I was born 2 1/2 months premature. Almost died. I spent the first 3 months of my life in a NICU and came home with a neuromotor disability that wasn’t properly diagnosed or treated until I was 3.
In early childhood, I lived with my grandparents. My earliest memories of a spiritual community are of their Catholic parish. I remember the sights and smells more than anything. Hardwood pews that smelled like oil-soap, incense, stained glass, organ music, responsive choruses, hymns, and litany. Catholic worship is visceral and engages all of your senses. While my memories of specific people are vague, I remember feeling safe and included there. I was never singled out or treated weirdly because of my disability.
More importantly, the Jesus that my grandparents exposed me to was both radically kind and unapologetically protective of anyone who came to him in need. I had religious picture books, and my grandmother had illustrated Bible from which she regularly “read” to me. I suspect that she was adapting stories and the language in order for me to understand them, but whatever the case, by the time I started kindergarten I had a very firm concept of Jesus as a person who stood up to bullies and took care of people who needed help. I know this, because I was bullied by an older girl, and eventually broke down crying because I kept expecting “Jesus” to show up.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that, Jesus is supposed to show up through the actions of people and communities who call themselves by his name.
Unfortunately, I moved out of my grandparents’ house not long after this, and I never had much experience of Jesus or anyone else is showing up for me.
My father was a belligerent alcoholic. Both parents used drugs, though my mother was a recreational user while my father became addicted. My childhood was a booze-soaked, drug-fueled exercise in navigating chaos while being too afraid to move or even breathe. Social services were called a few times, but one way or another, I stayed where I was.
I remember asking my mother why we didn’t go to church. She took me a few times, mostly to placate me, parked my wheelchair somewhere in the back of the sanctuary and then walked off with my two younger siblings. I didn’t see her or know where she was until the end of the service.
I have no idea what happened during the services, because I was always too busy looking for my mother. Of course, she turned up again, but the terror of being a young child alone in a building full of strangers stayed with me. When I asked her where she had gone to, she pointed vaguely and said, “We were over there. Didn’t you see us?”
Well, no. If I had seen her, I wouldn’t have been asking where she was. The charitable part of me wants to believe that she was somewhere in the building. The realistic part of me figures she took the kids out to do errands, or went home and came back.
I spent years living in bedrooms where I could see my breath and had to wear a coat because our slumlord wouldn’t heat the apartments properly. I was terrified to sleep with the lights off until I was 25 because we had cockroaches bigger than my finger. We always seemed to be one illness or emergency away from being homeless.
I had friends and neighbors who were churchgoers. Of them, only one kid’s parents took an interest and tried to help. The father was kind to us. Brought food, magazines, toys for my siblings. But that friend was a few years older than me, and eventually we weren’t in the same school anymore. The older we got, the less he could do for me anyway, or so it seemed.
I was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by multiple people from childhood until the age of 19. I reported family members for abuse when I was twelve. The overt behaviors stopped, but psychoemotional abuse stepped up to near-constant levels.
I’m not sure when my food issues started. I had trouble eating vegetables because it occurred to me that someone had basically stolen them from a plant, or possibly even killed a plant for them. I imagined myself as a plant, stuck in the ground with no defense while people came along and plucked out my hair or broke off my fingers for food. I didn’t know if plants felt pain, but the idea was horrifying.
Eventually, I developed a similar guilt complex about eating meat, because I realized where it came from. So, basically, the only food I ever wanted was cereal, bread, pasta or a dairy product, because I couldn’t see a way that anything had suffered or died to produce those. Then I learned that grains come from plants…
As poor as we were, there was no room for guilt-motivated refusal to eat, so I sublimated it all. While I had all manner of emotional issues related to eating, it looked quite the opposite. I was hungry all the time, so I would eat whatever was put in front of me. I just had to shut off my emotions to do it.
School was never a safe place. I was bullied for my disability, my looks, my clothes, my lack of money, and anything else that kids could think of. In Junior High School, I was sexually harassed by male students while female students flocked to calling me names because I wasn’t interested enough in sex.
Teachers constantly lectured me for my attendance, my appearance, my poor performance, though none had any idea what was going on with me.
