I could only lead you so far

a child reaching through a hole in a wall, stretching out an arm and making eye contact with the camera

cw: evangelicalism, kyriarchy

TOPICAL: this is part of the on being Exvangelical collection

Writing about the culture of evangelicalism that I was raised in and continued in for at least a decade of my adulthood is hard. It’s upsetting. I want to talk about it but it makes me both angry and depressed. All the good things I thought were there for me when I was young turned out to be gold dust on a moldy wall: get close enough and it’s going to make you sick.

it’s Sunday again

I hate using the phrase ‘fundamentalist evangelicalism’ over and over again, and yet I don’t know a better phrase to describe what my reality was for so many years.

I was raised by a narcissist and his victim/enabler, submerged into a paranoid ego-driven worldview. I was afraid of so many things. Recently, I told one of my partners that I had been worried from a young age that because I loved to sing and was pretty good at it, the Christian god would take it away from me at some point. In fact I still worry that if I love something too much, it will be snatched away in order to punish me for … loving it too much? The logic breaks down but the certainty of the feeling remains. My partner’s reaction was shock and sadness for that younger me, and at least I can hang onto that when I don’t know how to feel about my own old beliefs.

I’ve wanted to give a chronological account of my experience of fundamentalist evangelicalism and the journey that brought me out of it, but the sting of it is keeping me from being able to look back that far for long enough to write the words in that order. So instead I will write about my exvangelicalism from different perspectives and for different reasons, although the underlying theme will always be the Christian church and my exodus (ha) from it.

I helped strengthen the kyriarchy and it harmed me anyway

I can count on one hand the number of black people I knew growing up, and I might need two hands to count the brown people I knew. A common thing my paternal grandmother would say was that we had Cherokee blood, which I now know is likely false and informed by direct violence toward the indigenous people living on this land.

My evangelicalism was almost completely white, and one of the only helpful things my mother ever told me was that being a racist person was wrong. I’m not sure I fully understood why, but in spite of a lot of my other initial beliefs, I hung onto that one. Maybe it was a seed planted so I could grow into a better person later.

The painfulness of my childhood and the destruction of my self-worth in my young adulthood are so wrapped up with evangelicalism that I don’t think I can untangle them. This is the main reason that it’s so hard for me to talk about it; it hurts. I remember who I used to be, and I’m ashamed of having been that person and the for the things I used to say and believe and do. I’m ashamed that I used to believe that abortion was morally wrong and should be legislated to punish anyone who got one or helped someone get one. I’m ashamed that I disinvited and replaced my maid of honor in my wedding to my first husband, because she had gotten pregnant and wasn’t married. I’m ashamed that I used to be a youth pastor’s wife and participated in a broken system to reinforce those harmful structures in the kids we were supposed to be supporting and teaching and loving.

Right now as I type this, I’m not sure where this piece is going. I only know that I felt pulled to write something today; and last time I wrote about my exvangelical status, a lot of people read it, and my hope is that it’s been useful in someone else’s deconstruction and rebirth into a better way of being.

The songs I used to sing and play, for myself and often for a congregation in a church, still sound sweet to my ears, but it’s like a fond old memory of someone who’s killed someone. Maybe I shouldn’t miss it, but I do anyway.

There are two reasons that after I left fundamentalist evangelicalism behind, and pursued something else I didn’t know the shape of, I found Path of Light. Or rather, it found me.

the first reason

The inner layers of Path’s understanding of the world and its purpose reframed my old and painful beliefs, so that I could see that they were a faulty understanding, a cold and broken hallelujah, of something else more true. The things I loved and believed in earlier years weren’t completely wasted or completely false, and their flaws and mistakes seem clearer to me now, in a gentler light; I’m still angry about the ways I was lied to by my old faith, but it’s easier to give that gentleness and grace to myself now.

Seeds of truth are sprinkled into books, music, art, science, and all the ways we explain ourselves to ourselves. If I want to see proof of the things I believe now to be true, I can look all around me and find it.

the second reason

I desperately wanted something to help me grow, help me change, something to give me a discipline that I could use as an impetus toward whoever it is that I’m meant to be. I was, and still am, someone who wants to dig deep into theology and philosophy. Polytheistic belief structures and various experiences of both unverified personal gnosis and shared personal gnosis are just as important and fascinating to me as monotheistic theology used to be.

Rather than losing something, I gained new understanding, new reasons for discipline, new relationships with both deities and land spirits, and a new concept of ancestor veneration. There are my ancestors of blood — those whose DNA is part of my DNA; ancestors of spirit — the heroic dead, people whose lived experience informs my growing understanding of truth; and Path ancestors, who are a very particular kind of people. We draw from a deep well of not only exactness and pedantry, but also mercy and compassion.

the third reason

I didn’t know it yet, but there’s another reason that I found Path and it found me: I am here not just because I have faith in it, but also because it has faith in me.

The following song doesn’t have many lyrics, but it smacked an epiphany right into my face when I first heard it (I’ve taken some liberties with puncuation).

you were a wanderer, back when you were young

I remember your eyes were clear, brighter than the sun

with hands so soft, delicate and sweet

you learned to fall, and balance on your own two feet

I could only lead you so far — I believe in who you are

take the world by storm, muster all your strength

embrace the forces that surround you, bend gravity and space

you are a child of the stars, shout what has been unsung

open all the doors around you, use the power in your lungs

I could only lead you so far — I believe in who you are

Rule #9 – Child of the Stars, by Fish in a Birdcage

Do you know what it feels like to be believed in? Have you experienced the incredible fortune of knowing that you matter?

What evangelicalism taught me was that the thing itself was more important than anyone it crushed or killed along the way. Perfection meant destroying oneself, not to mention everyone else, in an attempt to stamp out anything that wasn’t holy enough.

What Path has taught me is that each of us are important, that nobody has to be any particular thing in order to be worthy of love and deserving of mercy and perhaps even second chances. I am learning that while we do our best to attain perfection, we also know that perfection is not possible, and so we hold a paradox of excellence and failure within ourselves.

I was raised to be a good Christian woman, not to question, not to learn except what was told to me, not to rebel against structures that harmed me and my children. Instead, I learned and tried and failed and, by the grace of the gods and ancestors, I have found the path that I can travel, and the people I belong with.

Also it turns out I’m queer and not a woman at all. Take that, past self, and know that you are worthy of love.

featured image is a photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.


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