Why I’m Not Catholic: A Cautionary Tale

“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.’” Genesis 17:9

My granny, Martha Ann Haymaker, was the youngest of eight children born to a poor farming family in Southwest Virginia in 1936. Her dad died when she was nine, and her mother remarried. When she was a young teenager, she was living with her older sister. However, her brother-in-law kept making passes at her. So at 15, she took the only escape route she could see: she got married.

Born David Underwood, my grandfather chose the middle name Jefferson when he joined the marines. He had dropped out of school in the 6th grade and spent a brief period of time in the marines before being discharged for mental health reasons. My mom said that he was never officially diagnosed with a social or learning disability, but she had her suspicions. After my grandfather’s dismissal from the marines, he became a baker at a bread company. At 26, he met and married my granny. Together they joined the Catholic Church simply because they wanted to join a church and the Catholic one in Roanoke seemed nice. Granny used to tell me that the kids at her school whispered that she got married because she was pregnant, but she told me that she didn’t get pregnant until after the wedding. She had her first child at 16.

My grandfather continued to bake bread, and my granny took care of their five kids and did odd jobs like selling Tupperware. When my mom was 12, my granny took her first job outside of the house at ITT Tech. After a while, she started having an affair with her boss there. My mom said it was her first taste of “a real man” because he was much stronger and steadier compared to my grandfather. Sensing my granny’s infidelity, my grandfather began to fall apart. He started drinking heavily and eventually became abusive. After five kids and a decade and a half together, they split up.

The Catholic Church was understanding…to a point. My granny was allowed to continue to attend the local church as long as she stayed single for the rest of her life. This was a difficult pill for a 30-something -year-old single mother of five to swallow. She chose to date.

My mom and her brothers and sisters were allowed to stay at the church and continue attending Catholic school for free until my mom’s younger siblings refused to go to Catechism. My granny wouldn’t, or couldn’t as a single working mother, force them to go. At that point all the kids were refused free tuition. My mom’s younger siblings started attending public school. My mom and her eldest sister, Davida, went to public school for a few days, but they hated it. They cried every day and begged my granny to let them go back to Catholic school. My granny relented and somehow scrounged up the money to pay their tuition. It wasn’t easy. The family spent a couple of years in a housing project until my granny could get back on her feet.

About seven years later, my granny re-married the man who I knew as my granddaddy, Andy Anderson. Andy attended a small United Methodist Church called Locust Grove. They got married at Locust Grove, and, a few years later when my parents decided to get married and were looking for a church, they joined, too.

By the time I came along, my granddaddy had become Baptist (that’s another story) and my granny no longer attended the church regularly. But Locust Grove United Methodist Church is where I grew up. My siblings and I were baptized and confirmed there. We went to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, church picnics, and youth group. Every summer I attended a Methodist adventure camp nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later when my parents got divorced, church members brought us meals and checked in frequently on our family. I developed a strong loyalty to the church, and when I went to college I chose to attend a United Methodist ministry on campus. Again, when I moved to New Orleans and later to Syracuse and then back again to New Orleans, I stuck with the Methodist Church.

God meant for his followers to grow from generation to generation. God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” And so it was. From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to the Twelve Tribes of Israel and beyond, God’s followers grew slowly yet exponentially. That’s how it is here in New Orleans. Catholicism gets passed down from generation to generation, and it has definitely shaped the culture. New Orleans is famous for Mardi Gras, of course, but this food-loving city also changes its menus just to accommodate Lent – you can smell the Fish Fries all over town on Fridays. And I will forever feel like an outsider because I didn’t attend one of the many Catholic high schools here. Living among such a Catholic influence, I often wonder if I would have grown up Catholic if my granny had been allowed to remain a member after her divorce. As a naturally loyal person, I think it’s likely that I would’ve remained in the Catholic Church through adulthood.

All of this makes me think about the consequences of exclusion on the part of the global church and local churches. In my granny’s time, people at her church decided to exclude her because she got divorced. Today, the contemporary church, including the global United Methodist Church as I talk about in this post, is grappling with the inclusion of people with non-traditional sexual and gender identities. What might the exclusion that’s happening now mean for the excluded people’s family and allies and beyond? Will they remain in a faith that turns their back on them and people they love? From my own experience, I believe the consequences of such exclusion are generational. I pray that we can do better.

What about you? Can you trace your religious identity back to the choices of your parents or grandparents? What legacy do you think your current choices might have for future generations?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below, and thanks for reading! This is the second post in a series about my heritage. Check out my previous post and stay tuned for more!

Why I’m Not Lutheran: Spiritual Wounds

Can I Get a Witness?