In November 2008, my mom lost her job.
It was right at the beginning of the financial crisis — the Great Recession, if you will — and she came home in tears. I say “home,” but it wasn’t my home. It was my parents’ small two-bedroom craftsman in Long Beach just south of L.A., the place they had moved since getting out from under an underwater mortgage on our family home in Venice a few years prior, and the place I was camped out temporarily having just moved back to L.A. from San Francisco.
In fairness, my mom had hated her job — the commute was hard, the people were unfriendly and the work was grueling. But my parents were hard up for cash, and her paycheck was the one paying the bills. So like a lot of Americans at the time in the midst of learning they were no longer employed, she took it hard.
What we didn’t know at the time, however, is just what a life-changing event it would turn out to be. Because not long after, days even, her joints began to seize, and a diagnosis of stress-induced calcium deficiency gave way to a diagnosis of calcium deficiency-induced rheumatoid arthritis that would eventually give way to an arthritic-drug induced diagnosis of myelodysplastic leukemia. Over the course of the next eight years, a nearly lethal combination of cancer and the powerful, debilitating drug cocktail prescribed to fight it would land her in hospitals and ICUs countless times with everything from broken hips (twice) to pneumonia (twice) to a full-on coma.
But despite all that bad shit, my mom miraculously made it through. And if you asked her, it wouldn’t have been close to survivable if it wasn’t for her journey into her own faith. A journey she began as a lapsed Presbyterian the year she got sick, and a journey that kicked into overdrive at the peak of her sickness.
It’s a faith that I’ve long been amazed by from afar, even as an agnostic bordering on atheism. Not because I suddenly believed in the power of the Lord and His ability to work miracles, but because I was able to see firsthand the powerful effect faith in a higher power can have to comfort someone’s soul, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable and incredibly painful odds.
So, in honor of Easter — and more importantly, my mother — I set out with an open mind on my own journey into faith, to find out if that warmth was there for me as well.
The Problem: I have no faith.
The Alleged Cure-All: Jesus, and more specifically, the act of going to church. While it’s entirely possible to find faith, accept Jesus and begin learning His teachings in the bible all on your own, it’s much easier to do so with a spiritual guide. My guide would end up being a pastor at a small, Southern Baptist church in Santa Monica, who had come recommended to me by my father, a now-Messianic Jew whose experience over the eight years my mom was sick caused him to also look for answers and support through a higher power.
As a Jew, my dad was, at one point early on in my mom’s sickness, as skeptical about Christianity and my mom’s growing faith as I was about religion as a whole; for a long time he blamed Christianity, and more specifically the portrayal of Jews in the bible, for a lot of the global contempt non-Jews have had for Judaism throughout history. One need only read the Gospel of John, or if you’re not the reading type, see the Passion of the Christ, to understand where he was coming from.
But in the proceeding years, as he accompanied my then-very sick mother to church, first as a hostage, but more and more as a willing participant, he would find something he wasn’t able to find at temple: Fellowship, acceptance and answers to questions about his place in the world he had asked for many years, but failed to elicit helpful responses to.
And so, it was only natural, in his eyes, that since I also suffered from a healthy dose of skepticism, the church that helped him find his faith might be a good place for me to look for mine.
The Science: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. To be fair, there are numerous primary sources that are able to pinpoint, with a high level of certainty, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived in and around the time the bible says he lived. There’s proof in Roman histories that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who reluctantly sentenced Jesus to be crucified, existed around that time. And that Jewish council leaders like Caiaphas, who allegedly had Jesus arrested, existed as well.
That said, is there proof that Christ walked on water, turned water into wine or died on the cross and was resurrected on Easter almost 2,000 years ago today? No, there isn’t, at least not beyond what the New Testament tells us — a book written by men, and men who had an agenda.
My Experience: When my girlfriend Ari and I arrived on Sunday morning for the first service, we were surprised to learn that the church my dad had sent me to wasn’t in what anyone would describe as a “church.” This church was a small service in a small auditorium in a local rec center, with maybe eight people total in attendance. Walking in, my first impression was somewhere along the lines of “Where the hell are we, and what the hell are we doing?” But my apprehension was immediately lifted when a sweet-looking woman, who introduced herself as Amy, struck up a conversation almost before we’d even gotten through the door.
