letter to my parents

August 2006

This is the letter I wrote my parents when I converted.

August 2006

Dear Mom & Dad,

I'm writing you this letter because I want you to know what's going on in 
my life right now, and this seems to be the best way to do it.  In our 
family, we often don't talk about things that are uncomfortable or hard to 
deal with, so those issues never get discussed.  Please don't think this 
letter is going to be doom and gloom; I have a wonderfully rich, full life 
and I want to share it with you.

I'm going to give you a little background here so you can catch up on how 
my life has gone the last few years.  We don't talk about real life nearly 
as much as I would like us to, so I think this background is necessary.

I'm sure you've figured out by now that I haven't been a regular 
church-goer in several years.  Ian and I never found a church we liked 
well enough to attend regularly. (I did go to church fairly often in 
2000-2001 when Cynthia and I were checking out the Metropolitan Community 
Church in Boulder, but it didn't stick.) The real issue was a niggling 
little problem which became particularly noticeable in college, but that 
I'd actually struggled with my entire life: I was trying to connect with 
God, in every way I knew how, and I couldn't get there.  No church in the 
world could fix the spiritual hunger that gnawed at me.  No amount of 
praying appeased it, no amount of belief or faith or trusting Jesus 
helped.  I didn't know what to do, so I drifted spiritually, getting along 
as best I could.

Ian and I got married in late 1997.  By spring of 1998, I had come out to 
myself as gay.  Being a Christian and a lesbian at the same time was 
tough, I'm here to tell you.  I still loved God, but I also loved women, 
and I didn't know how to deal with that (supposed) conflict.  On top of 
that, I was beginning to come to grips with the fact that the anti-gay 
rhetoric I had always heard in the church growing up was suddenly 
applicable to me, not just some theoretical other homosexual out there, 
and it was causing me a great deal of pain and heartache.  It's a hard 
thing to deal with, knowing that the church and the majority of people in 
it believe gay people are either going to hell, are the cause of most of 
our country's problems, or both.  Of course, not all Christians think 
that, but we all know that the conservative, evangelical church's official 
stance on homosexuality is quite unforgiving.  Having no idea how to deal 
with this fact and still retain membership in the mainstream church, I 
dropped out to struggle with God and the Bible on my own. It was a huge 
deal to me, to find a way to retain my belief in God and come to terms 
with my sexuality; I want that understood.  When I came out to myself, I 
was determined to figure out what God says about homosexuality and follow 
that, no matter what it might turn out to be.  I rationalized nothing.

In 2000 Ian and I divorced and I began dating Cynthia.  The turmoil of 
being a gay Christian was still there in many ways -- it's impossible to 
live in this country as a gay person and not feel like the whole world 
hates you sometimes -- but I was dealing with it.

At this time in my life I was not only dealing with my religious beliefs 
in regards to my sexuality, but I was struggling with religion in general.  
I still believed in God, but I wasn't sure what else I believed in.  
Confronting one's own homosexuality when one was raised an evangelical 
Christian causes repercussions you have to experience to believe.  The 
process tore me apart from the inside out and I had to rebuild myself, 
with the aid of my friends and Rachel, and that meant I not only had to 
examine my beliefs about homosexuality, but about *everything* I was 
brought up to believe.  Confronting myself for, really, the first time in 
my life exploded my worldview.  It forced me to look at what I really 
believed about religion, social order, history, morality, and just about 
everything else.  Not an easy thing to do.  Once engaged in this process, 
I couldn't stop.  I read book after book, spending most of my time away 
from work thinking about God, the universe, our place in the order of 
things.  Slowly, I began to piece together what I knew I believed, and it 
was nothing like what I thought I knew.

In a desperate attempt to connect with God again, Cynthia and I joined the 
Metropolitan Community Church in Boulder.  MCC is sometimes known as the 
"gay church" and is looked down upon by more mainstream denominations, but 
I'll tell you, they serve God in ways few people do.  They reach out to 
gays and lesbians specifically, which is something most churches won't do, 
and I'd be willing to bet money they've brought hundreds, if not 
thousands, of gays back to God over the years.  For a while, Cynthia and I 
attended church.  I was trying to reconcile being a Christian with being 
gay, and this was a way to do it.  Still, something was wrong... something 
was missing, and I couldn't figure out what.  I kept reaching out to God, 
but I couldn't find him -- I couldn't reach him.  He wasn't listening.

