News & Politics

My Sister's Keeper

A sibling converts to evangelical Christianity. "No one close to me had ever been committed to placing religion or spirituality at the center of their life before."
My sister was strangely secretive about the whole thing. In fact, I don’t think I heard about it from her at all. I guess I must have known that things would change for her in college. But I expected her to shave her head, or experiment with drugs, or start dating an ex-con. I thought maybe she’d become a vegan.

Instead, she started going to church.

I know, I know. To some this would seem the better option. But to me, the older of the two, the one born when our parents were going to see Swami Sachidananda speak and using the word “consciousness” a lot, it was a little traumatic.

As kids, Lisa and I were so close it was sometimes suffocating. I was Beezus, she was Ramona. We were three years apart but shared a bedroom, had all the same clothes, watched the same TV shows. After school, before our ballet class, we would spend hours at a time in the public library, doing homework, avoiding homework, reading the racy parts of the fashion magazines. In high school I moved into my own room, started wearing only dark colors and carrying my journal everywhere. My need for autonomy was overwhelming. I hated being part of a duo, hated that her name was always attached to mine, that we were so often referred to as “the girls.” I harassed her relentlessly, accused her of imitating everything. One night, at dinner, in a cold, adolescent frenzy, I remember slamming my fist down on the table and screaming at her, telling her to “get her own life.”

Soon enough, she did. She became part of the student body government, went to prom with an older boyfriend, and had a social circle all her own. Within a few years I left home for college, and we become virtual strangers. Soon, we saw each other only a few times a year, and rarely spoke on the phone. While she assimilated nicely into small town culture, I practiced what I thought was bohemian living at a small liberal arts college half a continent away.

Lisa has always been drawn to tradition. And while both of my parents had rejected their religious roots, she seemed to gravitate towards the small slivers of Christianity (on my dad’s side) and Judaism (on my mom’s) that remained in our family. Our parents were not uninterested in spirituality, but they never enforced or advocated for any kind of regular ritual or practice.

On the rare occasion that our grandparents brought my sister and me along to temple for a Jewish holiday, I would sit patiently and wait for the food or the dancing. I liked lighting the Hanukkah candles but I never could remember the prayer you were supposed to say while you lit them. I suspect that Lisa, on the other hand, had probably memorized this prayer by the time she was ten, as I’m sure she did The Lord’s Prayer from the Bible — one of my dad’s favorite ways to put us to sleep at night. Thinking back, I realize that she was always collecting bits and pieces of religion and tradition and committing them to memory as we were growing up.

Dad had also kept a Bible around, a lingering trace of his Episcopalian upbringing, and I’d often picked it up as a child, read bits, studied the images. But I’d felt the same about it as I had most old literature: respectful, somewhat awe-struck, but in an abstract way.

One winter break I remember picking up a Bible, thinking that it might have arrived in a box left over after my grandma had died. It had beautiful leather binding and I remember thinking it looked like something I would have bought in a vintage bookstore. I opened it to find Lisa’s name in it and while this didn’t exactly surprise me at the time, I don’t remember taking it seriously. Until then, I think I knew she’d been going to church. But I don’t think I cared, or knew how to care about what this meant.

Then again, I wasn’t paying very close attention to anything my family was doing at the time. My dad had gotten sick and died and for years I felt somewhat numb to the world. I dealt with it by separating myself from a lot of what made me feel vulnerable or weak.

While Lisa had set out to have her deepest questions answered, I was going through my own set of changes. There was that whole business of getting on with life after college. There was the attempt to navigate my first “adult” relationship. A new city, all kinds of notions about a career path that would sweep me off my feet, fulfill me personally and allow me to pay my off my loans.

Then one day, my uncle called from across the country. My sister had sent him a fundraising letter for a spring break trip she was taking with her church group to help build houses in a poor neighborhood somewhere in the middle of the country. He was sending her money, he said. But he was a little concerned. Did I know much about this group, he asked. And it was then that he used the words.

Born again.

I nearly dropped the phone. My mind flooded with extreme images: I flashed on the missionary friend I’d made in high school who was always so much fun until she informed me that my “blood was on her hands” if I didn’t agreed to accept Jesus Christ into my life. I imagined the homophobic people I’ve seen on television calling gay marriage “a crime against humanity,” and anti-choice fanatics marching with signs of bloody fetus parts. I couldn’t realistically imagine Lisa doing any of those things, but I admit that I didn’t have enough of a real sense of how she would respond to issues like gay marriage or abortion. It dawned on me just how out of touch with her life I'd become.

