Sunday brunch was always a close call. Any earlier than 1 p.m., I’d be late for it. After a night out, there was no way I was getting up for the 9 a.m. service.
“Pilates,” I’d lie, as I rushed into the restaurant, even if I was wearing a dress and looking fresh.
And usually no one questioned me. At worst, they assumed it was a walk of shame. Sometimes I let the suggestion stand, earning a round of mimosa cheers. I’ve had my fair share of those, but I didn’t wear my cross necklace when I headed out the night before.
In New York, I could always blame the trains. Later, in L.A., I’d blame the traffic. I bobbed and weaved through four post-collegiate years worth of Sunday brunches before I got caught.
“Church get out late?” joked my friend Justin’s boyfriend.
“Actually a few minutes early,” I said without thinking. By then, it was too late to laugh along.
In the expensively educated, ambitiously employed, liberal urban circles I’ve run in since graduating from prep school outside Washington, D.C., coming out as a Christian feels more fraught than coming out as gay. Non-straight sexual identity is assumed, accepted, or embraced. We’ve moved on, cheers. But genuine religious belief? Who does that?
When I first moved to the city, I never mentioned God at all. But after a number of sufficiently serious events — breakups, family problems, Hurricane Sandy, mass shootings — I couldn’t not bring up the bigger picture among friends. But when I rattled off verse, it took a beat for them to realize I wasn't making an ironic Jesus joke.
Where do you even go?
As if they hadn’t walked past four churches between their apartment and this restaurant.
Are you a Republican?
A total stranger eavesdropping on me in a Williamsburg bar interrupted to ask if I went to college. (Yes, thank you.)
My friends said they didn’t think my family was religious, and they're not beyond the WASP-obligatory Episcopalian weddings of cousins and funerals of grandparents. My parents — staunch, eye-rolling atheists — were baffled that one cousin held her wedding ceremony at St. Christopher’s when her parents had such a nice backyard.
It was my atheist family that drove me to Christianity. The first time I went to church by myself I was 25. My brother had just gotten kicked out of his sixth rehab stint, during which all of us had visited him for family week. Supervised by multiple therapists, the visit was an unmitigated, over-mediated disaster that left each of us feeling like his addiction was our individual faults.
I believed my parents had enabled him. My parents, furious with me for suggesting as much, went home to D.C. together and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I went home to New York, overwhelmed and lonely.
Much of the lexicon surrounding addiction recovery is cloaked in religion — a higher power. It grated on the rest of my family, but I took solace in it. The lower powers weren’t doing much for me. None of us knew what to do, or how to feel. I just knew for sure that I was searching.
The Presbyterian church was ripe for finding. It was one block away from my apartment, for one thing. They seemed happy to have me. Sunday service gave me an hour to think about the hard things and to wish for better for my brother without irony or judgment. I wrote names on prayer request sheets. I shook the pastor’s hand after services. I bought a Bible on Amazon and started keeping it next to my bed, slipping it beneath my latest fiction read when friends or dates came over.
During a routine, catch-up phone call with my parents about a year after family week, I casually mentioned that I’d bumped into a college friend when I was on my way home from church. In the silence that followed, I pictured their faces, gaping at each other over the speakerphone.
“Well, good for you, sweetie. Just don’t become one of those weirdos now, OK?”
We haven’t spoken about it since, which feels normal. I wasn’t really talking about religion with my family or friends in the first place. Once everyone knew, I became the object of friendly ridicule during the 2012 GOP debates and a couple of friends admitted that they pray when they’re very stressed or miss the community from their childhood church days.
When I moved to L.A. two years later, knowing only a handful of people, I repeated the same explanations to new friends and old ones I hadn’t seen in a while. Yes, I’m Christian. No, I’m not pro-life. Yes, I believe in evolution. My friends didn’t care. They were politely interested; nothing changed.
Dating, however, was touch and go. Classy lady that I am, I waited until the second or third date to discuss my faith. The right guys got it and saw the appeal; a good guy at least thought it was kind of interesting.
Once, eating takeout and watching TV with a lovely, kinda boring guy, I got annoyed by one of Bill Maher’s atheist tirades. It made all spiritual people sound like idiots and assholes.
“Oh, shit,” my date said. He removed his arm from around me. “You were being serious about church?”
Many more guys balked and told me, in so many words, that religion was pretty much a deal breaker for them.
And I couldn’t blame them. A few years ago I would’ve waited until the dude went to the bathroom to text my friend, I’m at drinks with a crazy Christian! And she’d write back, Redundant!
Then I met a man who beat me to the punch. On our second date, Bobby held my hands, the tops of our wrists resting against sweating margarita glasses, and said, “So, obviously I’m Jewish.”
He’d referenced his rabbi who was into hip-hop, his nerdy yarmulke collection he’d just uncovered from when he was 13, and how his bubbe accidentally saw “Magical Michael” with her friends from temple. Sprinkled throughout our dates, none of these anecdotes necessitated a bathroom text to a girlfriend. It’s just not as risky as saying My pastor and I love getting fro-yo, or My Bible collection is getting so big.
That's because urban liberals — for all their tut-tutting over anti-intellectualism and intolerance — are actually pretty ignorant about Christianity, especially compared to Judaism. It has very little to do with God. Being culturally Christian implies social conservatism and discrimination, anti-gay, pro-life, and pro-gun political agendas. It connotes a lack of education to the point of delusion. Being culturally Jewish connotes none of those things, and, if anything, their opposites. The Jewish people I know aren’t expected to answer for their culture’s more extreme sects the way I am. (I can only imagine how bad it is for Muslims.)
So it was little wonder Bobby came out about his own faith to me early on. But when he told me he didn’t want to get too attached to someone who didn’t consider Judaism, at the very least, a value-add in their lives, I felt completely understood. I told him immediately I was Christian.
“Oh, wow. Cool. I just assumed you were, you know, neutral.”
We’ve been dating now for a year. We live together. We have a dog. He came with me to Bel Air Presbyterian on Easter, his first time ever inside a church. During the service he stared straight ahead in silence and then afterward ate two frosted doughnuts end to end as if keeping his mouth stuffed to avoid talking.
In the car, I asked if he was OK.
“Wow,” he said for the third time since we left. “It really is that much Jesus.”
Well, yes and no. For me it’s a meditation on the bigger picture within a welcoming community upholding lovely traditions. Just like Judaism is for him.
Nothing compares, in my opinion, to the sunbeams of positivity and outreached arms of Christianity — the knowledge that, no matter what you do or who you are, God has your back. Judaism feels more exclusive, and more focused on accounting for your own life rather than handing it off to someone else. But in the ways I cherish and rely on most, they are divinely similar. The rituals, traditions, and the emphasis on family, love, reflection, and support give Judaism all the comforts of faith without the negative social and political connotations.
Bobby and I talk a lot about conversion now. His rabbi and I have discussed whether it’s harder to give up lifelong family religious traditions or to give up something you’ve discovered and nurtured entirely for yourself. The more I learn about Judaism, the more it feels like another home I’m building around myself.
I do think it’s easier to go from faith to faith than start shul shopping with someone who thinks All Religion Is Bullshit — and it’s definitely easier to explain conversion to my godless friends. I already drink the Kool Aid, I tell them. It tastes a lot like Manischewitz.