The beliefs I grew up with and *passionately* believed in my whole life 
didn't make sense to me any more.  I didn't understand how a loving God 
could consign his children to eternal torment, even passively. I didn't 
understand why "original sin" was supposed to condemn us all, thousands of 
years later.  I didn't understand why vicarious atonement was supposed to 
be a *good* thing; it seemed so bloodthirsty, so out of character of the 
God I thought I knew.  I didn't get why it was so bad to ask questions and 
try to figure things out on your own, away from authority figures with pat 
answers.  I read the Bible and realized how many contradictions exist in 
the text.

I mean, I "knew" all the answers; I grew up with them, repeated them to my 
friends when I witnessed to them in high school, knew them cold.  I was, 
in every way, as devout a Christian as anyone I've ever known. But my 
answers *didn't make sense* to me any more.  My world was coming apart.

In the middle of this process the initial draft of the Constitutional 
amendment on gay marriage started making its way through Congress.  This 
was very, very painful for me on a personal level.  I feel I should 
explain that.

It's one to look at the state of marriage in this country and question 
what needs to be done about it.  It's quite another to point the finger at 
a specific group of people and scapegoat them for problems that, in the 
end, have very little to do with them.  It's my considered opinion that 
marriage will be saved by people who consider it to be the lifelong, 
serious committment that it is and treat it accordingly, not by passing a 
law denying a group of people a basic civil right.  I used to complain, 
"Gay people *already* can't get married.  Why pass a Constitutional 
amendment to make doubly sure we'll never to able to?" It's hard to 
describe what it feels like to be told by the media, the president, and 
the church that one is to blame for the sorry state of marriage, and to 
have the powers of the legal process brought to bear specifically to deny 
one the right to *ever* get married.  I *liked* being married; I would 
like to do it again some day.  Being denied the right to marry affects 
people on so *many* levels: economic, spiritual, social, mental, 
emotional, even physical.  It was hard not to take the whole thing very 
personally.

Being targeted by the church and other people of faith was a staggering 
blow to me.  I was already struggling with the church's viewpoint on 
homosexuality, trying to reconcile my belief in God with my knowledge of 
self, and this struck the final blow to my faith.  I knew as surely as I 
know my own name that the people I love -- you, Brad, my roommate Theresa, 
my best friend Jennifer, John Knox's congregation, everyone at AFA -- 
every one of you would have actively supported this amendment that would 
define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.  And maybe you 
*did* actively support it.  Maybe you supported it this summer as it was 
being pushed through the House. I don't know.  All I knew then was I 
couldn't go on as I had been.  I couldn't hang on to a God who would 
sanction such hate, or be a part of his church.  The tension, combined 
with the questions I was already asking about religion, was more than I 
could handle.  And so in July 2001 I snapped.  Crying, I rejected 
Christianity and God and became an atheist.

Wait... take a deep breath and don't panic.  The story doesn't end here.  
Psalm 30:5 says, "Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the 
morning."  I was going through a dark night of the soul.  Morning came 
after.

When I de-converted, angry, hurting, and bewildered, my initial reaction 
was completely typical of who I am:  I went to the library and read.  I 
read about secular humanism, atheism, the history of world religion, 
quantum physics, Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason".  I explored the things 
I'd never been allowed to explore before.  I was hammering out my 
philosophy of life, the way I thought things were.  Eventually, I 
identified as not only an atheist, but a skeptic and a secular humanist.  
In many ways, this was good for me: I allowed myself to really *use* my 
mind, rather than putting my intellect aside.  I was able to forge my own 
identity and really figure out who I was.  After a while of reading about 
science, philosophy, and non-theistic thought, I felt ready to explore my 
curiosity about other religions.