In talking with Amy in the few minutes before the service began, and after she brought nearly everyone else who was in the room over to meet us — the two awkward-looking young people who had clearly never been there before — I was taken by just how welcoming it all felt. In nearly any other situation where you might walk into a room full of people you’ve never met, you’d expect to be met with blank stares, if you were acknowledged at all; here, Ari and I already felt a bit like family, and we hadn’t even been there long enough to get a cup of coffee.
Service itself proceeded like one might expect — there was a song to start, the lyrics of which were very Christ-is-our-savior focused; after the song came a reading from Isaiah, and then prayer, followed by the pastor’s sermon, which was taken from 2nd Peter, and was concerned with “false teachers,” i.e., people who claim to follow Christ and speak his word, but who are really trying to trick you into straying from Christ. Something I remember thinking was interesting, given the country’s current political situation.
If there was one moment that first day that really struck me, though, it was the way the pastor equated false teachers with apostates, i.e., people who’ve renounced Jesus as their Lord and savior, and people the pastor said wouldn’t be allowed into heaven. I gave Ari a nudge when he said that, because, in a way, he was talking about me. Though I was there with an open mind, I wasn’t a believer.
When the service finished, Ari and I introduced ourselves to the pastor, thanked him for the sermon, and headed out. We’d return again the following weekend for another dose of Jesus; in week two, in reading from the Gospel of John, I’d learn that even though I consider myself a good, moral person, only those who believe in the word of Jesus Christ will gain entry into heaven.
I called both my parents in the proceeding days, to get their thoughts on my experience through their lens. I explained that while I was floored by just how welcome and warm our reception into service had been, I was unsure what to make about the pastor’s messages, and that I now had more questions about Christianity than I had when I’d first walked in.
I asked my dad, as someone brought up in the Jewish faith and whose father was Jewish, if he thought his father was in heaven.
“I don’t know, that’s a good question,” he replied.
“Do you think I’m going to heaven?” I asked.
“I don’t want to answer that,” he replied again.
No doubt, the question had caught him off guard; in no way do I think my dad thinks I’m going to hell, but when you hear a sermon that suggests that all non-believers, no matter their “goodness,” are barred from heaven, it’s the kind of thing that gives you pause.
Talking to my mom, I asked her what it was about her battle with leukemia that made her want to rediscover her faith. “It’s just what got me through it. It’s what got me through everything,” she said. “When I was sick, and I mean really sick, I couldn’t go to the bathroom without help. And one night at 3 a.m. when I had fallen in the bathroom, I said, ‘God, I need help,’ and that was the moment I started getting better. And now that I am better, I still get something out of it, every day. I’m not so scared, and I don’t feel alone anymore. I feel faith.”
“But then what do you say when Pastor Zak says that me, your son, someone who sins according to the sins of the bible but is, on the whole, a good person, will not get into heaven simply because I don’t believe in Jesus?”
“I think everyone’s faith is personal,” she replied. “I’ve told Pastor Zak on more than one occasion that he was full of shit — I can’t believe I said it. But even so, I learned boatloads from him, and he brought out a passion in me.”
“You may not believe the way he believes, but the fact that you’re going down this road, investigating for yourself, that’s what’s important. In the end, maybe Pastor Zak isn’t the right guide for you.”
The Takeaways: I would never characterize my time going to church as the definitive Christian experience; mine was a journey in miniature, one that I kept myself open to, but one that was filled with little more than first and second impressions of one church, one congregation and the sermons of one pastor. But even in the limited amount of time I spent going to church, the journey was eye-opening.
I learned that church is different things to different people. To the pastor, you’re either in or you’re out. To my dad, it’s a feeling of belonging, of being welcome, of fellowship, of a light in the darkness. To my mom, it’s the power to heal wounds, both physical and mental, it’s hope and the knowledge that we’re not alone. And to me, it’s something that I don’t necessarily believe in for its positions on morality, but at the same time, something that I appreciate and can support because of the comfort it brings my parents. I may not believe, but I 100 percent support their belief.
Jeff’s Rating: 8/10.