My journey of faith has been the proverbial road less traveled. It began with being baptized in the Catholic church, a decision I believe was more out of, “this is what all good Catholics do,” than anything else. My parents were not religious per se, other than showing up for services twice a year at Christmas and Easter. Not that it would have made them religious if they would have gone more frequently. Maybe just observant Catholics.
By the late 60’s we had moved north to Washington and landed in the pews of a United Methodist congregation. Not observant Catholics anymore, we traded Eucharist with wine drunk from a chalice and bread torn from a loaf, for grape juice in small thimble cups and thin wafers that tasted like cardboard. The Methodist church we attended in Bellevue was a country club and the congregation did all the right things that enlightened churches were supposed to do: Preach from the lectionary, celebrate weddings and funerals, teach sunday school, host holiday bazaars and ice cream socials and produce a Christmas pageant that would be worthy of a front page article in the Bellevue American newspaper. Or at least the front page of the local section which comes after the sports and business sections.
This was not unique to the Methodists, however. You could have put any one of a handful of denominations in front of “church”–Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc., and would have come up with the same formula.
Regardless, the pastor looked like Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D., wore fine gray suits and drove a Cadillac. I attended sunday school like all the other good children. One Sunday morning while ducking out of class to use the bathroom, I noticed small draw string bags hanging from all the closed classroom doors. Curious, I looked inside one bag and it was full of coins. Helping myself to a few, I checked the rest of the doors and was equally rewarded. I liked that church. My bike was stolen in front of it.
Church life took a big detour when my dad signed us up for a Peace Corps family program, and it never quite recovered. We lived in far flung foreign lands such as Venezuela, Liberia and Lexington, Kentucky. Witnessing racism, third world poverty and ancient tribal spirituality, we were permanently liberated from the orthodoxy of the suburban American Christian experience. Thus, on our homecoming to the Methodist church, it was like wearing plaid to a funeral.
Sensing the misfit and desiring an new community a bit less WASP‘y, my mom lead us to a Unitarian church, recommended by some recent friends in her artist group from Cornish College where she had been attending. The Unitarians were an entirely different bunch than we had ever experienced before. The Methodist messages on obedience, “thou shalt not’s,” and grape juice communions were traded for socially relevant sermons on US foreign policy, racial tension in America and poverty. The church was even housing an illegal Guatemalan, a refugee from the civil war crisis in Central America. The biggest departure from our prior experiences with what happened on retreat. Far from the family church retreats past, this crowd knew how to party and wine, weed and women was the rally cry.
On a side note, now that I am a parent of teenagers it strikes me that the result of all this happening concurrent to my coming of age turned out to be the best deterrent a parent could imagine for an impressionable young boy. Best illustrated by a family church retreat we participated in at a nudist camp in BC; nothing, I repeat nothing, to a thirteen year-old is more repulsive than to see their parents strolling through a campsite naked. It is an enduring image that has spawned a compensating modesty that survives even today.
While a move to Seattle ended the Unitarian phase, Mom was clearly in control by now and she began to experiment outside the lines of Christianity, joining a community in a North Seattle ashram. I’m not even sure what to call the community, other than it was some derivation of non-dualism. This culminated in a second trip to BC for a convention of sorts, attracting East Indian families from all over Canada and the US. While this was not much more than a detour, I gained an appreciation for Tandoori chicken, curry and chapatis.
Soon after, we landed in a Congregational church. Somewhere between the Methodist and Unitarian experience, the service was more traditional, returning to the thimble cups and cardboard wafers. The high school youth group, however, was entirely a different story. In spite of the best efforts of the parent-leaders, the person clearly in charge was the son of the preacher. He was into martial arts, Led Zeppelin and always had good weed. Our annual youth group fundraising ventures to Yakima for peaches, and mission trips to Mt. Vernon to help run summer schools for children of migrant workers, were all done in the backdrop of mind-expanding, blue smoke filled conversations and eastern mysticism.
Reflecting on the sum of my childhood experiences with church and faith, what strikes me most is I cannot recall not even one conversation about God, the nature of God, how God relates to me, or I to Him. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. I just don’t remember if it did. And it’s not as though He was absent. Just that He was kind of a fixture. Like Mt. Rainier in the distance. On a sunny day you can see it, but most days you don’t (this is the Northwest after all). But you always know the mountain is there and don’t question it. That was the sum total of my experience with God in my childhood.
Three years later, I left home for college and did not grace the door of a church, even for Christmas and Easter, for another 12 years.