ALEX SUNDERLAND'S SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
On November 5, 2016, I had my last book event in New Mexico—a reading of To Drink from the Silver Cup. Immediately afterwards I left for the Generous Space West Coast Retreat, a weekend event for LGBTQ Christians and allies, in British Columbia. There I met Alex Sunderland in what seemed like a chance encounter. Alex seemed very shy–somehow more of an observer than a participant. I asked what had drawn him there, and he told me he was friends with two of the Generous Space staff members, and they'd invited him. There was something about his answer that made me feel as if this might be a one-time event for him.
Some time after the retreat, we became friends on Face Book. A couple of Alex's posts got me interested in interviewing him about his spiritual journey. The first was when he came out as a trans man in transition on International Coming Out Day. When I'd met him, he identified as bigender, although I wasn't aware of that at the time.
The second post that caught my eye came during the Christmas season. Alex wrote, "I may not have stayed in the religion but I will forever be grateful that the vast majority of Christians who influenced my life are also huge nerds and just generally good people to be around. I think of all y'all when I sing the Christmas hymns that I still love." I was intrigued because here was someone who had left his Christian faith, but showed warmth toward it rather than bitterness. I often see animosity toward religion, perhaps Christianity in particular, when someone has left the religion of their youth.
So I asked Alex if he'd be interested in being interviewed, and a couple of weeks later we cued up on Face Book Messenger. To start with, I mentioned that I differentiate between spirituality and religion. "I noticed that in your post, you referred to 'religion.' Do you make a distinction between religion and spirituality?"
"To a certain extent," he said, "but in that post I was trying to find wording that worked. If I said I didn't stay with the faith, it would imply that I knew it was wrong to leave, but if I said 'religion,' it was like the right thing to do." I knew what he meant and saw it as an effort to maintain integrity.
Then I asked the question that usually kicks off an interview about spiritual journey, "How did you experience your spirituality as a child?"
Alex thought for a moment. "It's like, it's hard to go back and think about it and remove all the baggage of now. I was raised very Christian. But I was a very imaginative kid, and to a certain extent I had," he paused again, "not exactly pantheistic beliefs, but I ascribed some sentience or being to stars, trees. I didn't have anything set out or consciously thought about, but things were friends."
I was curious about the denomination Alex described as "very Christian."
It was more or less Baptist," he said. "We switched denominations a few times to try to get my dad to come to church with us, but we defaulted to Baptist. We settled on an Alliance church eventually, but it was affiliated with the Baptists." And my mom is a young earth creationist, which seems somewhat rare even within her own denomination.
"Was your faith important to you?"
"Yeah. It mattered a lot to me for a long time."
"So how did you experience your spirituality as an adolescent?" I asked.
Alex hesitated and finally said, "I don't really know. It's harder to separate it from feelings I have now. I had a firm belief in God, but I also felt if I didn't I'd be a horrible person. I had pretty rough mental health when I was a teenager. I had some pretty dark impulses, and I was afraid that if I didn't have God inside me I would act on them."
"Were you still involved in church?"
"Somewhat. I still went. I thought I had an unshakeable belief in God, but I wasn't keen on going to church. I enjoyed the social aspect of it more than I enjoyed the church aspect. I think toward the end of high school I started to get a lot less interested in it."
I wasn't sure how to ask the next question, because I thought of Alex as a young adult now, so I stumbled a bit. "I want to ask how you experienced your spirituality as a young or younger adult, but I don't know if you think of yourself as a young adult or…well, how old are you?" He told me he's 28. "So young adult could be early twenties, or you could still think of yourself as a young adult. I don't know if where you're at now is very different from in your early twenties or not." It was kind of a question.
Alex was emphatic, "It's totally different." He went on to explain, "After high school, I got kicked out of my house. I was trying to figure things out. I met, or re-met my ex- husband. I got a lot more involved with church, with Bible studies, and I was taking it all much more seriously."
