One of my earliest childhood memories is of a small, framed illustration on my bedroom wall. In it, a little girl in a blue dress knelt beside a bed in a scene reminiscent of Holly Hobbie, with a classic bedtime prayer in beautiful, old-fashioned script. I loved that illustration and I read the prayer every night. I didn’t necessarily pray, but read the words and hoped I wouldn’t spontaneously die in my sleep. Sweet as the poem was intended to be, I didn’t want the Lord to take my soul to keep. Not yet, at least.
During my childhood, my family regularly attended services at different United churches, though I’m not sure I’d describe any of us as deeply religious. I went to Bible camp in the summer and spent many happy weekends in Sunday school. We had all been baptized, but didn’t talk much about belief (or lack thereof).
My grandfather, Rev. Don Gillies, a minister at Bloor Street United in Toronto, was the exception. He was devoted to the church, but also a critical thinker who never shied away from a respectful debate or discussing ideas contrary to his own. He was a political man with a passion for equality and human rights and he advocated for religious leaders to come together. He believed in God, but also in people. My Papa Donnie was also one of the few people with whom I regularly discussed religion who didn’t dismiss my burgeoning atheism as a phase or rebellion.
Growing up in a loving church family surrounded by other church people, you might think that faith would come easily to me. I had a shining example in my grandfather and his other United Church of Canada (UCC) minister friends. But as the years went on, I struggled with the idea of God and religion. Turns out, they weren’t for me.
On a good day, I’m borderline agnostic, but most of the time, I’d describe myself as a passive non-believer. As in, I don’t think there’s a God, but I’m not going to try and convince anyone that they’re wrong for believing otherwise.
I do not attend church and my children are not baptized. I am, by definition, an atheist. But if you ask me about my beliefs, I will enthusiastically talk about the United Church, because I believe in the organization.
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No matter how my perspective shifted over time, I never lost affection for the community that was instrumental in my upbringing: the individual people, the greater UCC institution and its values. I love the church’s inclusivity. I am very proud that I grew up among people who stand against racism, are proudly feminist and fight for human rights, who welcome and advocate for the LGBTQ community, who reach out to refugees and offer support to the homeless — people who lead by example instead of preaching aggressively.
I love the church’s focus on giving back and helping others, members’ belief in restorative justice and their dedication to the community as well as people across the globe. I feel these values more than I’ve ever felt God, and perhaps more importantly, I am proud to live in a way that reflects their mission. This is reflected in my approach to parenting, my stance on human rights issues and the charitable organizations I’ve chosen to support. I strive to be an ally to LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups, and to raise children who understand their privilege and use it to help others. My value system doesn’t stem from scripture, but it feels inherently right.
I didn’t come by my atheism lightly or by accident. It’s not born out of laziness, as some have suggested, or a desire to rebel against church and my family. I’m a 35-year-old mother-of-two who lives in the suburbs and drives a crossover. I may be a questioner and a free thinker, but I’m hardly radical.
My emotional connection to the United Church community is tied directly to the congregations I grew up in, which were progressive, left-leaning and warm. But that is not every person’s experience. Not every congregation flies a rainbow flag, prioritizes reconciliation efforts and participates in interfaith groups. As a white, middle-class, straight, cisgender woman, it’s easy to miss or gloss over the times an organization’s actions failed to reflect its mission statement. I do not attend church because of my lack of belief in God, but some believers have been made to feel unwelcome in the same spaces I feel at ease. I chose to leave; others have felt pushed out. On inclusivity, the church still has a long way to go.
I struggle with the concept of organized religion and will never be a devout Christian. But in my heart, I’m a United Church person. No community is perfect, but when you find your people, they’re worth holding on to.
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