Marjorie May has taken on the significant role of representing UUCW in SOPHIA, an organization that advocates for social justice and change. She recently attended SOPHIA’s Annual Community Breakfast with members Mollie Conrad, Mary Binkleman, and Kathy & Charlie Randall. Marjorie was given the honor to deliver the opening reflection. Here is her speech:

“Hello, I’m Marjorie May.  I just joined SOPHIA late last year, and I’m so inspired by my experiences so far. I am a member of Unitarian Universalist in Brookfield, one of the few churches that actively welcomes atheists.

I was asked to give this opening reflection after representing an atheist perspective on spirituality in a SOPHIA board meeting recently.  I read an excerpt from award-winning journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Living With a Wild God.  Today, I’ll do my best to represent my own atheist perspective and experience with spirituality.

I wasn’t born an atheist.  I was born a Christian but my experiences with Christianity led me to atheism. At 14 years old, as I wrote the following poem, I waited for the wrath of God to strike me down.

Why should I believe in one
That if looked for, you’ll find none
When in trouble, we’re told to pray
I’ve done it all, night and day
By now I thought I’d forget the pain
But there’s constant nagging in my brain
“They” threw out my whole childhood
I went through what no kid should
So don’t you tell me to trust in Jesus
For in my life he serves no purpose

When no lightning bolt came from the heavens, I decided that from there on out, God and I had an agreement.  If He wanted me to believe, He would show up.

Almost 30 years later I had an experience that I can only describe as, “God showed up.”  The medical community, on the other hand, considered it a psychotic break.  And that got me diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder.

Three years, and several diagnoses later, I finally concluded that I was not mentally ill.  I am on the spectrum, neurodivergent. In fact, I meet the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, Category 1.  This used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.

Please don’t feel bad for me, I am honored to be autistic.  I’m in good company.  These days the likes of Mozart, Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Jung, and so many more would also meet the criteria.

I don’t like the word “Disorder” as I prefer to think of my neurodivergence as a “Dynamic.”  Once upon a time, I may have even been considered a prophet, like Joan of Arc. As a woman, and like Joan of Arc, most likely I would also have been considered a witch, and ultimately burned at the stake. This is the double-edged sword that comes with thinking and experiencing the world differently.

Autistic people are 6x’s more likely than the general population to experience psychosis, and are almost 10x more likely than the general population to have epilepsy.  Further, what distresses a highly sensitive person is different from what distresses most people.

I’m grateful that by the time I needed support and services the most, I had the means to access them in order to rebalance.  Few are so lucky.

As I was healing spiritually, I contemplated my atheism.  Since I could no longer deny the existence of God, I realized that it was only a narrow definition of God that I didn’t believe in.  As I explored spirituality in search of a new word for what I experienced, I realized that there are fundamental human truths in all faiths.  And, I now consider myself a pantheist.

When God showed up, I finally understood Jesus without the filter of pain, force, or coercion.  I required no stories, no words, no gospels.  It was the blissful sensation of being unconditionally loved that brought me understanding.  One that I couldn’t remember ever experiencing before.  And, I wept tears of joy.

As I wept, I remembered what happened to me that separated me from God in the first place.  I was compelled to write a letter to Jesus from my 7-year-old self as a way of processing the spiritual trauma of that painful separation from the source of pure unconditional love that all humans so desperately need. I’ll read that letter to you now.

Dear Jesus,

I’m in my bedroom, it’s dark and I’m afraid.  I don’t have any adults I can really trust to talk to right now.  My daddy talks to God a lot. At the end, he always says, “In Jesus’s Name, Amen.” 

My daddy’s God is really strict.  We go to church on Saturdays, because we are God’s chosen people.  We have to follow all kinds of rules that don’t make sense to me for God to love us, and boy do daddy and mommy get mad when the rules are not followed.  I only hear bits and pieces about you Jesus, and you seem real nice.  Kind of weak and helpless compared to God the Father.  I know how that feels.  

Church is not fun for kids like my brother and me.  We are trained to be still and quiet and occupy ourselves on blankets laid on the floor during the service.  There is a spanking room for naughty kids in the back of the church.  

I try my best to be good, but once I laughed really hard after a sip of water, and it splashed the older girl watching me while my parents sang in the choir.  She said I spit on her.  That earned me a trip to the spanking room.  Spankings really break my heart and my spirit so much.  I try so hard to be good.  I honestly do. I hate church, but oh how I love our after-church ritual.  My little brother calls it “Leaping on cushions” and that makes my daddy laugh.  He rarely laughs.  I’d do anything to see my daddy’s sadness and anger dissolve into a smile, or ever so rarely a big belly laugh!

We get to sleep in the living room on weekends after church.  My daddy lets us take the cushions off the couch, lay them on the floor, cover them with blankets, and we jump into our temporary living room campsite for the night!  But when I have to sleep alone, I get scared.  Daddy keeps telling me that there’s nothing to be scared of at night, but I see him always so angry, and I know that means he’s scared of everything all the time.  

My daddy says when I feel scared at night after being tucked in, and he’s too exhausted to come back to make me feel safe, I should just say a prayer to God to keep me safe, and then I will know that I can go to sleep.  But, his God is a mean god, so I always pray to you, Jesus.

My daddy is blind, which is sad, but our life is not as hard as a lot of other people I see.  One day, when my daddy was taking me to the park, I saw a man sitting on his porch bleeding from his eye.  I told my daddy the man needed help.  No one else seemed to care.  

