Opinion

Finding a faith that is stronger than death — or my family’s rejection

Heidi Hall at home in 2018. Photo by John Russell/Vanderbilt University

(RNS) — My mother would be surprised that I did not die alone.

And that, in the end, about 25 people had volunteered to take care of me when I couldn’t do that for myself anymore. 

It’s one thing, after you find out you’re going to die from metastatic colorectal cancer, to ask people to bring your favorite kind of Gatorade. It’s quite another to ask them to stand in the place of DNA-sharing family and walk through hospice with you, but that’s what I had to do.

At the age of 23, I turned away from the family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who raised me.

They had wanted me to be an uber-Witness. So my family forbade me to go to college and instead raised me to be a full-time, door-to-door minister who converted people to their way of thinking — I actually succeeded with one in about 15 years of trying — and to pay my bills by working menial jobs.  

Every meaningful connection in my life was through a local congregation of Witnesses, known as the Kingdom Hall. That was by design.

Because my family and congregation believed that the rest of the world, and that means all government and all non-Jehovah’s Witnesses religious systems, is controlled by Satan and his legions, they were very insular except for when they were evangelizing. 

That Kingdom Hall was my world. And my place in the family depended on being a Witness.

I left that for a couple of reasons. 

In 1993, I’d met a Southern Baptist boy, and we were doing the sort of things that 20-somethings do that Witnesses forbid on pain of disfellowshipping. In addition to that, despite a lack of formal higher education, I’d landed a job as a newspaper journalist in my small hometown of Sikeston, Missouri, and interviewed my first openly gay person, an amazing man who founded an AIDS charity. 

After the story ran, I felt compelled to take him to coffee, where he kindly and patiently answered all my truly naive, ignorant questions.

After meeting with Ted a few times, I wondered: If the Witnesses were so wrong about gay people knowingly choosing sin, what else were they wrong about?

Eventually, I expressed those doubts to my family. Even worse, I confessed what I was up to with the boy and that I was talking to gay folks. In response, a  committee of elders found me unrepentant of the sin of fornication and excommunicated me — making me dead to my mother, stepfather, four siblings and any other Witness who had ever known me. 

None of them could have anything to do with me.

They cut me off, hoping that I would eventually come to my senses and return. 

What this looks like, in a practical way, is that when you’re in the waiting area at the Olive Garden, and your mother’s best friend, who raised her five kids alongside the five in your family so much so that it just seemed like a giant tribe shifting back and forth from house to house, walks in, she pretends that she can’t see you. 

This despite the fact that you are a woman of 6 feet 3 inches and it’s a really small Olive Garden. 

The experience of being shunned is surreal and soul-crushing. 

It means, at the age of 23, you can’t ask your stepdad for help navigating a used car purchase or ask Mom what to do about your first horrible fight with that boy. 

You cannot go home.

You are utterly alone in the world.

With that one boyfriend and a handful of acquaintances, I built up my secular life first. I was angry at my mother, my family, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all religions and relieved that I was so above it. 

I told people that I was spiritual, not religious, which was a lie.

I wasn’t either. 

That was probably pretty clear to anyone who watched me navigating my hurt with overwork in the newspaper business, overeating and frequent drinking – problems I ultimately sought outside help to manage after many years of using them to numb out. 

Heidi Hall at home in 2018. Photo by John Russell/Vanderbilt University

I married that Baptist boy. Our friendship endures to this day although our marriage didn’t make it past 10 years. Along the way, we both built our journalism careers — careers that took us from Missouri to Florida and eventually to Nashville. For years, I studiously avoided church and religious people and really felt sorry for them, wishing they could put down that sticky opium of the people and be as enlightened as I was. 

My return to religion happened in Nashville in 2008 after I divorced the Baptist boy — though we remained friends — and had married a sweet Messianic Jew I met online. He invited me to church with him now and again but mostly left me alone about it. 

I was working as education editor at the local daily paper, filling in as interim religion editor, when the Rev. Ken Locke of Nashville’s historic Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) called, wanting to get an essay of his printed on our Faith & Values page.

I told him I could help, assured him I was only temporarily dealing with pastors, so don’t get used to me, and then accepted his invitation to tour the historic church building, done in Egyptian Revival architecture. As much as I hated church, it seemed rude to turn it down. At least I’d get a chance to look at a remarkable example of architecture seven blocks from the paper. 

I waited for him to bring up religion on the tour.

 He didn’t. 

We enjoyed talking about the building so much, we decided to meet up in the future for coffee, where he still didn’t talk about religion.  Eventually, we became friends. And still, nobody was talking about religion. 

I decided it was time.

“In the church I grew up in, we said the world was like a stormy sea, and the husband was the ship’s captain, and everyone had to line up behind his decision-making or sink,” I finally said, one day when we’d met for breakfast. 

“Shouldn’t you line up behind the best sailor?” Ken asked.

His direct and witty responses didn’t end there. 

Next time, I told him I was spiritual but not religious.   

“That’s like saying I play football, but not on a team,” he said.

