Lisa Stark

A sad note from HAAM administrators: Lisa Stark died on Sept. 12, 2014 after a brave struggle with chronic illness. She was proud of telling her story publicly and we believe she’d approve of us keeping it posted here. Lisa was a wonderful addition to the humanist community and we miss her terribly.

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Lisa StarkHi. I’m Lisa and to quote Rebecca of Oklahoma, ‘I’m actually an atheist.’

Of course this wasn’t always the case. I was brought up in a kaleidoscope of Christianity and it is really only in the last 5-10 years that I have stopped identifying as a Christian.

While our home was Christian based, and we did some of the traditional Christian ‘stuff’ such as Sunday school and occasionally saying grace before meals, we took our beliefs rather lightly. Members of my maternal extended family took their Christian faith a bit more seriously.

My father’s family was German and Lutheran. He was confirmed at 13 but reports that once this was taken care of, he rarely attended church.

Things were a bit different on my mother’s side. Her family descended from the Anabaptist movement. They were Mennonites, Holdeman Mennonites to be exact. My great grandparents all belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. This sect is known for simplicity and modesty in clothing, homes, and personal possessions. The men have beards and the women wear head coverings.  Non-resistance is a standard practice. They believe in non-conformity to the world, banning music, TV, movies, excessive recreational activities and apparently anything that might just be fun. My grandfather never joined the Holdeman church, and when he met and eventually married my grandmother, she was excommunicated from the Church.

Though not part of the Holdeman sect, my grandparents were practicing Christians. By the time I came along, they were active members of the Seven Sisters Baptist Church. I still remember going to church with my grandmother. She couldn’t wait for the pastor to ask if there were any visitors. As my sister and I tried to melt into the pew, my grandmother raised her hand and proudly introduced us. In the summer she cooked at Nutimik Bible camp and we often stayed with my grandparents for a week or two to attend vacation bible school. Our bedtime ritual when staying with my grandparents was to read a devotion from ‘Our Daily Bread,’ pray, and then have a bowl of cornflakes. They went together like peanut butter and jelly.

This is where the kaleidoscope comes in. While my grandparents were doing the Baptist thing, I was attending the United Church on Sundays with my mom and sister, and going to private Catholic school during the week. You can imagine the confusion this would cause a 7 year old! I started to question things. I didn’t doubt the existence of god but instead started questioning what kind of God he was. You see, while we girls went to church, my dad stayed home and slept in, and I began to worry about his soul. My dad was a good man; surely god wouldn’t send him to hell just because he didn’t go to church? Mom used to say if we answered the phone on Sunday, and it was my grandmother, we were not to report she was doing laundry, vacuuming, or yard work. Did God really care?

Then there was the matter of my own salvation. I recall the day at school when we were in the Catholic church learning about the sacraments and in particular, first communion. Sister ‘so and so’ was teaching us how you are baptized as an infant, and later have your first communion. Now as a descendant of the Anabaptists, I had not been baptized but had been partaking of bread cubes and Welchs grape juice at the United Church for some time. Normally reserved, I spoke up and told the nun I had not been baptized. I cannot recall her exact words but the message was clear…I was going to hell. Well, at least my dad wouldn’t be lonely.

At some point during my early teens, the entire family started attending an Evangelical Free church. Apparently we joined the church because it had a good youth program. I don’t actually recall attending the youth group, but I do remember the Christmas Eve when the preacher stridently questioned from his pulpit if anyone had taken an alcoholic drink during the holiday season. Clearly an egregious sin.

At 16, I got my driver’s licence and a job working weekends. Church was a thing of the past. Thinking about it now, I don’t recall feeling any guilt regarding my withdrawal from organized religion; in fact, I don’t recall thinking about it at all.

After graduating from the U of M as an occupational therapist, I signed up with a recruiting agency to find a job in the USA, ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’ I told the agency my preference was to work in the northeastern US, preferably somewhere near Boston. And that’s how I ended up in Warm Springs, Georgia. I admit I was a bit naive; all I really knew was that it was somewhere near Florida. I had no idea I was stepping ‘redneck’ deep into the Bible Belt. The first facility I worked at had an international staff with most of Canada being represented. We soon came to call ourselves the heathen Canadians. I eventually moved on to another job in a slightly larger town near the Georgia/Alabama border. The remainder of the story should probably be called ‘About a boy (or boys), and I don’t mean Jesus Christ.’