I wasn't looking for another religion, but I have always been and always 
will be drawn to spiritual things, so naturally this was my next area of 
interest.  I was fascinated with it all.  I was particularly interested in 
Wicca and neo-paganism.  For a while, I went through a period of trying to 
be pagan.  I have always been drawn to the outdoors; paganism's reverence 
for nature is something that resonated strongly with me during this time.  
I tried meditation, spell-casting, shamanism, candle magic, goddess 
ritual.  I charted the phases of the moon. I attended feminist pagan 
rituals a few times.  I celebrated pagan holidays.  I got tarot readings.  
I read up on hoodoo (African-American magic traditionally practiced by 
slaves and their descendants).  I even dabbled in Hellenism (worship of 
the ancient Greek pantheon) and Asatru (an ancient Norse religion).  My 
hunger for knowledge in all things spiritual and philosophical was 
insatiable.

Really, what I was looking for all this time was at once very simple and 
very complicated: I was looking for truth.  It has always been my life's 
work to seek out truth, no matter where it lies.

After a couple of years of this, I eventually outgrew the phase of needing 
to look at other cultures for spiritual fulfillment (Native American, 
Celtic) and turned to my own heritage.  I wasn't too interested in the 
early church -- I still had too many problems with Christian theology -- 
so I looked further back, and realized if I really wanted to look at my 
roots, I should read up on Judaism.  After all, Jesus was an observant 
Jew, and most of the early church was made up of Jews.  (As a child, I was 
always interested in Jewish things.  My favorite part of my old Picture 
Bible was reading the Old Testament stories.  Moses, Aaron, Joshua and all 
the rest were my childhood "mythology", like Greek mythology is for some 
people.  If it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for me.)

Anyway, I poked around the Internet a few times, but didn't really get 
interested until one night in October 2003. It was late, I was tired and 
discouraged, and I was indulging in a rare bout of self-pity about the 
Christian church's non-acceptance of gays.  (I refer to these as my "why 
can't they just love me, dammit!" moments.)  I was extremely upset, 
lonely, and I couldn't sleep, so I got up and went online to try to find 
some words of comfort. Somehow in Googling around the Net I came across a 
site on Reconstructionist Judaism.  Reconstructionist Judaism is a 
denomination of liberal (non-Orthodox) Judaism.  Reconstructionist Jews 
approach Judaism as a naturalist philosophy and emphasize the cultural 
aspects of being Jewish. I thought it was very interesting.  The more I 
read, the better I felt, particularly when I read that modern Judaism is 
very inclusive of women and gays.  Here, I thought, were people who 
believe that God *does* love gays. More than that, they believed gay 
people aren't broken, that we're valuable and important to God, just as 
much as heterosexuals.  I still didn't believe in God, mind you, but even 
in my unbelief I needed to know that *other* people believed in a God that 
loved me.  It's hard to describe how comforting it was to find a group of 
religious people who didn't hate me. Finally, I was comforted and was able 
to sleep.

The next day, I thought about that experience quite a lot.  I realized 
that not only did I need spirituality in my life, which I already knew, 
but that at least as much as that, I needed spiritual *community*.  This 
wasn't really a new revelation; it was just driven home by my evening of 
melancholy.  My interest renewed, I decided to read up on Judaism just to 
find out more about these people.  I found out that Judaism, far from 
being the boring, creaky, antiquated faith I thought it was, is actually a 
vibrant, living religion.  Judaism is not only a religion, it's a 
textured, rich, deep culture.  I found out that Judaism is intellectual: 
not only are you allowed to ask questions, you're *required* to ask 
questions.  To be Jewish is to challenge the Bible, to wrestle with what 
you read, and to demand explanations from God.  I was hooked.

I read everything about Judaism I could get my hands on.  I found out that 
my beliefs coincided, rather eerily, with Jewish beliefs.  Jews believe 
every person is born with the impulse to do good and the impulse to do 
evil, we are all blank slates at birth, and it's up to each of us to be 
responsible for our actions.  Jews believe that when a person misses the 
mark, it's up to that person to own his actions and take steps to amend 
for his wrongdoings -- both with other people and with God.  Jews believe 
there is no eternal punishment, only a limited time after death purifying 
the soul.  Jews believe that redemption is possible in *this* world, 
through our own effort and God's help. Jews believe that we as humans are 
vitally important to the repair of our broken world and that the messiah 
will only come when we've done our part to fix things.  Jews believe that 
living in the here and now on Earth is more important than worrying about 
where you're going afterward, since God is going to take care of us 
anyway.  Jews believe our actions are more important to God than our 
beliefs.  It does no good to pray for a starving child's soul if you don't 
feed her first.  Jews believe the mind is a tool that must be used, not an 
inconvenient lump to be ignored and shut off.  All these things I 
believed, and still do.  I was astonished at the synchronicity.  Best of 
all for me at that time, there are Jews who are religious, but don't 
believe in God -- at least not the concept of God I believed in growing 
up.