So I did what any opinionated big sister who feels she has lost all understanding would do: I called my mom and yelled. Not at her, exactly. But I needed answers. And she did have some. They were not the ones I wanted to hear, but they were surprisingly real. In fact, my mother’s presence of mind about the whole thing might have caught me more off guard then the very fact that my sister was becoming a born-again Christian.

From what I could ascertain, Lisa had been involved with a group at a Christian student center called “The Inn” since she’d gotten to school, and yes, technically, they were more or less “born again.” (Of course, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means.) But, my mother said, it was “not something I should worry too much about.”

"Mother!" I yelled into the phone. "She’s born again!"

It might have been that my mom had been witnessing Lisa’s new faith for a while by that point. She had also been doing some “spiritual searching” of her own in the years since my father had died. After a brief bout with the "Course in Miracles," she started going to a Jewish temple after years of rejecting her roots. At that point I still assumed these were all just coping mechanisms, phases she would outgrow like the fad diets she was always trying as Lisa and I were growing up. Now, years later, I am starting to realize that it is more than that. And maybe that's also why I had a hard time taking Lisa's decisions seriously – no one close to me had ever been committed to placing religion or spirituality at the center of their life before.

I don’t know if my mom ever said it directly, but I could tell that she trusted Lisa and wanted to support her. Looking back, I’m glad that she felt so confident. But at the time it didn’t make me feel any better.

I have always learned the most through my relationships with other people. When someone is important to me, I spend a lot of time thinking about and responding (both internally and externally) to the choices they make. My sister had been such an integral part of my early life that she acted as a sort of mirror for me. Accepting the facts that she would participate in a religion (and therefore a culture) that I myself had never been drawn to understand or appreciate was a little bit of an identity crisis for me.

At around that same time, I had a sizeable faction of friends and classmates who were actively studying and practicing Buddhism. And I admired them for dedicating themselves like this. I allowed myself to feel utterly mystified by their ability to meditate and practice. I admired their bravery and perseverance; their bold desires to participate in concrete actions that would bring them closer to some absolute reality, to themselves, etc. Ironically, I didn’t see the connection between this and my sister’s spiritual process.

I had gotten to a point where I knew I wanted to go through my life as awake as possible. But my sense of how this should happen was all very abstract. I had all kinds of ideas and conflicts about art and politics and I knew it felt important to work for social justice. I knew that there was a great deal of my own abstract kind of spirituality behind this drive, but everyone I had admired up until that point appeared to have rejected the structure inherent in most forms of organized religion. Especially Christianity.

In fact, I now realize that there had been a lot in my life up to that point that reinforced the Christian = ignorant and fanatic equation. And even as I saw myself as tolerant and progressive, I had unconsciously bought into a lot of anti-religious hype.

Up until that point, I had always believed that people involved in group religions were victims of some kind of low-grade mind control. Like so many other larger cultural institutions, I saw the Christian church as oppressive and dominating. In retrospect I realize these were extreme perceptions, but I can say I was really worried about Lisa. I think I assumed that her decision to join a church group was a symptom of her inability to make decisions on her own.

When Lisa and I finally started to talk and write to one another, I realized that this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In fact, she had been asserting her right to make decisions. I’m sure that Christianity must have been refreshingly different from what we had known as children. And choosing to participate might actually have felt like a strong decision.

She did admit to craving a sense of belonging. Not that there’s anything wrong with belonging. But at the time I think I still believed it was something the truly strong, truly kick-ass people in the world didn’t need to directly pursue. Even Buddhism seemed more acceptable to me, because I saw it as something you did on your own terms, away from a group.

When my sister talked about feeling alone and admitted that the fact that the church community had filled a tangible need for something soothing, something that promised love and connection and a special place just for her, I didn’t know what to say. Not because I was embarrassed for her or ashamed of how weak she had been, but because I was amazed at the strength she had to recognize that, not to mention the strength it must have taken to tell me about it.

Suddenly I wasn’t irate, I was a little envious. Not that she had found “an answer,” on the contrary, I found out that Mara was starting to disengage herself from this church group. In fact, she was still very much in the thick of her spiritual questioning. Eventually she did admit to feeling manipulated by the church, and I believed her. But I knew she had also been experiencing internal changes right under my nose.

What, I asked myself then, had I done to deal with my own sense of isolation, loss, existential grief?

She had gone right to the source while I had spent years groping my way through…what? Journal-keeping? Co-dependent relationships? A liberal arts education? Poetry? Psycho-therapy? Colored Christmas lights? An enormous collection of thrift store sweaters?

