My life today is a continuation of the desire to belong I felt as a child, only the terrain is now a spiritual homelessness of sorts, the inability to feel welcomed and accepted in what seems to be an oxymoronic state, a feminist woman in the Catholic Church.
Family vacations in my childhood usually took the form of camping. This was an era devoid of seat belts and car seats, where we rode unrestrained in the back of our parent’s pickup camper like pieces of discarded luggage. One trip found us deep in the Baja coast of Mexico. At that time I was four years old with three older brothers, one younger and one on the way; who in spite of my repeated pleas to the Blessed Virgin Mary, turned out to be yet another brother. Sandwiched between all this testosterone was me, the only girl child who continually failed to fulfill her parent’s dream of the quiet, sweet, and passive daughter. This would be one of many family job descriptions at which I would fail.
As vacations go this had been rather uneventful until our return trip home. Dad (as so many fathers are compelled to do) drove hours without stopping, ignoring until the last possible moment the cries of his children to withstand the call of nature. As we pulled into the gas station, each bounded out of the camper like greyhound dogs at the starting gate. My mother’s voice ringing in the distance to one of my brothers to watch over me hung in the warm, humid air. Even at the age of four I felt an exaggerated independence from my family, so it was not out of the ordinary for each brother to ignore her command or for me to take matters into my own hands without her presence, (as I recall Mom was busy with the details of my two-year-old brother). The following sequence of events are like telegraphic messages, short and dissected, a montage of selected or perhaps even crafted memories that served as my initiation into exile. Coming out the restroom I was met with the intense light of the setting sun. Squinting my eyes I strained at the sight before me—a cloud of dust carrying my family away from me. A kin to a scene from the movie Little Miss Sunshine, I had been left behind in a remote gas station deep in the rugged terrain of Mexico. My vocal cords failed to react as quickly as my pounding heart, where silent screams of terror and fear inevitably found there way out. In what felt like an immediate response, multiple women swopped me into their arms, taking turns at holding me in futile attempts to soften my cries. Gifts of ice cream found there way into my hands. A funny hat with multi-colored dingle balls was placed on my head, as well as a plethora of other objects used to divert my attention away from the fact my family had driven off into the Mexican sunset absent one of their children. And as I watched my family drive away without me, a strange admixture of emotions swirled within me of fear and terror yes, but also a whisper of confirmation of my struggle to find belonging and acceptance with my brothers. At least this is what I pinned my newly acquired state of homelessness on, a perceived absence of love. But the logic of a four-year-old can be overly simplified, a straight trajectory unclouded by reason or even truth. This notion of not belonging, of homelessness, locked itself into my self-consciousness, defining and following me to this day.
It took a fair amount of time before one of the boys confirmed my absence, and then I imagine an equal amount of time to decide who was responsible and who was going to be the messenger of bad news. In the end my family came back to reclaim their daughter/sister the same way they left me, in a huge cloud of dust before my eyes.
There are moments in our lives when we are present to our own waking up, when essential connections are made from within the eye of the storm, rather than from a distant plateau. I stumbled on this when my brother Michael died 18 months after the death of our mother, and ten months after the death of our father. On the day of Michael’s funeral, when what remained of our family gathered together, I flashed back to our camping trip in Mexico and I knew. I knew that I had collapsed being loved with the desire to belong, and while closely related, I understood it is possible to be loved while not belonging. As a child I could not differentiate between the two, they were simply one and the same. Since I felt I was the one who did not fit in, the difference must lie within me. This real or imagined defect slowly sifted me out and away from those I loved.
My life today is a continuation of the desire to belong I felt as a child, only the terrain is now a spiritual homelessness of sorts, the inability to feel welcomed and accepted in what seems to be an oxymoronic state, a feminist woman in the Catholic Church. Here as in my childhood, I recognize that while I may be loved, I may not necessarily belong. I am caught within the painful web whereby I am neither fully at home in the present institution nor able to abandon the church I love. And this inability to find a home within my home is both vexing and sad, leaving me ragged and scarred. But I also know that my state of being is not the complete picture. I also carry within me memories of church as home, sustaining me in ways when others could not. Just as it is impossible not to be in the love of God, I find it equally impossible not to be Catholic. To the surprise of some, I love my church and to the dismay of others, I choose to remain. The church needs the voices of women like me and other’s, who in the words of Mary Jo Weaver “Long for something they cannot name, while desiring a community of belief and celebration they cannot describe.” While everything I just said is true, the deeper truth is I am still looking for home, for a place where I can belong just as I am and not as others would want me to be.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past three years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.