I came out as bisexual and that one friend I’d had was suddenly convinced that I was immoral.
I existed more and more in a bubble, disconnected from any emotions except fear, rage, and profound exhaustion. Yet I was starved for things of a spiritual nature. I was an active reader, so I absorbed a lot of books about various religions and spiritual traditions. At the same time, I was given self-help books by well-meaning adults who knew at least some of what my home-life was like. Because I didn’t have any adult role models close by or any type of community, I developed a lot of unhealthy ideas based on things I half-understood from self-help books, TV preachers, “health” fads, and the growing popular trends of “environmental activism” that were really about moralizing food choices.
By the time I was thirteen, I showed symptoms of depression, became suicidal, and began to self-harm as a coping mechanism.
I tried a few times to get involved with Catholicism, but it’s not the most accessible religion from the outside. The worship rituals that had seemed so alive and meaningful to me as a child created a barrier and often seemed to be performed by rote.
Anyone can attend a Catholic Mass, but in order to participate in Communion or be considered a member of the parish, there are classes you have to take and things you have to agree to. These were a barrier to me in several ways including transportation, money, and the freedom to come and go as I pleased.
I started to hear things that made me uncomfortable about the way in which the church treated divorcees, gay people, etc. I’ll admit I didn’t experience anything first hand, but I was angry on behalf of family members who had been through divorce, friends who were unwed mothers, and anyone else who might have been harmed.
So, I had to be on guard around Catholics (or Christians in general) and I drifted away from my heritage.
Most people I knew who were interested in anything spiritual had a beef with “organized religion” so I developed one too. I basically cut off my nose to spite my face, because I had no negative experiences to warrant a dismissal of organized worship. I was just reacting to the sense that it was too complicated or hard to get involved in.
Sadly, though, there were even more significant barriers to being involved in the “spiritual but not religious” scene. In the days before the internet, there were a million options and virtually no guidance or support. Lots of books and materials were available at New Age stores, but those cost money, and it was hard to tell ahead of time which would be useful and which were not. The local library might or might not be any help. It’s hard to develop a functioning spiritual practice out of library books, because you can’t keep or refer to them again. Then if you do figure out what brand of woo you like, there are more things to buy.
When I was sixteen, I had the opportunity to take an extensive, college level course in Native American Studies at the University of New Hampshire. My instructor was a woman with mixed Native and European heritage. It wasn’t, specifically, about spiritual practices, but spiritual beliefs are embedded in indigenous cultures at a foundational level. You can’t engage in the kind of class I was doing without encountering the spiritual.
I have no doubt that my exposure to Native American culture and other indigenous spiritual traditions is the reason that I’m still a functional human being capable of empathy and compassion.*
Without it, I would’ve been so deeply enmeshed in dissociative coping mechanisms that my soul would be completely fragmented. I don’t see any conflict between these belief systems and the teachings of Christ, but I have to be careful which Christians I say that to. I have to be careful which social progressives I talk about religion with as well.
After that class, I went home again. I didn’t have a way to contact my instructor or anyone else who could have helped me. I learned what I could from books, and when I got older, was able to connect and form relationships with people from indigenous backgrounds through the internet–but as a white person I don’t feel like I can just assume I belong. I am a guest at all times.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself though.
I moved at 19, and then I met and married another abuser whose tactics were more subtle. I didn’t recognize his brand of abuse (emotional manipulation, threats of suicide, desperate insecurity) until we were married, and then things escalated to the point where he kept me a literal prisoner. When I divorced him, I became homeless. I lived in a shelter for about six months before I was able to get into a transitional housing program. In the shelter system and later in the transitional housing program, I fought every day against abuses of power and discrimination based on my disability and financial status.
One of the few possessions I had during that time was a copy of the King James Bible. I read it a lot, and began to explore and understand the basis of the Christian faith at a level I had not before. I knew that the KJV wasn’t a sanctioned Catholic Bible, but it was what I had. A few months after I got into the housing program, I connected with an Independent Baptist Church in my area.
