The inside of my local church and synagogue looked pretty much the same, except for insignia in certain locations. The front of my church bore a weathered wooden statue of Jesus Christ on the cross while my synagogue opted for a polished ark containing a yellowed Torah. Now you may gather that both are places of worship and have similar setups for that reason exactly, but I never really understood why faith had to be found in any specific set of four walls.
By previous statements made, I may not need to delineate the fact that I was raised in a cross-religious upbringing. But I will, because it is a central contributing factor to the immense confusion I have encountered with the religious experience growing up.
I was both baptized and named before living 30 days on Earth, which meant my cross-religious identity was solidified before I could support the weight of my own head. I grew up making seder plates out of tinfoil and setting my shoes out for Saint Nicolas in the early days of December. These traditions were physical representations of my identity, but my inner spirituality did not follow such a clear cut duality.
While I have never identified as atheist or agnostic, I also have never really understood what I was praying to. Judaism and Christianity worship the same god through different testaments, which contain a litany of different teachings and folklore. I often discarded the small nuances and used the concept of God to grapple with adversity I was currently attempting to overcome.
Imagining a society formulated around religion is almost unthinkable for me, given that everyone else in my high school friend group was an atheist.
Even though I attended a Benedictine Catholic school since sixth grade, students who dared to accept communion during masses were often giggled at. To take it a step further, my ex-boyfriend would frequently scoff at my simple belief in God and outright ignore any attempts I made to express the importance of faith in my life. Essentially, I lived in a community where I continuously witnessed the death of religion as a staple of society.
Faith’s place in Generation Z’s beating heart is fading fast, meaning that it is usually parental figures who keep God’s certain sanctity alive in most households. When departing the comfort of my own home to a cold cement building nestled between Durant Avenue and Channing Way, the comfort of my parents dictating my spiritual practices departed as well. I didn’t have Shabbat dinners with my dad or the burnt orange flame of German Christmas candles to light my way.
I wondered how both of my parents were able to hold such a transient entity close to their chests while leaving their own personal houses of worship behind when leaving for school. I wondered how I am struggling to do such a similar thing while only living less than forty miles away from my childhood bedroom. As these questions followed me throughout my first year away, my epiphany that the current definition of god has entirely changed came to fruition.
I used to utterly idolize the California missions. Maybe it was because of Ms. Hammond’s diorama project that had me molding dried clay to create San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on a 2-by-2 poster board. Or maybe it was because I dragged my parents on a road trip to see the swallow nests at San Juan Capistrano and eat fresh carnitas tacos at Santa Ines. Of course, this was all before I learned of the concept of colonization and the genocidal behavior towards Native Americans.
The missions were certainly defined as places of worship by Franciscan priests, but the violence that their creation caused was anything but a direct following of God’s teachings. These four walls meant absolutely nothing. They did not teach one to love their neighbor or to repent for any sinful behavior. They encouraged an attitude of violence and oppression that caused generational trauma for those directly affected.
I am not a theologian, or someone who attends church or synagogue regularly. I am a person of faith, though, which I feel has to count for something. The nature of my religious upbringing never made clear what I was supposed to do with my conflicting outlook on such an invisible presence. Was I meant to worship within four walls that hailed Jesus as a messiah, or was I meant to pray for a messiah that was coming to grace the Jewish community?
I think back now to my analysis of the hypocritical Franciscan priests and can conclude that any set of four walls are not necessary whatsoever. The only necessary attribute I was missing was myself. I had created such an over dramaticized conflict in my head that neglected to understand that religion purely consists of two aspects: the believer and the belief. I now realize that I can hold a higher power close to my heart, and I have the ability to exercise that relationship however I please.