I read and read and read.  I couldn't get enough.  I wasn't planning to 
convert, but I was *fascinated*.  I was still allergic to God, but Jewish 
study consumed me.  In November 2004, I took a big step: I went to 
synagogue for the first time.  By that time I'd met Miryam and become 
friends with her, so going to synagogue was less scary than it might have 
been; she was the cantorial soloist at her synagogue and was my "in".  I 
attended services at Temple Micah on and off for a few months, checking 
things out, still reading and studying.  I met some of Miryam's friends 
and went to Torah study a few times.  It was different than anything I'd 
ever seen.  Watching Jews study Torah is nothing like seeing Christians in 
Bible study.  Jews manhandle the text.  They dissect it.  They argue with 
it, disagree with it, peer inside it, turn it over and around and 
upside-down, shake it to see what comes out -- all with deep reverence and 
love for Torah and God.  Jews own the Torah; it's their family history 
and, at their best, they are passionately engaged with the text, with all 
its layers of meaning.  You may have heard the saying, "Where there are 
two Jews, there will be three opinions."  Nowhere is this more true than 
when Jews are studying Torah.  This was a revelation to me.  I was used to 
a more kid-gloves approach, not this brawling wrestling match.  In the 
Bible study groups of my youth, everyone treated the Bible almost like it 
was fragile and would break.  No Christian I knew would *dare* argue with 
God, much less in the context of studying holy writ.  The underlying 
current was that we must be careful in our studying, lest we come across 
some inconvenient or uncomfortable revelation that would contradict our 
worldview.  The first time I heard a Jew say, "You know, I think God is 
being a real jerk in this chapter and I really disagree with him," I 
thought lightning was going to strike her dead.  After I recovered from 
the shock, I was elated.  These were people who believed in God, had some 
real problems with him, and chased after him anyway, demanding 
understanding, throwing their entire selves into the eternal struggle.  
This, I could relate to.  This I understood.

You know how you can be friends with a person for years, care about him or 
her deeply, and yet never think about him or her in a romantic way?  You 
know how all that changes when you see your friend one day and, all of a 
sudden, you realize with a shock that you're totally and completely in 
love with him or her?  You know the way the world shifts and is never the 
same again?

My Jewish study was a hobby, a pastime, something that interested me in 
the same way baseball interests me.  It was fun to play with, nothing 
more.  And then, in December 2004, I realized that I had fallen madly in 
love with Judaism.  I love the liturgy, the poetic rhythm of the Hebrew 
prayers, the sing-song chant of the Torah being read aloud, the fact that 
there's a Hebrew blessing for just about everything, the sanctification of 
everyday life.  I love that the Jews have managed to survive 4000 years of 
pogroms, persecution, and the Holocaust, all while making themselves 
valuable to every country in which they've lived.  I love the exuberance 
with which Jews celebrate life, in every time and place.  I love the 
meticulousness with which the rabbis of old examined the Torah, mining it 
for every bit of God they could find.  I love Shabbat (the Sabbath), the 
joyful, peaceful day of rest and study.  I love chewing on the weekly 
Torah portion. And I love, love, love that because of the Jews and 
Judaism, I believe in God again.

Yes, I do.  In spite of everything, I have come through all this with a 
renewed belief that there is a God, and God loves me.  Mind you, I still 
have questions and problems with God, but that's okay.  I can ask those 
questions now.  I can struggle with God and still believe.  I can even be 
angry and yell at God, which I do, and God still loves me.

I really missed God.  I think God missed me too.  It's good to be back 
home.