My own path had been a lot more piecemeal. At times, even scattered. When I’m honest with myself I know that I would do most of it over again, but it’s taken lots of hard emotional work to get as far as I have. I have spent a lot of my young life vehemently rejecting community and the kind of support that is only possible when you are part of a group. And it hasn’t always been so good for me.

At that point I started wondering about what Lisa might have to teach me in this department. It was around this time that we started talking on the phone more, and visiting one another and she came to live with me for the summer before her last year at school. We were close again, after too many years of what had seemed like a mild-mannered acquaintance at best.

I knew that my own process of healing had been something I’d needed to do on my own, but I also felt some guilt for not playing a larger role in her life. When I put this and my anxiety about the Christianity thing aside for a while, and got to know her, I understood that we had never stopped having things in common.

In the years since we’d been close Lisa had become an artist. We would still walk into a museum or a store and find ourselves gravitating to the exact same things, liking a lot of the same music, etc. We could borrow one another’s clothes again.

Even more important: she hadn’t forgotten the tolerance our parents had taught us, nor had she adopted a right-wing political agenda. In fact, I was a little embarrassed for even thinking she might. Of course, her being Christian was still an important difference. It implied that there are things that she believes that I may never even understand.

I think that Lisa became a practicing Christian partly because she felt disconnected from people. I also felt disconnect from and it affected me in profound a way. When I am paying attention to family, it helps me pay attention to myself. I feel more connected, more whole. And this, to me, is a big part of what spirituality means. Connectedness. Wholeness.

Does this mean that I, too, am becoming a more “religious” person than I have been? Well, the questions my sister's faith have brought up haven't gone away. I do believe that there is something to all of this. That there is a force of some kind behind the way the sunlight moves and the way your knee throbs when you hit it against the leg of table. But I'm not sure that this force doesn't come from us, from our connections to one another, and the work we do daily in relation to one another.

Spending time with Lisa has reminded me that one can be spiritual and sharp, compassionate, awake and critical-minded all at once. But she and I still have a lot to talk about. Sometimes I feel a lot of sadness about the years she and I spent so distant form one another. Still it's nice to know that we are arriving at a lot of the same places these days.

For now, I'm just enjoying learning from Lisa, letting her serve as the mirror that reflects the things I do and don't want to see in myself. I know it could have gone very differently. I know that for some families, religion is inseperable from ideology, and I got off easy. This week Lisa bought a Christmas tree and set it up in her living room next to her Torah. If I'm lucky, maybe she'll invite me to go with her to Mass on Christmas Eve.

I still wonder about what it might feel like to surrender to the idea that there is an "answer," even only for a while. I know that's not the only thing that organized religion is about for most people, but I have a sense that, even if Lisa sees her relationship with God as more complex now than she did before, there must have been a point when she felt that way: like there was a clear set of directions to follow in order to be rewarded, to live a good life. But I also know there is a fair amount of anxiety involved too. What if you don't do the right thing, what if you don't get to heaven?

I have a strong hunch that everyone in an early stage of belief might feel this combination of anxiety and relief – no matter what kind of belief it is. I also suspect that it always gets more complex, and that is always leads inward. I suspect as much because I've witnessed it in myself. For all I contend about the differences between Lisa's life and my own, I also know that writing has been for me a kind of spiritual path. It is an ever-evolving set of choices that brings me closer to people while allowing me the personal space and the independent integrity that I need.

Sometimes I try to imagine my sister in a religious setting for the first time. I try to picture what she must have looked like. She may have bowed her head forward with familiar kind of concentration we both share, or brought her long hands up towards her chest in prayer. I imagine it might have felt like she was planting herself, like a seed, in a warm, accepting place. I can imagine this feeling because I've had it myself. Many times, in fact.

It happened for the first time when I was thirteen. I was standing in the stacks of a huge university library, reading at a frenzied pace. I remember stopping and looking around, loving the way the old books looked, the way they smelled, the way they seemed as if they had been abandoned here, left for me to find by chance. I could see someone my age walking through the same library years later and finding on a book with my name of it. In my mind, she felt the same excitement, the same glow in their chest as she read my words. That day I began to believe that there was a path for me, that it would be evident and that I would, quite simply, follow it. Of course, as soon as I started to investigate that path more deeply, I felt all the universal anxiety and fear. But for that moment it was pure, white light. Something like faith.
T. Eve Greenaway is an editor at Alternet. This essay originally appeared in the anthology, "Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl's Guide to Enlightenment."
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