Losing My Religion A Heathen’s Love Affair with Churches
Most of my formative adolescent experiences took place in churches, but it was never about god. What drove me was a feverish desire to belong.
The first time I sneaked into a bell tower, I was fourteen years old. My friends and I were staying the weekend at a rambling old church. This sleepover was a monthly event for a group of a hundred or so Unitarian teenagers, the location and the exact mix of people always changing, but knitted together by traditions like eating peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches, playing esoteric games, talking about music and sex while lying around in puppy piles, and staying up too late before eventually passing out on the floor in sleeping bags. We were all weird kids—we were queer or played music or wrote poetry or dyed our hair purple or wore strange clothes or were bullied at school or were depressed, or all of the above. I was all of the above, so I followed these sleepovers around the mid-Atlantic like diehard fans follow around the Grateful Dead. Most of my formative adolescent experiences took place in churches, but it was never about god. What drove me was a feverish desire to belong.
My memory of that rambling church is only a few vignettes. I can see the cavernous sanctuary with wooden pews, arched windows glowing with brightly colored stained glass, and a balcony at the back of the room. I can see the stairwell where a girl—who I was madly infatuated with—sat and played her acoustic guitar as sunlight streamed through the window behind her. But for reasons that I’ve lost to time, she didn’t come with us to the top of the bell tower. Maybe I was too scared to ask her.
That night, a few other friends and I formed a secret plan. We waited until everyone else was asleep, then tiptoed through the long rows of pews in the dark sanctuary to the closet where we knew the ladder was kept. We carried the ladder together, leaned it against the wall, and climbed to the balcony where there was a closed door. The knob turned easily in my hand.
Inside was a column of darkness and a wooden staircase spiraling upward. We closed the door behind us and climbed the stairs carefully, speaking only in the lowest whispers. The air was close and still. We crept up the stairs and past the silent bell. Finally, we came to a trapdoor and emerged to feel the cool night air on our faces. Starlight from above illuminated the broad landing where we stood at the top of the tower, with crenelated stones around the edges like a parapet of a castle.
We walked to the edge and peered over, and the city unrolled itself below us. It was an old steel town, sleepy but still glowing after midnight with streetlights and the bright blaze of a white neon star. Looking down with a bird’s-eye view, I could see how big the city was, that we were a small part of something larger. It comforted me. I needed comfort in a year when my high school classmates had been bullying me for months in a gym class gay-bashing campaign.
I could see how big the city was, that we were a small part of something larger. It comforted me.
We’d brought sleeping bags with us to stay warm in the chilly spring night, and we spread them out on the landing and lay down. There was a boy who I had a crush on, though I hadn’t told him, just like I never told the girl I pined after. I curled up with my body close to the boy, and he wrapped his arm around my waist. We all talked and laughed and flirted. Warmth spread through my chest like a mouthful of warm honey.
None of us kissed or fooled around, just lay close together, comforted by simple physical touch and the excitement of knowing that we had a shared secret. I liked that innocent connection better than anything.
We stared up at the stars, which were dimmed by the city’s glow but still stretched out overhead like a map of our place in the universe. Finally, we fell asleep under the open sky. Waking before dawn, we climbed back down the way we had come, putting the ladder back in its place and keeping our adventure a secret.
Forgive us our trespasses , the Lord’s Prayer entreats, a prayer I’d almost never heard until a friend I’d met in kindergarten invited me over for dinner and her whole family suddenly launched into it before we could dig into the green beans and rolls. I was shocked that they all knew the words and expected me to, but steeped in politeness, I mouthed along as best I could. Forgive me for trespassing. I didn’t mean to be sacrilegious by sneaking into bell towers.
I imagine that wanting to belong to something larger is what draws some people to believe in a god or gods. That drive to belong is deeply rooted in human nature. Why do so many people join a church, a book club, a mosque, a softball team, a synagogue, a multi-level marketing scheme, or a sorority? We evolved as social animals like wolves or parrots, more likely to survive in numbers. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ranks the desire for belonging as one of the most fundamental human motivations, just after needs like food, water, shelter, and safety. Yet fewer of us are joiners than we used to be, or we’re finding fewer places to connect. Many social scientists, like Robert D. Putnam in his book Bowling Alone , have pointed to surveys showing that belonging and participation in communal activities in the United States has dropped since the 1960s. More people are feeling disconnected and alienated, which can lead to serious health problems. Some writers and scholars are calling the issue a “crisis of loneliness.” And it’s not isolated to one country—last year the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness to address growing social isolation, and in Japan, an increasing number of older adults are living and dying alone in a phenomenon that’s called kodokushi , or lonely deaths.
Forgive me for trespassing. I didn’t mean to be sacrilegious by sneaking into bell towers.