Finally, I dug down to talk about some of the core injuries I’d experienced growing up and my concerns about the church’s treatment of LGBT people. Ken assured me that at Downtown Presbyterian pastorships were open to all, and the sacrament of marriage for same-sex couples soon would be taken up by the church’s governing body.

Not long after that conversation, I joined the church. I often make the joke that I took a church tour, and drank coffee, and ate breakfast … and then I was a Presbyterian elder. 

The fact was, I just couldn’t find anything about the church and its denomination that I couldn’t accept. And I found so much to love, especially the focus on social justice and improving today’s world, not the one hereafter.

That’s why I have a tough time with people today hurt by religion who can’t understand my return to it. One even said I seemed too smart for religion. The fact was, I just had to find a version of faith I could do business with.

My problem wasn’t with religion. It was with bad religion.

Through both my church — after a move I transferred my membership to Nashville’s Woodland Presbyterian  and outside help, I’ve been able to come to terms with my mother and her ending of our relationship. She reaches out now and again only to test the waters for my return to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I assure her that I’ve found a community and a God who love me unconditionally.

I think about something she used to say about her brand of religion: “If you’re sinning and you try to pray, you may as well forget it, because you’ve cut the cord on that phone to God, and he can’t hear you.”

Today, I believe I could smash the phone to the molecular level, and God would still hear me because God loves me and wants to hear me. It may be tougher to believe that fact these days when my life looks so unmanageable and certainly not “#blessed,” but I see God in so much every day.

Especially after learning that I was dying.

On Feb. 20, 2019, after I reported a nagging pain in my side, my oncologist found some suspicious shadows on a CT scan. We hoped for better news, but on June 6, I learned colorectal cancer I thought I’d beaten in early 2018 had indeed metastasized to my liver, lungs and abdominal wall. 

There is no treatment for it. 

I was given six months — “three of them good,” the oncologist said — to one year to live. As I am writing this, I’ve had to suspend my job and receive disability benefits. My three good months are gone.

Thank God, long before this happened, I had rebuilt my connections with both the secular and religious worlds, giving acceptance to my diverse friends in both of them. 

Because I need everybody.

Due to ill health, I recently resigned from the governing board or session of my church.

“The love of this congregation, the excitement of the young people who minister to us, the heartfelt preaching we hear every Sunday – it is invaluable to me through this. What we accomplish for a congregation of our size with a budget of our size is nothing short of miraculous,” I wrote in my resignation letter.

“I take comfort, too, in knowing that we worship a God who understands my pain, not in some academic way, but because They experienced it on the cross. You may see me get tearful in church because I am very disappointed about what’s happened and sad to be leaving you, but know that I am prepared and willing to meet our God, who smiles on Woodland.”

These days I am surrounded by dear friends walking the hospice journey with me, who do everything from rubbing me down with Biofreeze for pain to helping me to the toilet.

I’ve been able to forgive my mother for not being here during this, too. And I understand her choices a little better. 

My mother’s faith means the world to her, because — she has overcome so much with its help.

I think about my favorite picture of Mom, where she’s 18 and taking a nap with me. She’s living in her in-laws’ house while their son finishes college. In their mind, she’s up and ruined the life of their only child, a boy on the basketball team at Widener University. They let her know what she’s done by creating a thick air of disapproval in their house. She’s wearing a Widener T-shirt and sleeping peacefully with her baby when that boy lovingly snaps a picture.

My grandparents eventually came around and helped us. But it was too late, at least to save my mother.

My father was probably schizophrenic, but in the insular Jehovah’s Witnesses, where they converted when I was 3, he wasn’t diagnosed or offered professional therapy, just prayed for. He took off without explanation and called her from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas one night, apologized, and overdosed while lying in the bathtub. Mom told the medical examiner to cremate him and do whatever with the ashes.

My father left her alone with no higher education, no job, and daughters ages 7, 4 and 6 weeks. 

That is when she got steely and made an arrangement: Religion would take care of her, and she would reject anyone and anything that didn’t accept the arrangement. Asked to choose between her daughter and her religion, she chose her religion.

That’s not the kind of religion that works for me. 

I had to find one that did.

When I lost the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I ultimately gained everything. 

Those 25 people taking care of me? Two atheists, a Muslim, a Jew, gay people both churched and not, and traditional church folks like me. None of them would have been accepted by the faith I left behind — where salvation was only for a chosen few. 

I want an afterlife like my life has been: one like Revelation 7:9, a great multitude of diverse people existing together in love of each other and their Creator. It’s not up to me to say who qualifies.

In my search, I left behind conditional, behavior-based love and traded it for the unconditional grace shown by a true family, whose bonds have nothing to do with DNA.

And I’m dying grateful for that.

(Heidi Hall, who died Sept. 25, 2019, at age 49, was a veteran journalist whose award-winning career took her from the Standard Democrat in Sikeston, Missouri, and the Southeast Missourian to the Tampa Tribune and the Nashville Tennessean before landing her at Vanderbilt University’s public affairs office. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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