On the 13th of April, 2017, I published a blog post titled ‘Losing My Religion and Leaving the Church Behind’. I needed to tell my community that after 22 years of shining the light for Christ, I was no longer convinced that Jesus died and rose again for the sins of the world.
Leaving the church would be a shock to many. I hadn’t ‘gone off the rails’, I hadn’t disappeared from services I frequented. There were no whispers of drunken escapades and promiscuity. Some people knew I had been raped in 2015, but I was using it for God’s glory, rather than an excuse to stray. As far as my Christian community was concerned, I had simply moved across the bridge, and was serving in a new parish there.
Growing up, I promised myself I would never forget God. I had the Holy Spirit, after all. I got a Bible verse tattooed on my foot (Proverbs 3:5-6) and faith scrawled in ink on my finger, not to remind myself that He existed and loved me, but as points of reference for conversations with unbelievers. I used my tattoos to talk about Jesus in hostels in Europe when I was on student exchange. I quickly discovered that backpackers were more interested in the unfathomable idea that I was saving sex until marriage, rather than the redeeming love of Christ.
But I did forget God. There was no lightbulb moment, no book that suddenly made things clear. I had simply stopped practicing my Christian habits: Church on Sunday, leading kids at Youth Group on Friday night, Bible Study on Wednesday night, Bible reading before bed, prayer at breakfast. When I confronted this reality, I knew I needed to make a conscious decision about where I stood with God. I wasn’t raised to be a fence sitter. There were no fences in eternity.
In the leaving, I tried to replace the loss of community. God’s love was unconditional. There was no human relationship on earth that made this claim and lived up to it. Sure, parents loved their children unconditionally, until their child committed an unspeakable crime. Lovers made the claim on their wedding day, but there were always conditions. The love I could find in the world was not as sure as the love I was promised in the Bible. This love breathed life into the community that sustained it, and nurtured a spiritual unit that was, at its core, selfless and humble. This wasn’t necessarily because God existed and loved unconditionally, but because there was the belief that God existed and loved unconditionally. In the beginning, I tried to nurture this belief elsewhere: politics, education, self-pleasure, justice. Later, I discovered that it could not be replicated, and that was okay, and didn’t mean I couldn’t discover purpose, love and joy in a plethora of other places.
I mourned the loss of friendships. I felt freed of many, too. Love can be suffocating. Many cling onto hope, through prayer in Jesus Christ that I will return. They check up on me, reminding me of the Good News, reminding me that they’ve never stopped praying for me. Their earnestness makes me weep. They see fire, but all I can feel is the soft, calming water of an ocean on a clear day. I am kind and polite. And thank them when I can. But every call, every message, is a little heartbreak. I was once them, making the same calls to others. I understand their position, but most do not understand mine, nor do they seek to.
After posting the blog on Facebook, I turned off my phone, tucked it under my doona, pulled on a red dress and heels, and took a train to a yacht club far above my class bracket in Sydney Harbour. I sat in the restaurant with its model boats and glossy floorboards and drank a glass of red wine. I ordered a plate of fresh rock oysters on a bed of sea salt and looked out over the city I called home. After a couple of hours flicking between the pages of my book, and listening to conversations on neighbouring tables, I took the train home to my share-house of boys and their FOX Sports and stir fries.
Within 24 hours, over 8000 people in my community had read the blog post. People had shared it in Christian Facebook Groups asking ‘how can we prevent this from happening?’. My inbox was full of stories from those who felt the same way, and comments from strangers who believed I was harming God’s bride and doing Christianity a grave disservice with my public rejection.
But I needed to communicate with Christians about what it was like for someone to break away from their belief system. I needed to show them what unravelling indoctrination looked like from someone from a ‘normal’ and ‘not-too-conservative’ Anglican Church in Australia. When I broke up with Jesus, guilt and shame plagued me more than the ‘cross shaped hole’ I was assured I would find in my heart if I left. I was afraid that the Bible was true and that my overt rejection of it would guarantee my place in hell for eternity. Images of fire licking my cheeks, and a bed of coal beneath my feet haunted me. When I’d climb into bed and have sex with a man, I’d imagine God sitting at the end, arms folded, watching my purity leak from the sides of the bedsheets, shaking his head. I learnt that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, and I needed Christians to know.
After the blog post, I started this website, The Gravity of Guilt, and wrote a small collection of half-baked think pieces. Over 40,000 people read them over the years. These conversation points were important, and I spoke about them on community radio across the country. I started Sydney Exvangelicals, an online support group for those navigating inherited belief systems and struggling to rebuild their identity. One evening, twenty of the group’s members travelled from all over Sydney to my share house on the south coast, nestled between the escarpment and the sea. Everyone brought plates of pasta and salad and bowls of chocolate mousse. Kirsten bought me a terracotta vase she’d made in her ceramics course. All of us had spent much of our lives in peoples’ homes talking about faith and God, and this was no different. Only, there was no assumed belief. No binding narrative to which we all subscribed.
Last year, I closed that community. Should we close things we’ve started if we feel they are becoming unhealthy or unhelpful? When you create a community, do you relinquish control and settle into the beauty of equal rank among friends? What gives you the right to determine its end? These were the questions that paralysed me. Once I made the decision, I pulled the sheets over my head and cried.
And then Paolo, a much-loved exvangelical community leader and dear friend took his own life, days before his 25th birthday in 2020. In my grief, I raged an internal war on the church, who had made this man feel dirty and broken for his same-sex attraction, a ‘sin’ which fed his chronic depression. I yielded my pen. Christians needed to know the harms of their theology, not only on the LGBT+ community, but on people like me, too.
50,000 words later, a sea of experiences and learnings and interviews splayed out across my bedroom floor, I realised that the act of writing was once again, an act of healing. I didn’t need to do anything with those words. At least not now. I simply needed to understand and validate my story, and find comfort in the person I had chosen to be.
A boy once told me I shouldn’t define myself by what I am not. At that point, I had been waving the I Am Not A Christian flag for years, and it was becoming heavy. This year, 2021, I am reclaiming who I am. I am not a Christian. I am not a Non-Christian. Rather, I am simply a person who is searching for truth and understanding, and who loves with the fullness of her being. At 26, I have discovered the fence, and I think I’m just going to sit here for a while.
It has taken me four years, but finally the weight of guilt and shame has fallen away and I am standing upright. Time, therapy and creative expression was all I needed. I am thankful for the Christian church that raised me, one which instilled in me a strong sense of social justice and a belief in the power of community to heal. I hold no more resentment or anger. Christianity, as I experienced it, was a religion full of earnest people searching and living Truth and Love as they understood it. Like all institutions and individuals, they must constantly look inwards and ensure their actions align with their values. I am committed to doing the same.
Also published on Medium.