I met Joe at the gym and we eventually started dating. I knew he attended a Church of Christ, but he didn’t initially invite me to go with him. Being curious, I put on a dress and headed out one Sunday morning to my local Church of Christ. What timing! It was friends and family day and they were having a potluck in the basement after the service. When they found out where I was from, they told me one of their members was also from Winnipeg. They were warm and welcoming and I suppose I was lonely and vulnerable. Conditions were just right and I was soon attending church three times a week. When Joe found out, he was livid and adamant he would never set foot in my Church because it was the wrong Church of Christ. When I asked why, he informed me they had a kitchen in the church and they used more than one cup for communion. Naturally he provided particular lines of scripture that supported this view.

Joe and I didn’t make it, but I continued to attend the wrong Church of Christ and eventually got to know Boy #2 – Byron. He was a quiet man who had grown up in the Church, and as far as I could tell never questioned it. While dating Byron, I started attending Monday evening Bible study with the preacher and his wife at their home. On occasion I would question things such as evolution, but for the most part we skirted around these issues. I had become part of the ‘family’ and so it happened one Monday evening I decided I was ready, and finally at the age of 28 I was baptized; a full immersion washing away of my former life. I was reborn, and dad was on his own again. Byron and I didn’t work out either but I continued to attend church anyway.

Enter southern Boy #3 – John’s father was a minister, but John himself was an atheist. I still considered myself a Christian and continued attendance at the Church of Christ would have been awkward as they were big on public repentance at the end of Sunday service. I’m fairly honest by nature and I wasn’t going there. I simply dropped out; so much for the strength of my convictions.

In 2000, I returned to Canada and had an awakening of just how conservative and often hypocritical the southern way of life had been. I didn’t even think about joining a church and by 2004, I thought of myself as agnostic. Around 2009, I started dating C.H., the angry atheist. He ridiculed anyone who held a belief system different than his own. If it isn’t already clear, I have made some questionable relationship choices, but that is a whole other story. That said, it was hearing his rants that led me to the bookstore and Matthew Alper’s ‘The God Part of the Brain.’ His argument made sense to me. As humans evolved and gained consciousness and an awareness of their mortality, they developed beliefs/religions to relieve their existential anxiety. And so I finally jumped off the fence and identified myself as an atheist.

These days my family is like a quilt – the kind made with leftover pieces of fabric that really don’t match. My dad would say he’s agnostic. My mom takes a live and let live approach to most everything, but is clear she is not comfortable with organized religion herself. They are both tolerant of other people’s belief systems, as long as they don’t interfere with their own lives. My sister and brother-in-law don’t go to church but I believe they are considering it. My niece goes to Sunday school at the United Church with her other grandparents, and started kindergarten this year at a private Mennonite school. I’m sure my nephew will follow. The kaleidoscope continues. For now, I appear to be the lone ‘out’ atheist in the family, although I suspect there are a few others hiding in the proverbial ‘closet.’

I have several Christian friends. For the most part we have a friendly co-existence. One told me she fears for my soul and another told me all I need to do is to meet a nice Christian boy; as if that’s been the problem with my dating life! I recently asked a neighbour who is Eastern Orthodox why he believes what he does and he told me he was born that way. Not knowing him well, I didn’t point out that we aren’t born with a genetically coded religious affiliation. Fortunately, I also have a few like minded friends to balance things out.

Looking back, I can see how as a child I would naturally trust what my parents and grandparents taught me, but I must admit I feel gullible and a bit ashamed that at the age of 28 I chose to be baptized. In hindsight, it wasn’t god I was seeking but a sense of fellowship and connection. I have since joined a few groups based not on religion but on shared interests, values and goals; I have found the connection and fellowship I was looking for. My transition from believer to unbeliever was gradual, and relatively gentle compared to others who have left faith behind.

Some years ago I heard a word that struck a chord with me. Ubuntu is an African word that roughly translates to ‘I am because we are.’  It speaks to our interconnectedness and our responsibility to each other. I’ve always thought if we could just acknowledge we are more alike than different, the world would be a kinder place for all.

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