I was raised in the church. Like a good, cradle Presbyterian, I was baptized as an infant, went to Sunday School regularly, sang in the choir, completed Confirmation, participated in service trips with my youth group, and was even ordained as an Elder during my senior year of high school. Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church has always been my second home, and those who make up its community have played a crucial role in my spiritual formation. From a young age, my Sunday School teachers encouraged me to ask questions and wrestle with what it means to be a person of faith in a world made broken by oppressive systems, injustice, and hatred. This community supported me throughout my youth as I struggled to find my voice as an advocate for equality, and they empowered me to swim against the streams of social pressure, institutional hierarchy, and unjust policy.
So, when I found myself falling in love with Judaism during my first year of seminary, I became terrified of losing the community that raised me. I desperately searched for ways to make my faith feel authentic in a Christian setting. I went to daily Chapel services, participated in evening worship, and joined a Christian spiritual formation group. But, the more I tried to make my faith fit in these contexts, the more lonely I became in them.
I continued my exploration of Judaism mostly in secret. But when I let my heart open to the Jewish teachings I encountered, I felt recharged and alive. In Judaism, I found myself drawn to many of the qualities I had come to value as a child of Grace Covenant: the call to challenge faith and wrestle with questions of the Divine; the commitment to bringing a voice to those who society has silenced; and the devotion to community and family.
I told my parents that I was going to officially begin the conversion process three days before Christmas 2009. I hoped they would be supportive, but deep down I feared that they would see this as a rejection of who they are and what they had taught me. There was a divine presence in my living room that night, as I looked at my parents with tears in my eyes and told them that I longed to be Jewish. I could not have asked for a better response from them, as they hugged me, expressed their love for me, and began to ask me questions about what draws me to this beautiful religion.
Two days later, at the Christmas Eve service, my pastor came up to me and said, “Welcome home, Elizabeth! I’d like to see if you’d be willing to preach this summer. And, I’d like to talk to you about the care process, the first step in Presbyterian ordination. Well, we just have a lot to talk about. Let’s do lunch sometime this week.” Wow, you have no idea, I thought to myself as I shook his hand, nodding slowly.
I met him for lunch that week, and anxiety ran through my bones every day leading up to our meeting. As we sat down to eat, I told him that I would not be pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian church, because I planned to become Jewish. After almost two hours, he told me that he still wanted to talk to me about the church taking me under care. Did he not get it? Had he not just heard the last two hours of conversation? Does he not realize that I’m leaving the church?
“I don’t understand,” I told him.
He looked at me with pure kindness in his eyes, as he spoke. “Well, it wouldn’t look like anything that has been done before, but Elizabeth, you are a child of Grace Covenant. When we baptized you, we made a commitment to walk with you on your journey of faith wherever it may lead. You are a seminary student–our seminary student–and we are your family. I’m sure you are not alone on the Jewish side of this process, and we cannot possibly abandon you from this side either. We celebrate those who are under our care when they graduate from seminary. Likewise, when you convert, I would love to be able to bring you in front of the congregation, and give you our blessing as you take the next steps of your journey. We say we support our Jewish brothers and sisters, so how could we not support one of our own as she finds her true self in that community?”
On August 16, 2010, I sat in front of Session–a council of which I had once been a member, some six years prior–and I told them my plans. As I looked into the faces of former Sunday School teachers, parents of my childhood friends, and spiritual mentors, I felt the unconditional love that had been preached from the pulpit of Grace Covenant throughout my life. They didn’t reprimand me or try to convince me to change my mind. Rather, they embraced me as a child of God, to whom they made a lifelong commitment–a baptismal promise–and in that, they blessed me.
In religious communities, we talk a lot about what it means to live out the messages we preach. Too often, I think we fail to do this. But, on that August evening, Grace Covenant embodied a divine message that no sermon could ever convey.
I will forever be a child of Grace Covenant, and I aspire to live my life in a way that reflects the kind of radical hospitality and unconditional love they have shown me in both word and action.