When I was seven years old, I prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to “come into my heart” to save me from sin and death. If you grew up in a conservative Christian household, maybe you did the same. From that point on, my spiritual life was shaped by this duality: saved or not saved, bound for heaven or bound for hell.
It affected every relationship I had, because it affected me at the core of who I am.
In bible studies and at youth events, I grew up learning about how to best share our “personal testimony,” that story of how we came to be saved, how we were transformed from sinners to people who look more and more like Jesus every day.
Every time I was asked about my testimony, I would chase my memories back to my seven year old self, trying to find some fault in her. I wondered if, in that moment she prayed that prayer, she had some transformation, that a veil was lifted, that she saw everything around her more clearly. Surely, there were some awful underlying sins that she was hiding. Surely, she was a heathen before she prayed that prayer. Maybe she was extra selfish, and that was her downfall. Maybe she wasn’t grateful enough and needed the promise of heaven to fix it.
Maybe, though, she was just a kid, sacredly created and wholly loved by Mystery.
As an adult, thanks to therapy and other safe spaces created with friends and family, I can revisit myself as a child. I can ask her questions, scan the recesses of her mind and imagination and see where she saw beauty and where she felt pain. As an adult, I can ask myself what my own trauma and anxiety stems from so that I can walk, write, sing, cry, run, or sometimes crawl my way through healing.
It is enduringly hard work, but if we are to dismantle some of the dangers associated with the colonizing evangelical Christianity we’ve inherited, we’ve got to look our trauma in the eye and hold the institutions accountable that caused that trauma.
Am I saying that every church member, youth pastor, and evangelical is a monster?
I am saying that collectively we’ve done monstrous things, and we need to pay attention to the damage done in spaces where we promised someone salvation from themselves based on a one-time prayer and snap of the fingers.
Maybe we need to go back and ask our child-selves some questions.
Maybe we need to give them some room to ask us questions.
Today, the stories of Jesus tell me of a man, a human, who used spit and dirt to heal. He escaped to countrysides and water to remember his connection to the land. He told empire to back the hell off, and he held the oppressed and the young close to his own heart without shaming them into submission.
I grew up hearing that we are to be in the world, but not of the world.
But today, all I want is to hold space in this world with my relatives, human and non-human alike.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.”
If anything, the church has lost its ability to find its place in the midst of sacred creation. The church has been power hungry for too long, and has forgotten its need to stay humble and gentle, to learn from the world and the creatures in it, and to learn from the least of these when it has lost its way. We lost our way when prayer became a weapon that we wielded toward others we thought needed saving.
Do we need to be saved from anything? Probably. We see the way that systems of hate and white supremacy have permeated the earth and destroyed people. We’ve seen how dangerous the ideas of in vs out, black vs white, us vs them can be. Maybe we need to save ourselves and each other from that wreckage. But we have to ask ourselves better questions and hold space for better answers.
Little Kaitlin? She saw something holy in the world around her, an awe and wonder that was slowly replaced with fear and shame.
We must do better by future generations inheriting a belovedly created and wholly loved world, and their wholly beautiful place in it.
We must be willing to lead them, and to stop and let them lead us. In order to be good ancestors, we begin with soft yet fierce love today.