My mother thinks I’m going to hell. That it is a real place (though not, she would qualify, full of brimstone; her idea of hell is dark, and chaotic, and utterly without God). My grandfather, when he was in hospice care, said between labored breaths how glad he was that all of his four grandchildren had made their Profession of Faith. He said about his daughter-in-law, my aunt, “I believe she knows the Lord, but I’d like to be a little more sure.” My mother held very still, her face turned away, though not so sharply that it would seem deliberate. He was wrong, when he said four. He was remembering me the way he would like me to be.
At his bedside my mother prayed. Always a gifted speaker, even then, eloquent and quietly devout. They spoke of the funeral service: which verses did he want, and which hymns. She didn’t look at me. The room was too hot, kept that way for the thin patients, who were freezing to death in the damp May air, their hearts pumping more and more slowly. He’d been confused all day, mistaking me for my mother, and my mother for his wife. I have not made Profession of Faith, and my mother has stopped asking. When she prayed out loud she didn’t suggest that I join in, as though it hadn’t occurred to her, although maybe it would have in other families, with other daughters.
My mother is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church of America, a denomination of less than 300,000 members. Women in ministry are a relatively new thing in this conservative denomination, and the fight for her ordination has been my silent twin, alongside me from birth. When I was eight years old, I walked home from school and found my mother upstairs in bed, the lights out and the curtains drawn against the relentless California sun. She had a washcloth laid over her face, which she handed to me.
“Can you make this cold again?” she asked me. I didn’t understand. “Run it under cold water, then wring it out.”
When I brought it back to her I asked, “What’s going on?” My younger brothers must have been home as well, playing with Legos in their room, but I don’t remember them. It was my mother and me, alone in the dark vaulted space at the top of the house.
She had been crying. “The council decided,” she said, “that the time isn’t right. They aren’t going to let me preach.” She turned her face away. The air was dank and oppressive, as though someone had been lying sick for days. I breathed as quietly as I could, staring into the middling dark that was the limit of my mother’s power, amazed that someone could stop her from speaking, could tell her that her desire to serve her God was sinful.
When I say I grew up in the church, it’s almost literal. She was the administrative assistant and worship leader and organist, so when pre-school was over I would walk down the hall, to the office she shared with Pastor Henk, with religious cartoons on the door and green banker’s lamps on the desks. When I got a little older, she would have me proofread the bulletin before taking it to Kinko’s, a duty that I took very seriously. My childhood best friends were all from the church, and we grew up in one another’s homes, and in the leafy hidden patio at the side of the church building, and running through the Sunday School classrooms when the service was over.
In 1993, she had a miscarriage, her sixth. My brother and I were sleeping while she sobbed; my father was still at work, a train ride away in San Francisco. I don’t remember any of her miscarriages at the time they happened, though I remember being aware of them; it was years before I realized that miscarriages, that many and that far along, were not a part of ordinary motherhood. But when you’re young you think that everyone’s family is like yours. Everyone goes to church twice a Sunday; everyone loses pregnancies..
What I know, because I have been told, is this: while she was lying brokenhearted, grieving the loss of a child who never fully put on flesh, Pastor Henk arrived. He said that he’d felt the Holy Spirit telling him that he needed to come over there, now, that it could not wait. He said, “And I felt, I need to tell you that God loves you, and he won’t let you go.”
My mother told this story in church. Afterwards, people came up to her to tell her that they thought she was called to ministry. And years later, at her fortieth birthday party, as they streamed up our driveway, this is what they said again and again: that she had blessed their lives, that she should become a minister, that she would find a way.
She began taking classes at Fuller Theological Seminary, Greek and Hebrew. She and Pastor Henk formulated a five-year plan, in which he would give her every opportunity to explore her calling, and they would see whether it were outwardly confirmed. I was unutterably proud of her. Nobody else’s mother went to seminary. It was a mark of distinction. I might be the only child at my church who went to public school, but my mother had been chosen by God. We had been set apart.
She was thirteen years old when she felt the truth of Christianity, an incontrovertible fact, the grace and death of Christ that meant she was safe and loved and forgiven. She was raised in the church, and her father before her; her mother, raised Roman Catholic, converted before she was born. My grandfather was an elder. In 1972 my mother couldn’t even hope to be a deacon: a woman who wanted to serve God taught Sunday School, but only to the children. She had no other models for a womanhood devoted to the church, for a religious vocation, for taking on a man’s job and making it her own. And so for years she believed that her desire for ministry was selfish, personally motivated, something that a good Christian girl wouldn’t really want. A good Christian girl wanted to marry a minister, help out with the youth group, direct the choir, host potlucks. A good Christian girl never sang too loudly.