I’d be the last person to say that churches are the answer for everyone’s loneliness—anyway, participation in organized religion in the United States has been dropping for decades. And I’ve never believed in god, the Christian patriarch or otherwise, except for a brief phase in elementary school when I tried it out and found it wasn’t for me. But starting in kindergarten, I went (with a frequency you could call religious) to Sunday school at a Unitarian Universalist church. The building was a 1960s two-story built into a forested hillside, with a modern hexagonal sanctuary decorated with wood paneling, orange chairs instead of pews, worn carpet, and a honeycomb of crank windows that creaked and stuck. My classroom was in the basement downstairs, filled with child-sized chairs and tables, bins of craft supplies, and cabinets that I found magical because they revealed animal crackers and orange juice for snack time.
In third-grade Sunday school, we studied Holidays and Holy Days from around the world, learning about the traditions and histories of holidays like Hanukkah, Diwali, Easter, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa. Since the church was built into a hillside, sunlight filtered into our small classroom. We lit candles, learned traditional songs, and were taught: Our religion is not the only truth, and we are part of a larger human community. Our teachers told us that Unitarian Universalism has no dogma and doesn’t require its members to believe in god, but shares principles like “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” justice and compassion, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”
We also learned a round with a sweet and simple melody. Everybody is a part of everything anyway , we sang in our small voices. I had no idea until researching this essay that we were singing a Donovan tune. That’s what you get when almost all your mentors are hippies.
Of course, the flower children’s messages about peace and oneness weren’t new, but often learned from Eastern religious traditions. I started reading the Tao te Ching when I was thirteen and felt deeply moved by it. I wrote down my favorite passages in my black-and-white composition notebook. Be at one with the dust of the earth , the book instructs, and in another chapter, Ordinary men hate solitude. / But the Master makes use of it, / embracing his aloneness, realizing / he is one with the whole universe.
That was also the year I finally painted my bedroom twilight-blue, getting rid of the cloying pink walls and flowery wallpaper left by the house’s previous owners, and I listened to the Cure and earnest folk music on cassette tapes.
I gravitated to the Taoist message of being one with everything, partly because that didn’t feel possible for me as a teenager. I didn’t even belong in my body. Miserable about getting my period and needing to wear a bra, I bought baggy men’s clothes from thrift stores and cropped my hair into a short pixie cut. I hated myself for being fat, although I wasn’t. At school, kids started to sling homophobic insults at me, and I’d always been socially marginal as a bookish nerd. Although my family was supportive in many ways, I hid my queerness and depression from my parents until I was sixteen. I read the Tao te Ching at an age when I wondered: Will I ever belong anywhere?
My Unitarian upbringing encouraged me to ask questions, to puzzle out what I believed. That same year, our Sunday school teachers assigned us to write our own personal credos, sketching out what we believed to be true and right. I believed fiercely that the world needed more justice, more compassion, and I railed in my journal against the injustice of the death penalty. Our church minister officiated same-sex weddings and interfaith weddings, and a few years later our youth group protested a KKK rally and lobbied for anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation. Many or most of our church members didn’t believe in god. Some continued their family’s Jewish traditions, held Buddhist meditation classes, or danced around maypoles and lit bonfires for the summer solstice. I went almost every weekend to youth group, Passover Seders, or pagan celebrations at church until I graduated from high school. Books and church were havens where I felt less alone.
The summer of my fifteenth birthday, I spent a week on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean that became the lodestar of my sense of belonging for the next twenty years. It’s a large claim for a small island, less than half a mile wide, but it’s not exaggeration to say that community saved my life. Star Island is about ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and it’s home to a conference center co-owned by the Unitarians.
The first time I stepped off the ferry onto the island’s pier, I felt like I was coming home. A cool wind rushed over the ocean, smelling of salt. I walked up the path toward the huge, white-clapboard Victorian hotel with a red peaked roof and a wide front porch lined with rocking chairs. Everyone who’d been there before told me the island was haunted, and some of my friends had firsthand ghost stories to tell. A collection of white cottages clustered around the hotel, and beyond that the steeple of a rustic stone chapel rose into the sky. My ears filled with the sounds of waves breaking on the rocks and a low foghorn, coming from the lighthouse on one of the small neighboring islands. I saw the mainland far to the west, but in every other direction, nothing but water stretched out to the horizon.
I quickly explored the rest of Star Island, finding rugged granite cliffs and ravines, trees gnarled and stunted by the wind, sweet-smelling wild roses, and footpaths winding between green grass and buttercups. Barn swallows wheeled and dove to catch gnats over a still pond, and a stone obelisk and weathered gravestones loomed from the overgrown back side of the island. I carried a large stick above my head as I climbed out to the farthest rocks along the shoreline, because angry gulls defending their nests screamed and dive-bombed me relentlessly.
