Church Girl

As a kid, it’s hard to have control over your own attendance at church—you’re five years old and don’t want to go? Too bad, you gotta put on your lacey white socks, shiny dress shoes, and frilly dress. You’re a pre-teen and would much rather sleep for 12 hours on the weekend? Nope, you’re going to church. Besides mass, I went to CCD every week (the Catholic equivalent of Sunday school, which in my experience, is never on Sundays) from first grade through 10th grade, after which, I taught CCD to the little kids. I was an alter server well past the appropriate age to be an alter server, and was involved in establishing a youth group at my growing church in the suburbs. When I went to college, I joined the Eucharistic ministry at the local church and helped out the music ministry. After college, I changed churches to one that was majority Filipino. This church became my home. Although the parishioners all grew up together, they took me in like family. I showed up at church and hour and a half before mass to practice with the choir and stayed at least an hour after mass for hospitality (lunch and community bonding).

All of this, amidst an ever-evolving antagonism for the Church (with a capital C). When I got accepted into a very liberal school in the San Francisco Bay Area, my mentors at my church congratulated me, encouraged me, and were generally excited about my acceptance-- but they also warned me of the dangers of becoming “too” liberal. I solemnly accepted their words of wisdom and prayed to God that college wouldn’t corrupt my mind and soul. Seriously. That happened.

The church I found in Berkeley was indeed a liberal Catholic church. During the General Intercessions, the congregation would pray for such healings as equality of marriage and understanding and empathy towards gay men and women (our church even had an LGBTQ group) and freedom of choice for women, as well as protection for women from physical and sexual harm and harm from anti-abortion protestors. This church followed the same rituals and routines that I had grown up practicing, but showed me a loving and understanding God, rather than one who merely condemns and demands so much of His people.

This church had late-night, candle-lit masses. It was nearly impossible to see other parishioners in the darkness; you were forced to focus on only the speaker at the podium, the beautiful acoustic music (which consisted of one folk-singing, classical guitarist), and your own thoughts and prayers. The architecture and interior of the church itself had a rustic feel with its wooden pews and high vaulted ceiling, cement walls, and plain fixtures. I never get really close with the church as a whole, but I met some inspirational people and appreciated the services for what they were. It was at this church and at these services that I felt closer to God than ever before.

When I finished college and thus was no longer on the late-night/late-morning, college-student schedule, I started attending mass in Oakland. This church had a Filipino congregation. The church itself was beautiful and the homilies were usually interesting enough, but in all honestly, I was more focused on the music and the order of mass than in time with God. Church became somewhere to be and something to do on Sundays. I liked it, though. I got to spend my Sundays singing and eating down-home Filipino cooking for lunch with women who reminded me of my great aunts and little kids who ran around with each other as their moms followed them around the room with a plate of pancit, trying to get them eat lunch one “subo” at a time. Church members would bring out a few instruments and play music for the old folks to dance to. This church may not have provided me time for contemplation, but it gave me a new way to appreciate God’s blessings to me.

This church was much more conservative than my Berkeley church. In fact, quite a few homilies had me questioning the Church and its beliefs. It was my love for the community at this Oakland church that got me coming back week after week even if it meant having to squirm through sermons and prayer petitions that I did not agree with.

In Hawaii, I sporadically attended mass at different churches on the island. If my Oakland church was conservative, it was nothing compared to the church I sometimes attended with my parents, which was catered towards military personnel and their families. My favorite church in Hawaii was the one just down the street from my house. It was on a hilltop, was led by an African priest, and was run by Catholic immigrants from more countries than I can count. It had bay view windows, which were usually wide open to let the breeze pass through the church as it made its way to rustle the leaves of the palm trees just outside the veranda. The members greeted and treated newcomers like me with the warm and welcoming spirit of aloha. I never made a home for myself at any church in Hawaii, but it was nice finding such a place where I could make into my home if I stuck around long enough.

Now, I’m here in Japan and once again in search for a community or church that will give me the same (or a new) sense of belonging or closeness with God. I've attended two different churches here so far, one of which was a protestant Christian church with a resident Japanese-English interpreter for its wide (as in, five people) base of foreigners. The other church was a Japanese language-only Catholic church.

As much as I enjoy feeling like a leaf floating in the breeze in a new country, I also need some sort of anchor in my weekly routines. I need the support of a community. I need guidance, beliefs to agree with, beliefs to hold my own against, and beliefs to disagree with. I am building a meditation room in my apartment (“building” of course means I bought a yoga mat, a couple of floor pillows, and house plants and threw them all into my empty spare bedroom. I also hung my navy blue sarong with a print of gold elephants from Thailand on the wall in an attempt to pass the rectangle of cloth off as a piece of tapestry), but bridges to God and inner peace aren't built by one person all alone. I can’t grow in my faith in God alone any more than a student can learn math, science, and history without teachers and classmates.

My relationship with God and beliefs about who/what He is and what He does is far from any kind of finished product, but it'd be nice to have some company while I sort that all out. Sure, church communities aren't perfect and neither are the people that comprise them, but I don't indent to blindly follow any group of people and heir beliefs. I can't build, sculpt, hone, and rebuild, and polish my own faith by staying at home and thinking as hard as I possibly can. I can't be strong for myself all the time. I can't be unwavering in my faith by myself. I need a community for all its love and imperfections. I need a community.

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