The pastor was an educated older man who was welcoming and encouraged folks to study the Bible on their own and make up their own minds about relevant issues of the day. He frequently spoke out against legalistic interpretations of Scripture and presented Jesus much in the same way that my grandmother did. It was a good place for me to get some grounding and learn how to study the Bible.
Transportation was an issue. A family volunteered to drive me to services, and while I appreciated their kindness, it made Sunday a grueling ordeal. They attended the 8AM service, stayed for Adult Sunday School afterward, and would often stay even later for other events. It takes me hours to get showered and dressed in the morning, so I would wake up at around 4 in the morning and would sometimes not get home until after dark.
There were other issues. Despite the pastor’s attitude about legalism, over time I found the church itself to be restrictive in its worship style, it’s treatment of women, and the way it addressed family life. It was at the usual level of horrible for a fundamentalist Christian church when it came to anything pertaining to disability or LGBTQ rights.
After about a year, the family who was driving me moved away. The church staff did their best to find someone else who could bring me, even to the point that the pastor asked for volunteers during a Sunday service, and no one offered.
I realized, once again, that no one was going to show up for me. At least I’d learned enough to realize that human behavior did not always reflect the heart of God. It was people who failed to show up when it counted.
I started visiting other churches and I found that the one I was most comfortable in was an Independent Charismatic church in the heart of downtown. The main barriers I faced were the lack of a wheelchair ramp and an elevator, but this time the church stepped up and had those put in, even though they had to fight with our city’s historical society to do it.
I loved it there for a long time. I stayed about a decade, but slowly, I realized that all was not well in paradise. I found many of the same issues that I had struggled with in the previous church.
I’d become closeted for the first time in my life, my disability was always center stage, my gifts and talents were only encouraged if I was going to use them in prescribed ways, and I was shunted into segregated “Women’s Bible Studies” where we covered topics more pertinent to homemaking than social justice. Meanwhile the “Men’s Bible Studies” were full of topics I wanted to learn about. My homeless friends were only welcome on a conditional basis, and one winter, despite this being a huge congregation, I couldn’t get any emergency help for family members who were in trouble.
I left after that, and never did find another church family. I’ve formed friendships with people of other faith traditions, but I find that no matter which one I’m engaging, the problems are universal.
Mental health stigma is rampant in spiritual communities. Disability is either or ignored or paraded around as an object lesson. Many faith communities enable or ignore abuse. Some do it by abetting abusers who have positions of authority. Others do it by encouraging abuse victims to remain in these situations or by trying to silence those who speak out against abuse. Christianity is rife with sexism; goddess-based traditions are often steeped in an equally problematic form of gender essentialism that is not supported by modern anthropological and sociological data.
On a personal level, I have been judged for my weight, my adherence to Christianity, my unorthodox practice of Christianity, my financial status, my marital status, my refusal to leave my wheelchair behind and get carried to an event held in an inaccessible location. I have been judged because I accept help from the government and because I decline unnecessary help from people around me. I’ve been judged for bringing family and friends who weren’t the “right” sort of people to have in church, and I’ve been judged because I won’t conform to someone else’s ideas about what I should or shouldn’t eat.
Faith communities claim to be open and accepting of everyone, but finding and participating in one has been damn near impossible for me. I’m still waiting for Jesus to show up–or for that matter any deity. But it won’t happen until their followers decide to stop engaging in tribal warfare with each other and start doing what they claim to be here for, which is to make people’s lives easier.
*To be clear, I am very much aware of the harm that European settlers did to indigenous groups. I am horrified that those abuses still continue, and I’m speaking of cultural exchange, not cultural appropriation.
I don’t advertise or talk much about any of this specifically because I don’t want there to be confusion or accusations of appropriation.
Rose B. Fischer is an avid fan of foxes, Stargate: SG-1, and Star Trek. She would rather be on the Enterprise right now.
Since she can’t be a Starfleet Officer, she became a speculative fiction author whose stories feature women who defy cultural stereotypes.
To support her artistic habits, Rose has a paying gig as a Digital Creativity Consultant. She works with female and non-binary creatives to help build powerful online presences that remain in line with her clients’ artistic visions.
You can find her on The Evil Genius blog.