When I was nine, I decided that I wanted to take communion. This was unusual at the time: ordinarily, children of the congregation would make Profession of Faith sometime in their late teens. This would involve meeting with your minister and elders, and then a public ceremony during a regular church service, at which you are asked about your faith, and whether you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. The congregation is asked to support you in your spiritual journey, and after this ceremony, you are officially a member of the church, able to vote and participate in communion.
So when I said that I wanted to take communion, despite the fact that it was largely motivated, on my part, by feeling left out, my mother took it as a call to arms. Another child from the congregation, a boy a year older than me, decided that he also wanted in, and so after an intimidating meeting with my pastor and another elder in my family’s dining room, he and I made the first Affirmations of Baptism ever conducted at Palo Alto CRC. Such things have become more commonplace now; my mother in particular is a strong believer in welcoming children to the Lord’s Table. She doesn’t want to leave anyone out.
One weekend a little while after this, my mother and I went to a mother-daughter retreat in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. At the campfire, on the last evening, we had to stand up and say what we were most proud of each other for. I said, “My mom is going to seminary and she’s going to be a minister.” I knew it was a bold thing to say, and took secret joy in the saying of it. As though it were a dare to the other girls and their mothers, who had ordinary jobs, or no jobs at all. I can say with near-certainty that nobody there had encountered a female minister before.
When it was my mom’s turn to say what she was most proud of me for, I tried not to look overeager. An oldest child, I lived for praise, begged for scraps of it, subsisted on every instance my teachers told me I was bright like it was bread. She said, “My daughter was the first child in our congregation to make an Affirmation of Baptism and take communion.” I was so young. I never made Profession of Faith, in the end. I never made her as proud as she was then.
Eventually, taking part-time classes at Fuller was not enough. After intense discussion and prayer, my parents decided that we needed to move to Grand Rapids, Michigan, so that my mother could attend Calvin Seminary, the only seminary specifically for ministers in the CRC. They told me one day after church, when I was in the fifth grade; I sobbed in the living room for the rest of the afternoon. And then I stopped. We moved that summer, driving across the country for five days in our aging red minivan.
When she began studying at Calvin, in 1999, she was one of very few women ever to step through the doors. Women’s bathrooms were barely available. Some of her classmates were supportive. Some were not. At this time, an individual Classis, geographically grouped churches, could ordain women, but Synod, the governing body of the CRC, had not yet declared the word “male” inoperative. This meant that according to the official church order, “male” was the qualifying adjective tacked on to the description of a minister available for call. They had begun studying the issue of women in church office in 1970, but it took decades of deferments, committees, and setbacks until the word “male” was deleted in 2007. She moved across the country and began studying with no idea whether a job would be waiting for her on the other end. Most women, even now, end up as chaplains, or associate ministers, or leave the denomination entirely for one more welcoming.
My mother is one of the lucky ones: after she received her M.Div., she was ordained at the church we’d been attending while in Michigan. She served there for two years as a resident, after which she received a call to a liberal-leaning congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, where she has been for the last nine years. There is a perpetual shortage of ministers in the CRC, and a young male minister can generally take his pick, but my mother was fortunate to receive one call, and fortunate twice over that it has been a good fit. There is a lifespan for ministers; few serve beyond ten years in one congregation, but if my mother ever left this job, it is extremely unlikely that she would find another one. Even this call was not without contention, and one church in her Classis registers their official disapproval every time it is my mother’s turn to chair the meeting. A young female minister in my mother’s area was recently told, “When women preach, they spit on Scripture.” Change happens, even in the church, but it is slow and bitter.
Every summer of high school, I went on a week-long mission trip with my Michigan youth group. It was the first taste of independence we got as high schoolers: we spent a week without our parents and with kids our age from all over the US and Canada. During the days, we’d be split up into small groups and sent out to do various good works – I’ve scraped and painted fences for the elderly, worked in a soup kitchen, repainted a school, helped out with Vacation Bible School, and built a fence around a foster family’s decrepit in-ground pool. We’d reconvene at the central site, usually a church or the local Christian high school, in the late afternoon, where we would have free time, dinner, and worship.
The second trip I went on was to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was fourteen, a year older than my mother was when she knew she was called by God. We drove all day in two huge white vans, racing down the highway, holding up signs to each other. My group was assigned to help out at the Salvation Army day camp, which largely served children whose parents couldn’t afford day care. The organizers brought us to what they said were quintessentially South Dakotan sights and experiences each day: we square danced, watched traditional Native American performers, and toured a buffalo farm.