In the Talmud, the rabbis say that a Jewish convert is a person whose soul 
was always Jewish, but was born into a non-Jewish family.  The seed for 
this idea comes from Deuteronomy, on the last day of Moses' life.  Moses 
is addressing the people of Israel and says, "Not with you alone do I seal 
this covenant and oath. I am making it both with those here today before 
the Lord our God, and also with those not here today." (Deut. 29:13)  The 
rabbis go on to expound on this idea in midrash (sort of a holy retelling 
of Torah stories).  Every Jewish soul, the story says, was present at 
Mount Sinai when Moses brought down the law from God and the covenant was 
established.  Therefore, every convert to Judaism is a Jewish soul's 
homecoming.

I believe with all my heart that I have a Jewish soul.  I have never felt 
so at home as I do in Judaism.  I never could understand why, with all my 
striving to reach God, I could never find him.  Now I have.  My soul 
speaks Hebrew. Therefore, in accordance with the longing of my heart and 
soul, I am formally converting to Judaism in October.

Okay, remember... breathe, breathe.  It's going to be okay.

I understand you may be feeling shocked, confused, upset, even angry.  
Please understand, I'm doing this of my own free will, with clear-eyed 
knowledge of what I'm doing. I'm not converting for any other reason than 
I believe this is right and this is where I belong. I'm not doing this to 
rebel against you or the church.  I dealt with my problems with the 
Christian church years ago.  I still have things to say about it, but it's 
not an issue for me like it once was.  And this isn't some "preacher's 
kid" rebellion.  I'm almost thirty-four; I'm too old and too sure of what 
I want and need to make a decision like this out of spite for my parents. 
I wouldn't do that anyway.  This decision doesn't mean I'm turning my back 
on you. I am choosing a different religion, but I'm not converting out of 
the family. I love you both and I will always be your daughter.  I admire 
you both and always have.  I love your committment to and love for God.  
It's because of you that I have this spiritual bent in the first place.  
What I most appreciate about my upbringing is that y'all tried to instill 
in us kids a love for God.  It worked; I went through my atheist stage, 
and I needed to go through it, but I'm past that now.  The religious 
education and moral example you set for me in my childhood started me on 
the path that led to this unexpected but fulfilling destination.  In a 
way, my returning to God and conversion to Judaism is a continuation of 
the values and spiritual roots I got from you two.

I'd like to note that I'm not converting for Miryam or the kids.  It's 
lovely to have both parents be Jewish, but I'm too bullheaded to convert 
to any religion for someone else, even someone I love dearly.  I was 
interested in Judaism a year before I even met Miryam and decided to 
convert well before she and I were partners; we weren't even dating when I 
decided to convert (December 2004).  Please, if you're angry or upset 
about this, don't blame her.  It's not her doing.  I've been on this path 
for a long time.

I'm sure you both have a million questions.  Please, ask me anything you 
want; I won't be offended.  I know this is a lot to take in.  I've had two 
years to get used to the idea and I don't expect you to adjust to this 
right away.  You may never be okay with my conversion, and that's all 
right.  I know you're probably concerned for the state of my soul.  I wish 
I could help with that fear.  All I can say is that God is good and will 
take care of me.  I don't believe God would lead me to this place and then 
condemn me for following.

The book of Ruth is traditionally read during the holiday of Shavuot, 
which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount 
Sinai. Sinai is the critical event in the development of the Jewish 
people.  Before Sinai there were no Jews, only a nomadic band of former 
slaves squabbling their way through the desert.  When God sent Moses down 
Sinai with the law, Israel was born. There are multiple reasons we read 
Ruth on Shavuot, one of which is because Ruth is considered to be the 
first convert... and every conversion is an individual receiving of the 
Torah, like the way the Jewish people received the Torah together at 
Sinai.  Soon, I will receive the Torah, as my soul did at Mount Sinai, and 
I will say the ancient words from Ruth to the people Israel:

"Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; 
for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; 
thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will 
I die, and there will I be buried; Adonai do so to me, and more also, if 
aught but death part thee and me."

I may be acquiring a new culture and people in Judaism, but I'm not 
abandoning you or our family.  I will always be your daughter and you will 
always be my parents.  Please know that I am happy, healthy, and have 
found my spiritual home.  I love you and always will.

Love,
 Joy