Migration — Religious Omnivore

Friday, September 05, 2008

I’ve been a Congregationalist, an Episcopalian, and a Spiritualist. Now I’m not anything in particular, though Buddhism is drawing me – just don’t know what flavor.
When I was born my mom was a Congregationalist, Daddy a lapsed Catholic. He left the church, he said, during World War II. He was stationed in Washington, D.C. and walked into a Catholic church, in uniform. The priest approached him with a list of churches where he’d “be more comfortable.” In other words, the priest didn’t want any black folks in his church. I think my dad had lost faith long before that because I don’t recall either of my parents talking about church attendance when they lived in New York, except that Mother did some secretarial work for the Abyssinian Baptist Church, I think because she was friends with Adam Jr.’s first wife, Isabelle Washington.
Mother attended the Congregational Church after my parents moved to Old Saybrook but stopped when I was about five or six (maybe a little older) because the minister she liked transferred to another church. I think she had some disagreement with the new minister, but I never knew why. She continued to volunteer, though, as she organized vacation bible school for a few summers and organized and sold books at the church fairs for years. She also kept driving me to Sunday school, though she left it entirely up to me whether I wanted to go. When I thought about later, I realized that leaving that kind of decision to a little kid didn’t make much sense. I went when I felt like seeing my friends, not out of any particular religious conviction.
I was baptized (at age 12ish) and joined the church but left shortly afterward as I watched people fight at a membership meeting. Still idealistic enough to think that people who professed to be Christians would actually behave that way, I moved up the street to the Episcopal church, the only other Protestant church in town. With its stained glass windows, incense and pageantry, it felt more “religious,” and I took classes and eventually joined. The minister was a gentle soul with a great sense of humor. I remember during the first class he told us that the Anglican church was the only one in the world founded because someone wanted a divorce.
During all of my growing up I also went to the Catholic church when my dad’s brother, Walter Petry, came to visit us. When I was in my teens, Saybrook added a few more churches,  and I substituted for my piano teacher as the organist at a Lutheran church, and I think at a Baptist Church. (Never did get those foot pedals right!)
I remained an Episcopalian through my move to Philadelphia to go to law school – attended St. Mary’s Hamilton Village on the edge of the Penn campus where not many years before the congregation had hidden one of the Berrigan brothers. Father John Scott was the quintessential social activist who opened the church to the poor being displaced by Penn’s land grab. He was active in the “irregular” ordination of women priests. And the church hosted an early convention for Integrity, a ministry for gay Christians.
When I returned to Connecticut, I pretty much stopped going to church, more out of inertia than anything else. I became a C&E Episcopalian. The spiritual side of things seemed to get taken care of with meditation, which helped me immensely when my mother died.
About a year after her death, the guy who led the meditation asked the group if we wanted to go for readings at a Spiritualist church. I said sure. When we arrived the man at the door asked who I wanted to do the reading. I had no idea who any of the people were, so I just pointed to a name. It turned out to be the Reverend Fletcher Bass, a black minister of a Christian Spiritualist church. He asked for my first name, said a brief prayer. He gave me a penetrating look and said, “You have someone around you who wrote children’s books. She’s very proud of you.” I was too shocked to explain that he had channeled my mother, and we went on to  talk about some other things, but that stuck with me. One of my skeptical friends said, “Oh, he knew who you were.” I assured her otherwise – I hadn’t given him my last name. I received confirmation a year or so later when I had essays published in “Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself to Slavery.” After that article appeared, Rev. Bass told me, “Now I know who you are and who your mother is.”
The Spiritualist Declaration of Principles made sense to me, and I started attending the church where I had the reading. I went faithfully until my husband wound up in the hospital in January. (That’s another story for another day.) I haven’t been since and have had occasion to question some of the tenets of the religion. My biggest questions without satisfactory answers: Since Spiritualists do not consider themselves Christian, why do they have a Bible on the altar and why do they recite the Lord’s Prayer? And why do their church meetings seem even more vituperative than others I’ve attended?
At this point I’m OK without a church, though I do have lots of sympathy for the Episcopalians who are siding with Gene Robinson in that whole business about gay clergy. Since I’m still having a problem accepting Jesus as the only route to salvation, I don’t think I’ll go back. I’m taken most with the idea that Buddhism is the only major religion that has not declared war on another faith.
Note: a version of the part of this post about my mother appears in At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, which will be published in December.


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