Ever since I was a child, I was instilled with the belief that there was a God and that when I died, I would go to heaven if I was "good." This concept was fairly harmless to me as a child since I had no understanding of my own mortality and little understanding of Christianity aside from what I learned in Sunday School.
I went to church fairly regularly throughout my childhood, but when I was around 11, I began to go every single Sunday.
It was a difficult time in my life, and I attended church more frequently to feel closer to God because I knew he would understand what I was feeling.
That's what I thought at the time, anyway.
I started singing in my youth group's band. I attended weeknight Bible study, Sunday school, and eventually, I got baptized at the ripe old age of 12. I still remember that day — the feeling of my heart swelling during the service when my pastor asked who felt moved to become saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I was ecstatic and a little scared, but I did it!
I felt an odd sense of relief that I didn't need to worry about going to hell when I died — but then I realized that many of my friends weren't so lucky.
They didn't believe in God, go to church, or get baptized, which meant they were sinners who wouldn't be redeemed.
Now, my church rarely, if ever, mentioned the darker part of Christianity (the part where you go to hell if you go against the gospel), but I had a huge preoccupation with the afterlife so I did my own searching.
It felt wrong to me the a supposedly benevolent, merciful God would allow some of his children to suffer for eternity simply because they didn't believe in him.
Being naïve as I was, I was able to push that out of my mind just barely so I could keep attending church without much inner turmoil.
However, that reprieve was short-lived.
In middle school, I began to question my sexuality and found myself liking some girls a little too much to call them "friends." I tried to ignore my feelings and kept going to church as normal until they started preaching against the "sin" of same-sex marriage.
After that, I couldn't help but dwell on my sins to the point where I often cried during communion and refused to partake because I didn't feel like I deserved it. I felt dirty in a way – the church acted like being gay was the ultimate sin, a choice.
From the way many people acted, one would think they were perfect, completely without sin.
Eventually, I stopped going altogether.
For years, I struggled with my faith.
I knew there had to be a God, but what kind of God would send me to hell for being born this way?
I knew there had to be a community out there that would accept me as I am. I went to a Lutheran church, a Catholic church, an Episcopalian church, and many others in the search for God, but I always felt the same way each time.
It felt like I had to believe exactly what was preached from the pulpit; there was no room for interpretation and that felt unbelievably stifling to me.
Although none of the churches I visited preached against the LGBTQ community the way the pastor at my old church had, I still had a difficult time getting comfortable.
I decided to do more research by myself instead of blindly walking into random churches, and eventually, I found Quakerism.
Friends, or Quakers, have beliefs about God and the afterlife that are as varied as the people on this planet; there are evangelical, liberal, pastoral, and conservative Quakers.
The similarity these meetings share is the belief that there is "that of God (or the light) in everyone" and it's accessible by everyone directly without an intermediary (read: without a pastor or priest).
Many of them make use of the Bible during meetings, and liberal meetings also draw on teachings from different religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and others. I finally decided to try it for myself and attended a small, liberal, un-programmed Quaker meeting where members sit in silence for an hour, waiting to be moved to speak by the Spirit.
I snuck into the meetinghouse right on time, which, to my surprise, was a literal house and not a fancy word for a chapel.
I sat down with these strangers in complete silence until someone stood to speak — while I can't remember the exact details of the Friend's message, I can still remember the simultaneous shock and relief I felt as more Friends stood to speak.
Their messages came from the heart, and none of them were about going to hell or sinning — they were all about striving to become better people and listen to our inner light/God/the Universe/Creator.
I knew immediately this was where I was meant to be, and that I had finally found my spiritual home.
Ultimately, I think that I was always slightly averse to being told there is one way to believe or do something. I'm an English major — my whole academic career has been dedicated to interpreting literature in a variety of ways, so it makes sense that I wouldn't enjoy being forced to accept the supposed "correct" way to worship.
Whatever you want to call it: God, the Universe, the Light, the Spirit, the Creator — they're out there, and there is no one right way to find them. Everyone is on their own journey in life.
Some people find comfort in pews, others in meetinghouses, and others prefer not to dabble in the spiritual realm at all.
No matter what you believe, you are loved and valid.