"Is that because he was serious about it?"
" Mostly. But it's incredibly interesting so…" he stopped.
"A big part of my relationship with Brent was about learning things together. He would teach me about history, and we did Bible stuff together, mostly him—he did a research project comparing women's rights in several civilizations during Bible times. It's what we'd do for fun. I was more like moral support. I asked questions, was there for bouncing off ideas, discussing what things we should compare, how to word them."
"I'd like to go back for a minute. You mentioned you were kicked out of your house after high school. What happened?"
"It was for drugs. Really I mostly just partied with my friends, but there was a zero tolerance policy in my house."
"Where did you go?"
"I stayed with friends for a couple months, then with my dad for a month. He kicked me out too, but that was because he's a jerk. Then I lived with my grandma for a year, then got a job, so I could get an apartment. Things were pretty good with my grandma—comfortable. I worked for room and board for her.
"And how do you experience your spirituality now?"
"It's dormant," he said.
I didn't sense any particular energy on that, so I asked, "What does that look or feel like?"
"The retreat I went to was me saying goodbye to Christianity. It's odd, but when I accepted that I didn't believe in it anymore, well, I'm technically agnostic but functionally atheist. Now I'm closed off, partly because of all the things that have been happening. It will be interesting in a year to see what happens, but now it's just hard."
"What has been happening?" I asked. I'd noticed an entry in which he posted that it had been a hard year, and I mentioned that post now.
He explained that he and Brent split last January. He moved out in August after getting a job and apartment. "It's the stress of being a single parent, taking my daughter, who's five, to school in the mornings, working on weekends. We have shared custody. He's a good parent. He's just a very, very straight man."
"Was your coming out what caused you to split?"
"That was it. Our relationship hadn't been the best for a while, but that was like, okay we're done."
"Was it mutual?"
"I can't say I was completely unhappy, but I felt somewhat trapped in it. But if he'd been open to me in general, I'd've been happier in the relationship prior to coming out. But I knew when I said I was going to transition, that would be it for him."
"Is he still very Christian?"
"No. We both sort of left the faith about the same time. It was mostly me. I started asking questions. We researched them, and we found that we didn't believe this and not that either. We both left, but for him it was really hard because I think he naturally wants to conform to Christian morality, and for me it was like, I'm free from this crushing guilt."
"So in a way you've said this already, but more specifically, what would you say caused you to leave the faith of your youth?"
"I dunno. It makes me really self-conscious to talk about it because I don't want to cause offense or be weird."
I wondered who he would offend.
He said, "I never want to start an argument. Someone might say, 'Oh, you said that. Well, I'm going to tell you why you're wrong.' It came down to the fact that we started reading the Bible front to end. We got just past Isaiah when we stopped. I realized it's a very human book. It tells about a different type of god than the other human gods, but still, it's about another human god. A god that is a group of humans' perception of what god would be."
"And thus not real?"
"And thus unnecessary to worship. Real is relative, sort of." He paused and then went back to the question of offending. "It's not so much 'offend' as start a beef. I never want people to dislike me because of something I've said. Unless I want them to dislike me," he added. "Then that's why I'm saying it." He smiled. "I just don't want to be too weird.
I'm constantly worried that people are going to think what I'm saying or doing is weird and will judge me for it. That's just my own anxiety."
I brought up the post that got me interested in talking with Alex. "I noticed that, unlike some who leave their faith, you're able to embrace what was positive for you—the Christians who influenced you, the hymns. Can you say something about the people that influenced you?"
"My mom," he said immediately. I don't agree with a lot of the things she
did when we were kids, but she was always doing her best to give us a good upbringing. In church it was a bunch of nerds having fun. Nobody rejected me. I had a few unpleasant Christian influences growing up, but they were short lived. Like, there was a woman who watched my sister and me. I started crying when I had to go there, so my mom ended it. If there were Christian people who would've been a negative influence if I'd spent more time with them, I didn't have to, so that was good."
