I’m not a religious person. A huge reason why is my grandmother, a deeply critical woman who moved to Detroit during the Great Migration. She would often call out the Black churches in Detroit for their hypocrisy: always a poor congregation and a rich pastor. She was spiritual, though. She believed in God, and because of her I went to several Catholic elementary schools. And like many queer kids who went to religious schools, I left them as a self-proclaimed atheist, having experienced firsthand the disingenuousness of a religion that taught love and forgiveness but, in practice, hated difference. I was bullied mercilessly and had teachers who belittled me. I saw clearly that none of the lessons in chapel or religion class seemed to be practiced by anyone, save a few tender adults.
Then I got older and noticed that queers and women were reviled by the people I knew who were church-going. I was the only teen in high school not in a church youth group, and the only one who spoke up loudly about reproductive rights, gay rights, and the dangers of capitalism.
It’s no wonder that I had my own spiritual texts.
The first was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I read at 10 years old in a book club that my sister attended. We both loved reading, and as my mom was a comically neglectful parent, my sister looked after me, which is why I was the lone child at a book club of old Detroit radicals at Detroit’s Unitarian church. We both read Parable of the Sower in one night.
The book changed me. Detroit in the ’90s felt a little like the apocalyptic Oakland of the novel. Empty crumbling ruins. The yearly fear of homes ablaze on Devil’s Night. The puzzling undercurrent of why the suburbs had street lights but my neighborhood did not.
For me, it was barely fantasy to imagine the world of Parable, a world of ecological and economic nightmares spun from greed and disregard of Black and brown neighborhoods. When Lauren, the main character, turns from her beloved father’s Christianity to a grassroots spiritual movement of her own, it struck a chord.
God is change
Pretentious little nerd that I was, I knew there was a reason people throughout history had religion. It could explain what happened around you, what happened to you, what happens after you die. As an anxious child, I fretted over death and the unknown. As a sensitive child, I fretted over the destruction of the rainforest, of the dwindling elephants killed for ivory. I knew that these were big feelings to grapple with, but also that saying it was God’s plan seemed like an empathy cop-out. I didn’t do drugs or drink as a teen (though I would later), but I deeply understand Marx’s assertion that “religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s so much easier to think that something or someone else will fix your woes and pain. Religion is a better drug than the shitty brick weed I smoked in college, but I imagine it results in the same numb feeling of “not my problem.”
All that you touch
All that you change
In high school, I was in a youth volunteer program that was heavily political. Because my sister attended, and she watched me and my brother, we would tag along. I owe my entire political education and radical mind frame to this time. I learned the history of my city and country, about the political power of art and gardening, about food and environmental justice, about gender and racial inequality. Nearly all the adults who ran the program were queer, as well as several of the older teens I admired. I started to notice homophobia more in the world, and was troubled. We were taught to be youth leaders, to advocate for social change, to think of a new way of living — as we saw all around us how capitalism failed my hometown, gutted its beauty and resources, mowed down its Black and Chinese neighborhoods to build freeways for white suburbanites to travel more easily through the city. Change is inevitable, and we learned to be the change we wished to see in the world.
The only lasting truth
Empires fall. That’s what world history teaches us. What is perhaps less obvious is that change is slow. The US is still not post-segregation, post-lynching, or post-homophobia. It can be overwhelming, the cycle of two steps forward and one step back. But change happens regardless, it is constant, and, most importantly, it can be shaped communally and personally.
I’m not immune to the fact that my other spiritual text — the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, like Parable of the Sower — also interrogates Christian-based teachings. The books are dense with Western art and religious imagery, allusions, and symbolism, but the most impactful part for me happens on the last page of the last book, The Amber Spyglass:
“We have to be all those difficult things, like cheerful and curious and brave and kind and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in our different worlds, and then we’ll build...the republic of heaven”
Lyra, the main character, is home from her adventure, having saved the multiverse. In doing so, she has preserved Dust, the physical manifestation of the intentional good things conscious beings create. Dust is not finite, it can be created, through hard work, through treating people kindly and patiently, through learning and growing. I use this as my moral (golden) compass to guide me every day. I maintain a calm, kind, public vibe, even when I'm angry or frustrated. I compliment people freely. I donate to strangers’ GoFundMes. I offer to drive for friends and coworkers. I practice active listening. I challenge people when they say fucked up things. I’ve become a Professional Mentally Ill Queer Weirdo through my podcast, The Gayly Prophet. This is hard work, especially for someone like me, with depression and anxiety, where it would be so very easy to be dismissive and apathetic and withdrawn from the world. But that’s not the kind of world I want other people to live in. I hear from listeners every day that my openness has changed their lives and their relationships with themselves — this is the kind of world I want to live in.
I don’t do any of these things looking for some reward in a cartoon afterlife. The reason I try to live a moral and just life is that I believe the meaning of my life is to shape a better world. To build the republic of heaven.
We do not worship god.
We perceive and attend god.
With forethought and work
We shape god.
In the end, we yield to god.
We adopt and endure,
For we are Earthseed,
And god is change.