Editor's Note: In this issue, we introduce a new feature, Have Faith. Have Faith explores relationships with spirituality. We encourage submissions from anyone who wants to share an experience with religion or faith. For consideration send your thoughts, of 500 words or less, to theeaganenterprise@gmail.com.

Have Faith

Faith as a journey

  By Leslie Atkins

   It’s one thing to change how one practices their religion, but anytime someone changes religions entirely, it comes with a lot of questions.  Not only have I done the first, I’ve also done the second.  More than once.
   Faith and religion tends to be a complicated topic.  The person in Human Resources will tell you not to talk about it at work.  Dear Abby will tell you not to talk about it at parties and family events.  Yet, even when we claim to have “no religion,” it still manages to become an integral part of our lives.  And, for better or worse, our families always get involved.  Even if it’s in telling us what not to do. 
   As tends to be the case, my family (and now also my husband’s family) has been a significant part of my faith journey.  And it truly has been a journey.  There have been things that I didn’t expect.  Places along the way that I thought were the destination (they never were).  And an eventual realization that there was no “destination;” that faith will always be a journey. 
   Now, when I say my family was a significant part of my journey, it wasn’t in the way most people think.  I didn’t grow up going to youth groups and children’s church.  My parents were agnostic and my grandparents were Southern Baptists.  Most of the year I was completely unaffiliated.  However, when I would visit my grandparents in Indiana over summer breaks, I experienced the other side of things. 
  It was on one such visit, the summer before fifth grade, that I had my first significant step in this journey.  A pastor at my grandma’s church asked the kids in Children’s Church who didn’t “have Jesus in their hearts” to raise their hands.  I raised mine because I wanted to follow directions, and mumbled along with the follow-along prayers that came afterwards.  My grandparents rejoiced, but I was still the same.  When I returned home, my parents called it a “phase” and I was inclined to agree.  Sure, I had done what the pastor told me to do, but I lacked any kind of real connection with the decision.  So, as many such “conversions” do, mine faded into the background until I was just the same as I was before that summer.
   I continued on the agnostic path until I got to high school.  I became good friends with a girl in band who was very involved in her church.  As soon as she found out I wasn’t, she was on a mission.  She included appeals like, “you’re too smart not to believe in God.”  What could I say?  Solid appeal to my ego?  Check.  There was also a part of me that was interested in the idea of being part of something that was bigger than myself.  For the time being, this particular branch of religion seemed to fit the bill.  It wasn’t long before attendance turned into an introspective and prayerful night in my room.  A much more thought out decision than when I was younger.  And this time I was determined to make it stick.  In addition to church attendance and independent Bible study, I was becoming a regular at the Christian clubs at my high school. 
   Once again, I heard the argument from my family that it was “just a phase” and that I was spending a lot of time on something that I was going to “grow out of.”  Where I saw my friends occasionally getting in trouble and getting grounded from everything except church, I would get grounded from church.  It became a daily struggle, but it seemed like the more I struggled and fought for it, the deeper my faith grew.  And really, it had to be that way, because otherwise there would be no reason to fight. 
   The more I thought about my faith and what part God would have for me in the world, the more I felt like youth ministry was the right place for me.  As I started college, I became a youth leader and some of the interns adopted me into their group and let me help out with things.  I longed to be in their shoes.  But my parents, who always had a strong say in my life, would have none of that.  If I was going to pursue something that was a “waste of [my] time” and that “wouldn’t pay well” then I would be on my own.  I was afraid to think of how far they were willing to take that “on my own” claim since I was living in their house and these were the same people who had grounded me from church. 
   I kept this passion buried deep in my heart.  I tried to find a way to be able to do both.  To do something they wanted and still get to where I wanted to be.  But, like any product that claims to do multiple things, I wasn’t able to accomplish either goal.  I ended up with a degree in writing (something they weren’t thrilled with, but that I could deal with more than their suggestions) from Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I hoped that somehow all of my experience with youth groups both in Minnesota and in Oklahoma would help me land that dream job.  Sadly, it was not to be. 
   At graduation, my journey would lead me back to Minnesota, still in pursuit of a vision that would never come to pass.  My faith practice transitioned from Pentecostal/Assemblies of God, to Methodism.  And it wasn’t long after that I met the man who would become my husband.  A former ordained minister and youth pastor for the Assemblies of God, he had become just as frustrated with the church as I had. 
When we got married a little over a year later in Austin, Texas, it added a new element to my spiritual journey.  It was no longer my decision, it was one my husband and I would have to work out together.  Of course, there were the usual pressures, this time from his family, to attend a certain church.  For five years we wrestled with finding a way to make everyone happy.  You would think I would have already learned this lesson.  I had not. 
   When we moved to Jacksonville, Florida for my first year of law school, it was like a fresh start.  There were no expectations.  There was no pressure.  In fact, we didn’t even have a recommendation from anyone as to where to go.  So, for a while, we didn’t.  We took the first few months to really think about where our journey had taken us and what we wanted the future to look like.  We didn’t appreciate the guilt that often came with the Assemblies of God churches we had attended, so we ruled that out.  While there was a certain structure to the Methodist churches we had attended, we were looking for something more.  Some factor that we couldn’t really articulate at the time. 
In our searching, we stumbled upon a Messianic Jewish synagogue that was right next to the law school I was attending.  Let me be more specific.  In an office building next to the law school I was attending.  Yes.  They held their services in an office space.  And no, we weren’t sure how to feel about it either.  I remember dropping our infant daughter off in the nursery that first morning.  They asked if she would be there for the whole service.  Well, of course she would, but that led us to ask how long service would be.  “Oh, about three hours,” was her reply.  My husband and I exchanged knowing looks.  Having come from the Assemblies of God, we had sat through services that ranged from two to five hours.  Our looks were the same.  “Here we go again.”
   But then there was the unexpected.  One of the things we had loved about the Methodist churches we had attended was the strong sense of tradition without the judgmental attitudes that came with the Assemblies of God package.  There were traditional Jewish prayers and also a strong sense of community, or “mishpacha” (the Hebrew word for family), as we would come to know it.  One of the members of the synagogue invited us out to lunch.  Another couple invited us to their home for Shabbat dinner.  While there was a time for an offering, no one begged and pleaded.  It was done almost dismissively.  And while the service actually was three hours, it wasn’t full of over-played songs or a pastor who just like to hear himself speak. 
   Over the weeks that followed, we saw a pattern.  The Rabbi would share a message, but it was short and to the point.  He clearly knew how to connect with his congregation.  There were songs, but they weren’t repeated until they were tiresome.  We were able to connect with a community of people who were looking for the same things.  And, more importantly, the congregation viewed one’s faith as a journey.  There was no checklist of do’s and don’ts.  There were the commandments, of course, but no one was “less” because they weren’t keeping any particular guideline, and no one was considered “greater” because they were.  Everyone there was where they were, and there was no expectation for anyone to achieve any particular “level” at any particular time.  Faith was a journey and this was a community of people on a journey. We found what we were looking for.