"What about the hymns?" I asked.
"I dunno. I just like them. They're nice. I like singing a lot, so anything that's beautiful to sing, I'm going to enjoy it. It's still like you get the expansive chest feeling. I dunno, like the good church feeling, even without believing in it, just from the music."
I related strongly to what Alex said about the hymns, the music. In the years I was away from church and now, too, I sing hymns almost every day, and I share that feeling of expansion in my chest when I do. I call it "joy."
"How has embracing a gender different from what you were assigned at birth affected your spirituality?"
Alex got visibly thoughtful. "I'm not sure. I'm not really sure."
"How has it affected religion for you?" I asked, making the differentiation between that and spirituality.
"One thing that I remember…one time in church when I still believed, there was one Sunday, and I don't remember why I did this—it was like holding up two things that I was conflicted about. One was gender stuff, and one was being polyamorous. I felt like a welcoming like yes, like Boy, Alex, you're okay, too. It was in some ways an important experience, but in other ways it was like another nail in the coffin of my faith because I didn't believe God would have given me that answer; I believed I would give me that answer."
"Did you have that same welcoming feeling about being polyamorous?" I asked.
"No. That was like a no."
"Is it still?"
"Well, no. I like people. I like more than one person usually, so I'm fine with that."
I shifted back to the beginning of our conversation, to how we'd met. "How did you experience the retreat?"
"Mostly pleasant. It was weird. Like an alien experience. Prior to the retreat, knowing I was part of the group, but when I was there, I felt like, 'I'm part of this group, but I'm also not, I'm sort of an outside observer.' It was very familiar. The final service felt like a funeral. Not in a bad way, I cried a lot. It felt like the death of something but not like a tragedy."
"Would you say now that it's loss?"
He was emphatic again. "No. I think I gained more by leaving anxiety behind than what I lost. I lost a way to connect with some people in my life, but I gained peace of mind."
"Why does this bring peace of mind?" I asked.
"Because I could never fully believe that some of the things the Bible said were wrong—things that I wanted to do—actually were wrong. And if I don't believe they're wrong, I can't repent, and if I can't repent, I'm going to hell."
"Do you have a connection now with any sort of religious community or practice?"
"Not right now. I miss ritual. But I don't miss the same rituals as the ones I don't have anymore. I don't believe in any specific gods, although I'm open to the idea that there could be a being that could be a god, but I don't think any human religion is right. Some for actual reasons and some because I don't think humans are capable of being right about that, as a group."
"How is your art connected with your spirituality?"
"I don't really think it is. I like doing art and it's a way to relax and process stuff, but I don't think it's connected to spirituality."
"How about your life as a parent?"
It's not connected with spirituality. Not really. It's hard to explain or think about how to describe it. I'd say my bond with my daughter is…it's something. Somebody might call this spirituality, and I might not because that's not where my mind goes. And someone else might have the same kind of bond and call it spiritual. But she is my favorite person." We both smiled about this.
"I saw you posted that this past year had been a hard one. Do you want to say anything about that?"
"Mostly it's just been adjusting to much higher levels of fatigue that come from working and single parenting. I have less time, less energy, a lot more responsibilities. Before we split, I was a stay at home mom for five years."
"Is there anything you'd like to add?"
"One thing I'd probably say is that one of the reasons I haven't turned into a bitter atheist is that Christianity makes sense. I get why people believe it. It's weird being in a space of not believing this but I totally get why people do."
I found this puzzling and asked, "Why do they?"
"Because it makes sense. It's an explanation for how the world works, so people could reasonably look at it and think, 'Oh yes. These two things go together.'"
"Anything you want to ask me?"
"I like your pink hair," he said.
I love to hear and share people's spiritual journey stories. If you'd like to share your story here, use the contact tab on my website or PM me on Face Book. If I interview you, you have complete control over what gets published (or doesn't). Let's talk. Distance is no object.