photo: Giphy

There’s a look of disbelief I get from people when I tell them I was a pastor’s kid. It’s a look that says, "But you don’t seem religious, how can that be?” The most frustrating thing about telling people I’m a Christian is always feeling the need to defend myself and say, "I’m a Christian, but not one of those — you know the judgmental, pushy, 'you’re going to hell’ types."

While my faith has certainly evolved over the years, I’ve never been the evangelical, stand on the corner, beat you over the head with a Bible type — my approach to faith is a lot more subtle. I don’t believe homosexuality is wrong. I believe we should treat everyone with love, acceptance, and compassion, and I know I’m not the only Christian who feels that way. But I don’t want to defend my faith the same way none of us want to defend anything about who we are — we’re all entitled to just be. I’m not perfect and will never, ever claim to be.

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I am very fortunate to be someone who grew up in the church and wasn’t completely ruined by signs of hypocrisy nor did I end up a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. In fact, growing up a pastor’s kid actually helped lay the foundation for making me the strong, opinionated woman I am today. Amen to that!

My earliest memories are from church, I went to Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Christian summer camps — I had a pretty typical immersive Christian experience. By the time I was eight, my dad accepted a position as a pastor of a small church in the Bronx, New York. At that point in my life, my parents had already relocated the family to a New Jersey suburb right outside of New York. By no means was my family well off, but the church my father pastored was in a very poor section of the Bronx, exposing me to people with arguably more complicated lives than mine.

On one of my dad’s pastoring trips we traveled to Los Angeles and visited Skid Row. There he spoke to homeless children at an after-school program. At 10 or 11 years old, I remember being so emotional as I was surrounded by children who had no guarantees in their life. They didn’t know where they’d lay their head at night or where their next meal would come from. Suddenly all my “needs” seemed ridiculous in the sight of such poverty. I look back now and realize that this experience defines who I am today, utterly grateful for everything I have been given.

Morally, the church had a profound impact on me as well. Too often we hear the bigoted, hate-filled remarks of people playing God, acting as if they have control to tell people how to live their lives. I’ll admit, my upbringing was spent in a lot of churches that enforced those beliefs, preaching from a black or white point of view — "This is good. That’s bad. Do this to get to heaven. Don’t you dare do that.” But something about this did not sit well with me. My consciousness finally clicked into place to really question this God fella when I heard the head pastor at a church my father was the associate pastor of use God and the Bible to enforce gender roles. Preacher man, say what?

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As the only male in the household with three opinionated women, I’m sure we discussed this at length with my dad. I was about 16 at the time and knew God was not trying to put me in a neat little box. I no longer could be a passive listener, I had to become an active participant. I started questioning different sermons and the concept of heaven and hell. The idea that great people who had different beliefs would ultimately be damned just didn’t sit right with me. I spoke up in youth group, engaged in conversations with people who had different beliefs, and I found answers in the Bible. Sounds cliché, but it’s true. I read a whole lot more about love and acceptance that I think more people should be preaching about. But ultimately I became comfortable with not having the answers for everything. Too often, especially in religion, people want to act like they know it all, and that’s when things get messy. I think it’s a lot wiser to admit I don’t have the answers — after all, the very concept of faith is about being comfortable not having all the answers.

As I got older, I was fortunate to be in a home where no questions were off limits. If we wanted to smoke weed, we discussed whether or not Jesus did. Questions were not seen as a sign of defiance, but welcomed, proving that I was never expected to blindly follow. This has now become a trademark principle in my entire life — I don’t believe anything without first doing my due diligence in making myself aware if these beliefs and principles are something I want to adopt.

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My dad stopped being a pastor around the time I was 16 or 17 — with one daughter in college and another headed that way, the family needed a steadier source of income. But my faith remains something that is incredibly important to me to this day. When I first moved across the country from my family last year, finding a church was my priority. I needed a place to feel grounded, but was quickly reminded that not all churches are created equal and some still hold onto those fundamentalist beliefs I ditched a long time ago. I ran out of those churches as fast as I could and now attend a church that I feel is all about love, community, and support. I don’t attend as much as I’d like and I hope to change that, but after years growing up in the church, I'm finally comfortable saying my faith is not based in my church attendance.