Walking down Rollins Street on a crisp, clear January Monday, I find my thoughts wandering toward the events on the previous morning. The hotel ballroom, the extensive range of musicians playing catchy tunes, the changing lights that hinted at different moods. No, I was not at a concert — I was at church.
To many, this is just a normal Sunday ritual, but as a lifelong Jew, this particular experience was a new and unsual one. Never having stepped foot in a church, a fact that has still not changed, I was expecting a solemn pastor preaching the good word with predictable notions of righteousness and the fear of God. There were hints of this sprinkled throughout the service, but the tone was a modern and surprisingly progressive one overall. After the third religious pop number, we took our seats. For the next 40 minutes we heard about Galatians and what its teachings had to say, but my mind was not on the New Testament. Rather, I was thinking about those who love it dearly and build their lives around it. As a somewhat practicing Jew, I can understand the comfort found in the familiarity of your native religion. But as an active college student I had to wonder, in the midst of a chaotic college life, can religion be a saving grace?
As someone who does not casually discuss religion or any of its consequences, seeing so many young people feel so strongly about it by personal choice enticed me to entertain its merit. Everyone around me felt so comforted by the words in each song, the pastor’s sermon and especially the reciprocated levels of emotion from one another. Thinking back, I wondered if maybe I did not give enough serious thought to religion when it was brought up. Amidst the discussion of Galatians and the head nodding of the congregants in the room, my mind gets swept away to some place I would never have expected it to go: thoughts of in-class discussions. An exciting topic, I know, but I couldn't help but remember the tense moments when religious undertones struck a discussion and permeated a classroom environment. Every time religion or belief systems have been brought up in an academic setting, both the teacher and the students tend to tread rather lightly so as to not offend anyone. However, this was not a limitation at church because everyone wanted to be there; they came to worship. How free they looked seemed so familiar to me. I recognized it from the faces of those few brave souls that actually divulge their inner religious inclinations in the heat of a class discussion.
Is it academic, personal or both? In public high school, religion was a topic to be avoided at all costs. However, within the freedom of collegiate life, anything can be discussed with equal parts pushback and encouragement. This opens the door for unkind words to be spoken, but it also allows for information to flow freely and ignorance to be abolished. I was ignorant to the extent of what church could mean to people my age. I could not grasp how someone’s faith could be so strong. My good friend Olivia Finley changed that by generously asking me to join her in an experience she knew was foreign to me. However, it was a personal and endlessly valuable ritual to her. Initially uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat and habitually glanced around the room at the faces of the other attendees. Some looked meditative, while others looked actively engaged in the preaching of the pastor. However, I did not see a single face that was anything but glad to be there. I knew this was not a unique occurence, and I definitely knew that this religious influence was not limited to that one hotel ballroom; it was widespread.
To arrive at a more solid conclusion as to what my thoughts were on this excursion, I resolved to go to the source of the experience: the good friend that brought me there in the first place. I decided that if I was having this sort of funhouse mirror experience, she must have had a similar experience at some point in her life, especially given how devout and proud she is.
She spoke of a lecture hall history course she once took and calmly said, “I heard the teacher say once that he did not believe in God.” I asked her how she felt in that class after she heard that, and to somewhat of a suprise, she brought up coexistence. Not some need to convert others, not a personally offended complex claim, but a simple one: He had the right to believe that there was nothing else, just as much as she had the right to believe there was so much more. This uncomplicated approach to tolerance got me thinking about the other people in my life who have made religious claims, or sometimes rather unreligious ones.
Looping through campus with my close friend, Mia Napolitano, it dawned on me that she has spoken about God in the past and maybe knows something I don’t. With one hand draped on the steering wheel, she gestured along as she shared the idea that in college we actually move away from God. She feels as if this was the furthest apart the two of them had ever been, and in hard times she really feels it. As I listened, I marveled at how easily this other-sided idea fit in my mind along with the ideas of Olivia Finley. I settled on the fact that either and both were worth hearing, as they both gave me perspective on the spiritual opportunities presented to me.
The vast possibility of beliefs on campus is a staggering and potentially divisive notion. The disagreements such variety could cause has the potential to get personal, making religion a sensitive issue. Yet those are not the only avenues in which a religious discussion has the potential to head down. As I have recently learned, it can be a renewing experience, even if the religion in question is not yours. It does not have to be about one style of belief or a certain way of expressing love for whatever it is you believe in. Maybe religion does not have to be about what we believe, but how we believe it. It can be a portal to honesty and a gateway to an expansive way of thinking. That is what having something to hold onto can do for people; It gives them courage to go further out into the world if they have something solid to return home to. It eliminates that sense of risk that can be such a deterrent to adventurous living. Yet, isn't that a big part of religion? Constant learning, self reflection and a thirst for life? That is a core of belief and an axis on which faith hinges. Not knowing with absolute certainty what life holds for you but taking the plunge anyway, that is the bravest form of faith.
As the sermon ended and the last two pop numbers were fervently sung, my heart began to soften and become more open to the reason why so many young people find comfort in this weekly ritual. It was positive, intimate and mercifully short. Having gone just once, I make no claim to begin to understand the depth to which religion touches the lives of the people who shared that service with me. I do not know if that will ever be the path I travel down, maybe in another life. Even still, I dont think I will soon forget the ideas that bombarded my stream of consciousness in the days that followed. Who among us has a set of religious beliefs resting just below the surface only to be fully unearthed during precious moments in church? Or maybe that is not the case at all, maybe religion never rests; it is always at play, and I have just been blind to it. Whatever the reason, this Jew went to church, and against all odds, she's glad she did.
Edited by Claire Colby |firstname.lastname@example.org