This Much I Know Is True

by Joe Thomas

I’ve been in a quiet place since Friday morning.

While I spent time with friends this past weekend and was my usual gregarious self at work yesterday, I found myself thinking harder and speaking less, more sensitive to the both tragic and uplifting stories of the past few days. I thought longer and harder about the things I was saying, and often times chose to remain silent, worried that the words I had were insufficient for the complexity of emotion I felt. Deep-seated and difficult issues found their way to the forefront of my mind, multifaceted and nebulous things like the causes of violence, the difficulties of parenting, the difficulties of calm objectivity in a time of crisis, and the proper response to a simple question like “Why?” or “How?”. And so, I have been quiet. If you, the reader, will indulge me, I’m going to use this space to lay out my thoughts from the last few days. In a sense, it will be an operation in catharsis. My hope is that from this writing, perhaps someone reading who has been struggling with similar emotions will find solace or hope, or simple peace of mind.

When I was in high school, I began questioning my faith. Indeed, it is possible that I never really believed, but rather went through the various rites and rituals of the Episcopal church because it made me feel like I was part of something important; adults seemed to take it seriously, so I played along. In 2003, I was elected a youth delegate to the annual council of the Diocese of Atlanta. The church in which I was raised was a wonderful community of openness and happiness. Services were cheerful and joyous professions of faith, with a diverse, intelligent, and kind group of parishioners who were active citizens within and without the church community. I was genuinely excited to go to church on Sundays, to be a part of a community that celebrated life and each other so beautifully. It was a natural place for me to be, and, at least I think, I thrived in this place. Clearly some people in the church recognized the connection I had made with the church, because I received this honor of attending Diocesan Council. In that same year, the Episcopalians of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as their bishop. It was a monumental, groundbreaking decision, and one that ignited conversation in some parishes, celebration in others, and panic in still more. As a delegate to the council, I saw some of the most intelligent, rational theological conversation to which I had ever been exposed. And I was also witness to something I had no experience with in my church: hate. And so my idea of “church” and what I believed was the role of church began to crumble. This crumbling continued as a grew older, as I became more and more aware of the close-mindedness of so-called “people of faith”. My worldview now is based in a sort of moral agnosticism. I still find comfort and peace in the parts of church I valued when I was younger; community, love, gratitude, generosity, contemplation, meditation, and service, among a litany of others. The faith communities that support these principles are beautiful examples of the potential of human spirit and sacrifice. But far too often, I find myself thinking that the imperative nature of belief, that one must accept wholly unbelieveable things as true, is far beyond my capacities.

So when I look at the wake of tragedies like the one in Connecticut on Friday, and I hear people frame the conversation in terms of Christian faith, I find myself uncomfortable. Even if all of the victims were Christian, why should solace and comfort and hope be for people of faith exclusively? And then I think of the wonderful attributes of “my” church. The love and comfort and generosity I value so much in that church is something in which all people of all walks of life can celebrate and participate. When the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta Robert Wright spoke on CNN this afternoon, the anchor asked him about people who do not believe in Christian dogma, what role they can play in service to the victims of tragedy. My answer to that is the most beautiful and graceful parts of a church community are just that: community. And while some people of faith may use this as an opportunity to advance their hate-filled agendas, most people will use it as an opportunity for thought, meditation, love, and selflessness. These are doors to the church that are open for all people. As humans we are broken and imperfect creatures, capable of horrible selfishness and greed. But we are also capable of breathtaking generosity and love. That potential is not native to one faith tradition or another. When it comes to comforting others and spreading love, we can all be ministers. This much I know is true.

* Credit for the title goes to the author Wally Lamb, who wrote a novel by the same name.