, involves the recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there is something greater than myself, something more to being human than sensory experience, and that the greater whole of which we are part is cosmic or divine in nature.



Different from the rules and dogma of religion, which undoubtedly benefit millions of people, this definition of spirituality allows for more nuance and curiosity -- that which my abuelita simply did not. Dr. Spencer goes on to say that spirituality explores multiple themes like love, compassion, life beyond death, amongst others on the path to “enlightenment.” With this definition, I’m more open to being spiritual because it relieves me of the fear, shame, guilt, and rules imposed by traditional Christianity. Religion creates a monolith out of spirituality, emphasizing rules that perpetuate patriarchy, anti-Blackness, and loss of self. This was my roadblock to spirituality, for many years.




It wasn’t until I reunited with the beauty of synchronicity and nature, that I redefined faith, and consequently rediscovered God. What started as a journey to love myself led to a journey to answer my bigger questions in life like, who was I? What was I here to do? I discovered Sage, Palo Santo, and Copal, gave my childhood love for collecting rocks a purpose through crystals, and fed my intuition through oracle cards and spiritual books. I learned how to meditate and do yoga, two things that help ground me in my body and connect with something greater than me for strength, wisdom, and love. I learned all about working with moon phases and through my higher self I learned how to have trust in something other than my physical body. I learned how to set up an altar, honor my ancestors, and ask my spirit guides for help. This is what spirituality looks like, for me. It is an ever evolving journey to learn how to trust that which I cannot see and have faith in my Creator that I am whole, worthy, loved, and creatively made in their image.


The freedom to define spirituality differently helped me love and trust God differently. I no longer see God as a punishing authority -- rather an energy with limitless love for me and everyone/thing around me. Today I carry this definition with me and strengthen my faith by building on my belief in God. Between you and me, I rewrite Bible verses in my journal without the words “He/Him” or any of the other patriarchal languages to feel God’s presence. Psalm 23 is my anchor!


So when I think about the fireball in LIC, I am reminded of my faith in something that is bigger than me, that speaks to me in the “language of all things” like the Alchemist says. My faith leans on openness and trust that I’m always taken care of. It reminds me of the little miracles in life like the breath in my body that I don’t orchestrate, or the cells in my body that do their job without my attention. I know that fireball was God speaking to me, and it has taken so much unlearning for me to have absolute faith in that.