A youth group from a church in Minnesota, whose social network was indistinguishable from the Christian high school, prayed throughout the week for a classmate of theirs who had leukemia and wasn’t doing well. On one of the last days, they received word that he had passed away. He was sixteen. That night at the worship service, we sang a praise song called “Blessed Be His Name.” I’ve never been able to hear it, since, without thinking about this boy. The final chorus goes: “You give and take away / you give and take away / my heart will choose to say / Lord, blessed be his name.”
And all I thought was, If God is taking a sixteen-year-old boy, I will not praise him for that. And if I am asked to believe that it’s His will, then I will not.
The youth leaders stood at the front of the room, ready to pray with any individuals who wanted to come up. The lights were dim, and high schoolers were crying in their seats, their arms around one another. I have never done anything like this before or since, but I went up to my group leader, and she put her arms around me and I sobbed wordlessly. She prayed for “whatever I was dealing with.” She was holding me up and praying for me and it meant nothing, those words in the dry prairie air. And my heart was breaking for the loss of that faith, and for the loss of the life that I was meant to have.
I told no one. I kept going to church and youth group; I had never been a rebellious child, and I would have lost too much. I was immersed in the culture, drowning in it, but didn’t know any other way to be. I never prayed in chapel but I didn’t mind singing along, and I was able to go on like this for a long time. Then came the story you have heard before: the religious child goes to a secular university and loses her faith. This is not the true story, and it leaves so much out, but it is one that, I think, serves.
I had barely admitted to myself that I wouldn’t go to church when I arrived there. Sleeping in on Sunday morning was like something in another language, one that I knew other people spoke but I could never understand. But this is how it has been: since I left my parents’ house, I have never been to church. I go when I visit home; I see my friends and steel myself for the awkwardness of sitting alone in the row while everyone else gets up to take communion. Often I’m not brave enough to stay, and know myself a fraud. But I am scrutinized, the child of a minister: once I swallowed my small cup of grape juice too soon, distracted and nervous, and after the service the church secretary came up to me and said, “I saw you!” And so I even sing along with the hymns, those old standards of faith and history and community, but there is nothing there for me now.
My mother and I have never spoken about this. She has never once asked me if I believe in God. For a few years in high school, she would ask if I had thought about making Profession of Faith, but after my younger brother and his now-wife made it in their last year of high school, she stopped asking. Once, before I started university, my father asked, “Does being a preacher’s kid make you more cynical about God?” The truth is, being a preacher’s kid makes me more aware of the fallibility of the church, something outsiders are quick to point out, but internally it’s fragile in a very different way. I know which creeds my mother disagrees with, and I know how much dissention there is within one small, already-splintered denomination. An institution like that could never hold my faith. If there is a God, this is not where he’ll be found.
The closest we’ve come to having this conversation was a sunny afternoon, the last summer I lived at home. I was dating a man, an atheist, whose background was Muslim. This pleased nobody’s parents, his included (“If you marry her,” warned his father, “her mother will want the wedding to be in a church”). My mother’s theology skews liberal, and she believes that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. And since there are vast regions of the world that will never hear or be hospitable to the gospel of Christ, she is unwilling to take on the role of condemnation. She has never felt that it’s her place.
“So I don’t know what will happen to them,” she said, “when they die. I prefer to err on the side of grace. But I do know what will happen to people who know the truth, and turn their backs.”
“Hell,” I said. I leaned against the kitchen counter.
“Yes,” she said, and looked away.
And so of course she has not asked, because she does not want to know. Every week she prays, researches her commentaries, procrastinates on writing her sermon, colour codes it and prints it out in increasingly large font. She visits elderly women and eats their cookies and counsels young couples who want to get married. She baptizes babies and takes terrified women to shelters and sits in family court and sees the best and the worst of people, every day. Her whole life has been bringing her to this; it is all she wanted, and faith is all she wanted for me. When I rejected it, I rejected everything: her dreams for my life, all the hope and the grace that she sees.
When she was young, she wanted more than anything to be a minister in a world that would not let her in. And all I have wanted is to be let out. I no longer worry about going to hell, but the same is not true for everyone in this world that I hold dear. To them, I am a lost soul. They may pray for me but it will never help, and I cannot grant them the comfort of an afterlife. My grandparents, my cousins, my best friends: they all believe that I am damned. That is a terrible burden to lay at their feet. And so for so long I have pretended, and not spoken of this, and let my grandfather die believing that my soul was safe. But it goes on for so long, and I am a tired and faithless child, and they will have to let me go.
Laura lives and writes in Toronto, where she works for a national book retailer. She tweets about books and feminism at @laurathesaurus.