The weather was fickle and bracing, even in June, and one day thick fog enveloped the island so we were floating in gray. A brilliant sunny day followed when the ocean turned deep cobalt and my brother and I flew kites on the lawn in front of the hotel. My brother and I started a tradition of always coming to the island together. We’d play guitar and the antique organ in the one-room chapel, watch yellow warblers sing from the brush, learn to sing songs in harmony, roast vegan marshmallows over a bonfire, and stay up until three in the morning talking.
Another day, a sudden thunderstorm appeared over the ocean with ominous clouds rolling toward us fast. The hotel put out a call for everyone to come inside and assemble in the lobby. Storm and fire safety are constant concerns at the hotel, since it was built in 1875 and its predecessor burned to the ground after being struck by lightning. In storms like this, the surf can surge high enough to sweep people off the rocks. I was walking toward the hotel but standing for a moment on the lawn, looking at the clouds, when my friend called to me from the porch of the hotel. Come here, now , she said, and I walked to her before asking why. All your hair was standing on end , she said. You were about to be struck by lightning.
You were about to be struck by lightning.
I escaped that danger but not others. The year I turned nineteen, I was raped and became suicidal. Star Island was where I first told my brother what had happened. He wrote me a note with lyrics from a song that said I would be okay—if not now, then someday. One night, we all met for worship in the chapel as we always did, lighting candle lanterns and singing songs while sitting together in the wooden pews. Then we walked down to the lawn to look at the stars, which were staggeringly bright and clear so far from the mainland. I looked up at Cygnus the swan, one of my favorite constellations since childhood. I made a vow on Cygnus that however much pain I was in, whatever happened in my life, I would never kill myself, because there were friends and families I belonged to. In the years since, I’ve needed that vow more than once.
Though the conferences that brought me to Star are Unitarian, others come for meditation retreats, birdwatching trips, family camp, artists’ workshops, or ghost hunting. For people who’ve fallen in love with this stark, beautiful place, the traditions and sense of community inspire them to call the island their “spirit’s home.”
I had been making yearly pilgrimages to the island for half my life before I learned that there might be another reason I felt at home: My ancestors lived there.
According to my mother’s genealogical research, I’m a second cousin (many times removed) of Thomas Laighton, a man who’s famous on these islands for running hotels and tending the lighthouse in the mid-1800s. The ferry that now carries passengers to Star Island is named after him. Laighton was a former newspaper editor and state senator who entertained literary guests, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, and had a disabled leg since childhood. His two sons ran the Star Island hotel where I’ve slept so many summer nights.
Two centuries earlier, in the mid-1600s, the island was inhabited by just a few hundred fishermen and their families. I’m directly descended from one of these fishing families: the unfortunately named Eleanor Urin, who ran a tavern selling booze to unruly fishermen, and her husband Richard Woolcomb. Eleanor had to appear in court at least twice for illegal alcohol sales. It was a harsh life on these islands—you can still see the gravestones of children who died from scarlet fever, and the mainland was sometimes unreachable in rough seas. Winter brings brutal waves, wind, and snow. It’s uncanny that before I knew their history, I found my way to a tiny island where my ancestors lived nearly four hundred years ago.
Belonging can mean walking on the ground where your ancestors’ bones are buried. It can mean saving friends from being struck by lightning, and having someone to sing harmony with. And it can mean surrendering to the vastness of the world, and knowing that even when we are alone, we are not separate.
Belonging can mean surrendering to the vastness of the world, and knowing that even when we are alone, we are not separate.
In our chapel services on Star, we often read poetry like Rumi, a 13th-century Persian writer and Muslim Sufi. He wrote: Listen, O drop, give yourself up without regret, / and in exchange gain the ocean. Once my friends and I rowed a small boat across the harbor and were caught by the changing tide and wind, unable to make any headway back no matter how hard we leaned into the oars. An island caretaker had to rescue us with his skiff. It’s impossible to forget my smallness when surrounded by a wild ocean that could drown me without a moment’s trouble. The sea air is always trying to take apart the island, stripping the paint from the buildings, blowing away the well house in a hurricane. We breathe the ocean’s salt into our lungs, we swim in its cold waters, and it holds us up, because we’re part of it and it’s part of us.
The last time I sneaked into a church bell tower, I was alone. It was long after midnight and I scaled the ladder in the dark, moving my feet slowly and calming my breath so as not to wake anyone. I found the rungs by touch as my eyes tried to adjust to the blackness. At the top of the ladder, I lifted a trapdoor and climbed to the landing of the belfry. The wooden boards of the platform were smooth under my palms as I crawled on hands and knees to look out through the windows. The bell hung in its frame with a quiet, solemn weight. My heart beat with the fear of being caught and the loneliness of looking down over the tops of trees, out at darkened windows, and up at the stars. I was alone, and not alone: I belonged to myself, to the trees, to the stars. I felt lonely and sad, but I knew that I would always keep my promise on a bright constellation, that I would not give up on belonging to this world.