It was summer, and we lived in a bad neighborhood, the ghetto.  That’s what they call it when mostly brown-skinned people live there.  My daddy asked me to take him to a blue box on the corner, that’s where they keep the phones for emergencies in my city.  I helped him call for an ambulance for that poor brown man who I overheard the policeman say got shot.

See, Jesus, because my daddy’s blind I’ve got to be his best girl!  I help him do everything that my mama can’t.  She’s not that bright, she had a hard birth and had to be pulled out of her mama with forceps, and she almost didn’t even make it.  So, my mama talks kind of funny, walks with a limp, and can’t always hear things right.  

But, I’m a little helper to both of them.  When daddy’s gone at work, I help my mama at home.  She’s always really tired and sad, she needs a lot of naps.  She doesn’t like a lot of commotion, or crying, so my brother and I try really hard to stay out of her way.

When daddy’s home he plays with us and teaches us things.  He tells me in private that I’m his favorite, and I know that I am!  He spends extra special time with me after my brother falls asleep every night.  He tells me his secrets and stories from when he was a little kid like me!  He tells me all kinds of stories about his friends from before boarding school, how they dug ditches and tunnels in the backyards.  

He’s never really talked about boarding school, though.  I know he was sent there at my age.  He had something called a shunt put in his brain because there was too much water in it, and that almost killed him.  But, he didn’t die!  He did get blind because of it, though, and had to go to that special school. I get the feeling something bad happened to him there.

He tells me lots of stories about his high school years, though.  I hear about how he was in wrestling, and the crazy lengths he would go to to “make weight.”  He even passed out once from hunger.  He talks about his high school girlfriend, and how much he loved her.  He was so proud to be called “Dreamboat” by all the girls.

I think he is an absolute dreamboat!  He is strong, handsome, clever, and kind.  Even though he did lose all his hair from stress.  He told me that story, too.  He had a wife before Mama who killed herself, I think she drove off a cliff or something.  She tricked him into getting married by somehow making him think she was pregnant, and then he found out later that she couldn’t have babies at all!  He gets sad when he tells that one.

But, he loves to talk about his glory years.  About his girlfriend from high school, and how he liked to kiss her and French kiss her, things like that.  He offers to teach me sometimes, but I say no.  That makes me uncomfortable, but he seems to be so lost in happiness that I just try to focus on his smile.

He sometimes gets sad again when he talks about another woman from work that he’s in love with.  It’s so strange, that the woman at work has the same name as the girl in high school that he loved.  

He didn’t really ever love my mother, he says he married her because that’s what God wanted him to do.  The leaders of his church set things up that way so that my mama and daddy would be something called, “equally yolked” or something like that.  

I don’t know what that means, but it sure seems to make my daddy sad and lonely.  My mama is always sad, too.  I try my best to help them both. 

My mama does her best to cook and clean and take care of us.  Everyone knows she doesn’t do a very good job, but I guess that’s just our lot in life. 

Everyone knows that my father can’t make a very good wage, but there are some programs that help.  Daddy always seems ashamed when he talks about it.

He’s got a job at a factory, and makes just enough to keep a roof over our heads.  But, he knows he can never do something called “make rate” at the factory.  That makes him really sorry that he can’t ever really do better for his family.  But he tries to make up for it when he’s here, I think.

He takes us with him to do the grocery shopping, because mama is always just too tired.  I think she gets so tired because we are too much for her.  It’s okay that Mama isn’t a good cleaner, because Daddy likes things left out around the house.  He’s blind and that’s where he knows how to find them.  

He wrestles with us, plays with us, tucks us in, he’s kind of like a mommy and a daddy.  He can’t read bedtime stories to us because he is blind, so we read to him, and he helps us with the words we can’t pronounce.

Mama used to read to us when we were really little.  And sang to us at night.  Simple little songs, ABCs, twinkle twinkle, and songs she liked when she was a little girl, like “How much is that doggy in the window,” and “I love you, a bushel and a peck.”  What a bushel or a peck are, I have no idea.  But it was nice when she was there with us like that.

But, now that we’re getting older, somehow it’s become daddy that tucks us in and tells us stories and has us read to him!  I love my daddy more than anyone in the world, even more than God.  I know that’s wrong, Jesus.  I’m supposed to love you, and God, more.  But, I don’t feel like I do right now.  I’ll try harder.  I promise.  Please just keep me safe at night.

In Jesus’s Name,
Amen

 

It was right around this time that my father started molesting me.  His actions were sanctioned by the church.  Sadly many of my church friends, who were socioeconomically underprivileged like me, were also abused and molested in the name of religious education.

When I tried to find help in the social services system at age 14, I was called a liar and accused of making up stories to try to escape the poverty and hardship of my early life with my disabled parents. And that is when I wrote the poem I opened with, and became an atheist.

The lack of support and access to effective services for my disabled parents left not only them, but their children, vulnerable to perpetuating cycles of neglect and abuse so common to those trapped in poverty and disability.  I’m lucky to have escaped with my life. I’m even luckier to be in a position where I am now thriving. Not everyone is that lucky. I know my privilege. And I know my responsibility in that privilege.

My passion for social justice stems from the experience of my upbringing.  I share this very personal experience and letter to remind us all how important it is to remember our positions of relative privilege.  And, the responsibility to use it to reach those who are struggling disproportionately through disabilities, hardship, and pain.

SOPHIA stands for Stewards of Prophetic Hopeful Intentional Action.  I’m honored to have been asked to give the opening reflection, and I ask that you all set an intention on how you can extend your privilege to influence changes that benefit those in need as you enjoy this lovely breakfast.

Namaste”