Barbara McLay: Five Faiths (essay)
Southern legitimacy statement: I was born and raised in Florida and am still living here, two miles from Georgia. My dad and grandparents were also native Floridians, and I can’t find a maternal or paternal ancestor who was born or lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. Mom was born in southern Georgia and crossed the border into Florida when she was sixteen.
I was, I suppose, a Holy Roller when I was born, though you aren’t an official member of the Holiness Church unless you are baptized into it, and the Holiness Church doesn’t baptize babies. I don’t remember being a Holiness. It was my mother’s faith, but my father was a Baptist, and my parents changed our family’s religion to Baptist before I was five.
I enjoyed being a Baptist, and I’m thankful for the legacy of Bible knowledge I acquired in my formative years. There was always something going on at church. We spent Sunday morning in Sunday school followed by a church service that lasted until noon, went home for lunch and an early supper, then back to church at six-thirty for Baptist Training Union and another service that was mostly hymn singing. Monday nights were for visitation, dedicated to persuading backsliders to return to the fold. Tuesday nights there was choir practice, and Wednesday nights we had prayer meetings. The deacons met on Thursdays (I hoped to be one someday), and on Fridays and Saturdays there were parties and Bible study for young people to entice us away from school and recreation center dances. What I like best about the Baptist church is the music. I find it ironic that Baptists consider dancing a sin, but their music makes you want to.
My sophomore year in college, I began to attend the Congregationalist Church, the only church anywhere near the University of South Florida back in the early sixties. They had the biggest and most active student union, and all my new friends were Congregationalist. I was already unhappy about being told I was going to Hell for dancing, and my parents would be there too, for drinking and smoking, so I was ready to find a gentler path to the Pearly Gates. The church building was beautiful—glass walls with woods all around. It was a pleasure to sit in that lovely place, guilt-free about having gone to a dance the night before. The singing lacked the Baptist vigor, but I liked the setting and the sermons better.
I considered myself a Congregationalist when I met David, an Episcopalian and love of my youthful life. He insisted that married couples need to be of the same religion, and I agreed. I attended confirmation classes, had the Bishop say some words over me, and we were married at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. I taught Sunday School, served on the vestry, and was a very active participant until my marriage ended.
David got the church in the divorce; so I looked for another. I loved Episcopalism—the stained glass windows, the poetry of the prayers, the predictability of the services, the comfort of being in an elite group. There was something gratifying about writing “Episcopalian” in the slot for “religion” when I had to fill out some form that had the audacity to ask. Just the fact that I could spell it justified my pre-eminence. But Episcopal churches aren’t on every corner, and I didn’t want a church that was miles from my home. Besides, at that time, women could not be priests. I was willing to allow men to think they were superior as long as I had control of one, but when my husband departed, I decided to look at other denominations that might realize and admit that women were equal human beings.
I began an intensive investigation into my own beliefs and into the philosophies of various churches. This was the first time I had ever deliberately decided to change my religion—or at least my denomination. I read the Book of Mormon, listened to Jehovah Witnesses, attended classes at the Jewish temple, studied religious history, and went to a different church each week.
When I attended the Unitarian church, I found a home. I liked the building, the music, the sermon, and the people. And the minister was a woman. I didn’t know much about their beliefs, but after the service, I went to the church library—I loved that they had a library—and found as much literature as I could about the church. The more I read, the more I liked. Within a few weeks, I signed on.
I miss the Baptist music; I miss The Book of Common Prayer, but the Unitarian philosophy fits my beliefs as close as I can find without starting my own religion—a possibility I consider now and then.